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Out of the question: Dioceses in the Early Church

02 February 2011

Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or would like to add to the answers below.

Your answers

Who decided diocesan boundaries in the Early Church?

It would be a mistake to imagine that diocesan boundaries in the Early Church were at the personal dictate of bishops or determined by acts of synodical government.

The growth and expansion of the Primitive Church was along urban routes, and the major cities were the usual location of newly formed Christian communities, under the leadership and pastoral care of a visiting apostle, or his resident episcopal successor. In whatever city a congregation became established, an embryonic “diocese” was formed — a pattern we see reflected in the letters written c.107 by St Ignatius of Antioch to several city churches.

Originally, a “diocese” denoted an area of civil administration in the Roman Empire; only towards the end of the fourth century in the Western Church was the term used to identify a region of ecclesiastical government. The boundaries of dioceses in the early centuries spread slowly within the suburban districts of the original cities, and eventually into the rural districts, whereby the country-dwellers (pagani) were brought under a bishop’s oversight.

This gradual way in which dioceses were extended explains their disparity in size: this depended on whether the civil authority of a city had a larger or lesser area of jurisdiction, a factor often coupled with a policy to make civil and ecclesiastical units co-terminous.

(Canon) Terry Palmer
Magor, Monmouthshire

From a letter that Pope Gregory wrote to Augustine in 609, according to Bede, it is apparent that the general outline of provinces was set by the Pope, and that the two metropolitans had control of the detail, no doubt including diocesan boundaries. In reality, the Pope’s instructions were not quite implemented. His desire to have London as a metropolitan see was frustrated by Augustine’s practical preference for Canterbury.

Christopher Haffner (Reader)
East Molesey, Surrey

Your questions

Away for Christmas, a family in­clud­ing two children — regular communicants, aged eight and ten — went to church. The sacrament was administered in both kinds to the adults, but the chalice was with­held from the children. What au­thority is there for doing this?
G. S.

Address for answers and more questions: Out of the Question, Church Times, 13-17 Long Lane, London EC1A 9PN.


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