the idea of systematic regional gatherings producing a decree for the universal church belongs in the fourth century, not the second.
Solid evidence for councils and their procedures begins with the fall-out of the Decian persecution, 249-51 ce. But those records themselves furnish some evidence of gatherings, a generation or more earlier, to deal with the validity of heretical baptisms, at Iconium in Phrygia, involving bishops from neighbouring provinces, as well as of the bishops of Africa and Numidia led by Agrippinus of Carthage.96 It is usually assumed that a similar council at Carthage authorised the readmission of penitent adulterers.97 When Cyprian returns to Carthage in 251 after his retreat, he is faced with the schism of leading clergy and deals with it by gathering a council of supportive bishops, sitting with presbyters and deacons, which agreed to rulings on the lapsed as well as on the dissident clergy.98 A similar council in Rome was attended by sixty bishops and a greater number of presbyters and deacons.99 After that, we have councils on record in Carthage annually till 256. By 257, renewed persecution and the execution of Cyprian apparently broke the pattern. Similar conciliar activity over the reconciliation of the lapsed and the subsequent schisms are less well recorded, but probably comparable.100 There is evidence that annual gatherings were already being held, especially to deal with penitentiary matters,101 something which canon 5 of Nicaea would formally prescribe in 325.
Some of these data indicate that councils were not solely episcopal. In fact, not only the various clergy, but laymen, contributed: 'bishops, presbyters, deacons, confessors and steadfast laymen' are expected to formulate a judgement.102 When the synod acted as a court, the lay people presumably played the same role as the people did in attendance at secular courts, influencing the magistrates by their reaction to the proceedings. This grew from the fact that councils were originally local gatherings of the members of a local church, which in a city might be dispersed in several congregations. Suburban and other visiting clergy would be added to this gathering. There was thus no formal membership or voting power, though plainly those further away would need due notice and summons. This did not matter too much, since the
96 Euseb. HE 7.7.6; Cypr. Ep. 71.4.1; 75.7.4. On the uncertain dates and circumstances, see Clarke's notes, Letters of St Cyprian, vol. iv, 196-9.
100 See Clarke, Letters ofSt Cyprian, vol. ii, 11-13.
101 Firmilian in Cypr. Ep. 75.4.3.
102 Cypr. Ep. 43.7.2; further examples in Hess, Early development, 22-4.
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