325, about 250 bishops assembled for Constantine's council in Nicaea, a town in Bithynia. Few Western clergy were present. The council issued not only a creed, but also a synodical letter to the Church of Alexandria and twenty canons.

The twenty canons of the Council of Nicaea eventually became universal norms in the Christian church. Again they seem to treat random subjects, but the focus is on ecclesiastical discipline and the structure and organisation ofthe church. Eunuchs who voluntarily castrated themselves are excluded from the clergy (c. i). Rapid promotion of converts in the hierarchy is forbidden, so that catechumens would have a time of testing before being made priests and bishops (c. 2). This rule was later modified to permit newly baptised Christians to be elevated into the clergy in cases of urgent necessity. Bishops, priests and deacons were not permitted to live with women unless they were relatives (c. 3). Clergy could not practise usury (c. 17). Other canons deal with relapsed soldiers (c. i2), the administration of the eucharist to the dying (c. i3), apostasy among the clergy (c. 10) and the laity (c. 11). Canons 4 to 6 envisage a structure for the church that parallels the provincial organisation of the Roman empire. Canon 6 confirms the authority of the bishop of Alexandria over the bishops of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis and compares Alexandria's prerogatives to Rome's. The bishops and clergy were required to remain in the churches in which they had been ordained (c. i5 and i6). This prohibition against the translation of bishops enforced a norm that permeated the ancient church and became one of the few general canonical rules that was generally respected in the late antique period. Bishops were translated in the early church only rarely. A bishop could never be made pope in the early middle ages because his translation to Rome would have violated the conciliar canon. Of all the norms established by the early church the prohibition against translating bishops is one of the few that the later church completely rejected.

The hierarchical structure of the church characterised by a 'monarchical episcopate' clearly emerges in the canons of Nicaea. A metropolitan bishop was to head each province. He and the bishops of his province would hold synods twice a year to decide matters of ecclesiastical discipline. The synod would be the highest ecclesiastical court of the province (c. 5). Canon 18 established the ranks within the clergy. Bishops and priests were ranked higher than deacons, and this order could not be compromised, especially during liturgical ceremonies like the eucharist.17

17 Joannou, Discipline generale antique, i.i: 23-41.

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