Bishop

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A bishop is a senior member of the clergy of certain Christian denominations. Normally - though see below - a bishop has responsibility for the spiritual government of a particular geographical area or region, having authority over the other clergy of his denomination in this area and exercising a general spiritual oversight of the lay members of his denomination in the area.

The office of bishop is recognized in, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, but not in the Presbyterian Church, the Baptist Church, and other Protestant Churches. Churches which recognise the office of bishop may be said to have an episcopal form of church government, the word 'episcopal' coming, like the word 'bishop' itself (see Benedict Biscop in the etymological note below), from the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos, overseer or guardian). (Note, however, that the Episcopal Church - 'Episcopal' written with an initial capital letter - refers specifically to the Anglican Church in Scotland and the United States of America.)

The geographical area for which a bishop has responsibility is known as a diocese, bishopric, or see. The word 'diocese' comes from the Greek word διοίκησις (dioikesis), which originally meant 'housekeeping or internal administration', but during the period of the Roman Empire was applied to a group of provinces - the emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305 CE) divided the 100 or so provinces which at that time made up the Roman Empire into 13 dioceses (i.e., 13 groups of provinces). The adjective from 'diocese' is 'diocesan', and so a bishop with responsibility for a diocese is known as a diocesan bishop - the description in the first paragraph on this page most closely fits diocesan bishops. In the Anglican Church there are 43 dioceses in England and therefore 43 diocesan bishops. This gives some idea of the size of a diocese, but in fact the geographical area of a diocese can vary enormously from a few square miles to many thousands of square miles. The noun 'see', which can have the same meaning as 'diocese', comes from the Latin sedes ( a seat).

As has been implied, there are many different types of bishop:

  • An archbishop is the bishop of an archdiocese, usually a diocese with a particularly significant or prestigious place in the history of the relevant Church, e.g., in the Anglican Church the archdiocese of Canterbury was the first diocese to be established. An archbishop - especially in the Anglican Church - usually has a general responsibility for a group of dioceses (i.e., a province), i.e., he is a metropolitan bishop or metropolitan.
  • A metropolitan bishop or metropolitan is a bishop with responsibility over a group of dioceses, i.e., he has some authority over the diocesan bishops within his province.
  • A suffragan bishop is a bishop appointed to help another bishop. ('Suffragan' comes from the Latin adjective suffraganeus, which in turn comes from the noun suffragium, meaning 'help or assistance'.) In the Anglican Church a suffragan bishop helps a diocesan bishop, sometimes having responsibility for a particular area within the diocese, while in the Roman Catholic Church the term suffragan applies to all bishops apart from metropolitan bishops.
  • A coadjutor bishop is an auxiliary bishop who has authority almost equal to that of the diocesan bishop he assists and who has the right to succeed him. Coadjutor bishops are usually appointed to ensure continuity in the government of a diocese.

Very differently, the word 'bishop' is also the name of a chess piece. In the game of chess a bishop is a piece which (usually) looks like a bishop, having a mitre: it may move diagonally over any number of unoccupied squares. Even more differently, bishop is a form of mulled wine, characteristically made from port wine, sugar and spices

Etymological note: the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) was taken into vulgar Latin in the aphetic form (e)biscopus; this became biscop in Old English (biscob in the north), biskop in Middle Dutch, biscop in Swedish, bischof in German and bisschop in modern Dutch, etc. By a regular mutation in the Romance languages, the word became vescovo in Italian and évêque in French (vesque in Old French and Provençale). The name of the early English saint, Benedict Biscop, was given him by his Christian family, it appears: though he was the head of two religious houses (first Monkwearmouth and then Jarrow, where Bede was a monk - and his pupil), he was an Abbot rather than a diocesan bishop.