Ecclesiastical Witness Concerning Single-Handed Consecration

by Hieromonk Enoch.  A short article concerning the history and practice of single-handed consecrations.

The foundation of Orthodox Christian Canon Law is the Apostolic Canons. The Apostolic Canons, by ancient tradition, derive substantially from the legislation of the Apostles in the Council of Jerusalem around the year 50 A.D. Attempts by more recent scholars to counter this tradition have, nevertheless, only been able to push the dates to the 3rd or perhaps 4th centuries. However, as Fr. Seraphim (Rose) notes, even if the exact wording is not derived from the Apostles, it is certain the traditions embodied in them derive from the Apostles. Whatever view one takes on this, it is irrelevant for purposes of considering the question of how the early Church viewed the requisites for the Consecration of a Bishop, in particular, the number of Bishops needed to consecrate another Bishop.

The First Apostolic Canon demonstrates the importance of this issue, since it is not only numerically first, but, it bears interest on the absolute necessity of preserving the Apostolic Priesthood. Canon I state:

Let a Bishop be ordained by two or three bishops.

This requirement of at least two or three bishops will effect the general understanding and practice for centuries to come. However, as we shall see, there were exceptions, some very noticeable, with such practice vindicated by large Synods.

The next Canon we come across that bears on this issue would be Canon 20 of the Synod of Arles. The Synod of Arles was held in 314, 11 years prior to the First Ecumenical Synod of Nicea. It was held chiefly in response to the Donatist heresy then beginning in Africa, but, also, it began to address issues that would later be addressed by other local Synods, and especially the aforementioned First Ecumenical Synod of Nicea. The 22 Canons, among other things, prohibit the ‘re’-Baptism of heretics (passed, it seems, in relation to the Donatists, but, also, continuing the views expressed since, at the very least, the early 3rd century by the predecessors of St. Cornelius of Rome concerning how certain heretics and schismatics were to be received), they state Pascha should be observed by all Churches on the same date, that traditors (i.e. those who had turned over the holy Scriptures to the Roman persecutors) should be deposed, but, their Sacraments performed prior to deposition should be held acceptable, and, most importantly, the Synod decreed that at least three, but, preferably seven bishops, should be present for Consecration of a Bishop. Let us quote the Canon in the full:

Canon 20: Concerning those who assume that they have the right individually by themselves to ordain a bishop, be it resolved that no one presume to do this by himself; but only if there are an additional seven bishops with him; if, however, it is not possible to have seven present, they dare not ordain someone with less than three bishops present.

Here we see a number of things. Seemingly, the requirement is no longer ‘two or three’ but, at the very least, three. Preferably, it says, seven bishops. It is only reasonable to assume that by being ‘present’ means these bishops are involved in the Consecration. However, from later manuscript illuminations in France from the 9th century, it seems that this need not be the only interpretation, as in the case of one illumination, a Metropolitan solely performs the laying on of hands and prayer of consecration, with the other attending Bishops simply standing ‘aloof’ by the Holy Table. If the latter is the case, then ‘present’ seems to affirm something essential about the number of bishop, i.e., that the number has more to do with concord with other Bishops and the Synod, as opposed to individual initiative.

The next Canon we come to is the Fourth Canon of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea I. The Canon states:

“It is most fitting that a Bishop should be installed by all those in his province. But if such a thing is difficult either because of the urgency of circumstance, or because of the distance to be travelled, at least three should meet together somewhere and by their votes combined with those of the ones absent and joining in the election by letter they should carry out the ordination thereafter. But as for the ratification of the proceedings, let it be entrusted in each province to the Metropolitan.”

The question here involves that of election and approbation and installation. The same Canon is quoted in the Third Canon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Notice it mentions, “by all those of the province.” Whereas the Synod of Arles stipulates seven bishops, the Canon of Nicea I asks for all the bishops of the province. The mention of ‘votes’ in connection with all the bishops of the province is connected with having at least three bishops present.

Next we come across Canon 19 of the Synod of Antioch held in 341 AD, which achieved Ecumenical Approbation by Canon II of the Synod of Trullo. Canon 19 states:

“No Bishop shall be ordained without a Synod and the presence of the Metropolitan of the province. He must be present in any case, and it were better that all the fellow ministers in the province should attend the Synod too; accordingly, the bishop in the metropolis should be summoned to it by letter. And it were better that all of them should respond, but if this be found difficult, at least a majority ought in any case to be present or join in the voting by means of letters, and thus led the prebend be granted by a majority of votes of those present or joining by letter. If any ordination has been obtained otherwise than has been defined and prescribed, let it be of no effect. But if a prebend has been granted in accordance with the Canon provided, and some persons should object to it on account of their having a quarrel of their own, let the majority vote prevail.”

This Canon, as St. Nikodemus comments on in his interpretation, differs but little from Canon 4 of the First Ecumenical Synod. However, it is important to note that the mention of the need of the bishops of the province derives from the question of their approbation of the candidate. Both affirm the need of the notification of the Metropolitan of the province, and both affirm that if all the bishops of the province are not present, then confirmation should be given by the other bishops of the Province.

There are several other Canons that deal with the same issue, such a Canon 4 of Sardica, Canon 12 of Laodicea, and Canons 12, 58, and 59 of the 418/19 Synod of Carthage. The Canon 58 of Carthage bears direct relation on the question of the number of ordaining bishops, saying:

“The ancient form shall be kept, in order that not less than three of the Bishops required for ordination shall suffice.”


Testimony and Practice from Fathers and Ecclesiastical Writers

From Canon 20 of the 314 Synod of Arles it is evident that the practice of single-hand consecration was known, though disapproved of. However, was it disapproved of in all circumstance? Or are there, like in other cases, exemptions?

One very noticeable and highly documented case of single-hand consecration was that peformed by Luciferus of Cagliari upon Paulinus of Antioch. The events surrounding the Church of Antioch in the mid to late 4th century are extremely confusing. Basically, Patriarch St. Eustathius of Antioch, a firm supporter of the Orthodox Christian Faith as found in the Nicene Symbol of Faith and in the person of St. Athanasius, was expelled by the machinations of the Arians, Semi-Arians, and Crypto-Arians. However, a firm minority of the faithful of Antioch steadfastly refused to adhere to any of the successors; instead, they recognized only Patriarch Eustathius as the true bishop until his death around 330 AD. The zealot minority considered the next 9 bishops of Antioch, i.e., Paulinus, Eulalius, Euphronius, Flacillius, Stephanus, Leontius, Eudoxius, Anianus, and St. Meletius to be heretics and schismatics. This became exceedingly problematic during the time of St. Meletius of Antioch, who, although consecrated by Semi-Arians or Crypto-Arians, sought to unify the Orthodox; however, his consecration was rejected by the zealot Orthodox, who considered his hierarchical consecration as invalid, being performed by heretics. As a result, all of his sacraments, even Baptisms performed by him and his clergy, were held in the greatest abhorrence as sacrilegious rites devoid of all validity. St. Meletius, however, was no heretic, and suffered extreme persecution for his Confession of the Orthodox Faith. Nevertheless, the zealot Eustathian Orthodox party considered him to be of no repute. They considered St. Meletius to be a fraud, impostor, and an heretic.

At this point, Luciferus of Cagliari enters history for our purposes. Luciferus, the Bishop of Cagliari, on Sardinia, was a firm and zealous proponent of Orthodoxy. He wrote works in defense of St. Athanasius, against any concord with heretics, and was especially vehement in condemnation of the heretical Arian emperors. This was all right and good and absolutely necessary. However, there was something else in the attitude of Luciferus that went beyond simple zeal for Orthodoxy. Luciferus and others would never trust those who had been Arians, or had in any way been associated, indirectly, with them, or even Semi-Arians, or the ambiguities of the Crypto-Arians,i.e., persons who repented of their past associations with such groups or separated from them fully (such as St. Meletius of Antioch) would not be dealt with by Luciferus and others like him unless they all accepted baptism or some form of public penance (with no question of them being allowed to maintain any level of Holy Orders). Eventually, for his outspoken defense of Orthodoxy, but, also his attacks on the Emperor’s Arian anti-Orthodox policy, he was exiled.

Luciferus collaborated with St. Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli, Italy, on a project to re-establish Orthodoxy in places in the East where the Arians or other temporizer were in power. Their mission was undertaken around 360 AD. According to the historian St. Socrates Scholasticus, in Book III, Ch. VI of his “Ecclesiastical History”:

“They decided therefore that Luciferus should go to Antioch in Syria, and Eusebius to Alexandria, that by assembling a Synod in conjunction with Athanasius, they might confirm the doctrines of the Church. Luciferus sent a deacon as his representative, by whom he pledged himself to assent to whatever the Synod might decree; but he himself went to Antioch where he found the Church in great disorder, the people not being agreed among themselves. For not only did the Arian heresy, which had been introduced by Euzoius, divide the Church, but, as we have before said, the followers of Meletius also, from attachment to their preceptor, separated themselves from those with whom they agreed in sentiment. When therefore Luciferus had constituted Paulinus their bishop he again departed.”

In chapter 9, St. Socrates continues:

“As soon as the council of Alexandria was dissolved, Eusebius bishop of Vercelli went to Antioch; where finding that Paulinus had been ordained by Luciferus, and that the people were disagreeing among themselves, (for the partisans of Meletius held their assemblies apart,) he was exceedingly grieved at their want of unanimity concerning this election, and in his own mind disapproved of what had taken place. His respect for Luciferus however induced him to be silent about it, and on his departure he engaged that all things should be set right by a council of bishops. Subsequently he laboured with great earnestness to unite the dissentients, but without effect…When Luciferus understood that his ordination of Paulinus was not approved of by Eusebius, regarding it as an injury done him, he became highly incensed; and not only separated himself from communion with him, but also began, in a contentious spirit, to condemn what had been determined by the synod. These things occurring at a season of grievous disorder, created still further schism; for many attached themselves to Luciferus, and so became a distinct sect, and were called by his name [i.e. Luciferians].”

It seems not like a good start, and a bit of a complicated situation to say the least. The character of Bishop Luciferus seems to be that of a man easily injured by others in his zeal. There is some disagreement about how he ended his earthly sojourn; St. Augustine says that he ended his life in Schism from the Church:

“So it has been her [i.e. the Church] to come to the aid of multitudes who were perishing through schisms and heresies. This displeased Luciferus, when it was carried out in receiving and healing those who had perished beneath the poison of the Arian heresy; and, being displeased at it, he fell into the darkness of schism, losing the light of Christian Charity.” (De. Correctione Donatistarum 10:47)

We might ask what was the reaction of the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Rome to this single-hand consecration? Did they require some correction? Did they require some penitential rite? There is no evidence of this. In fact, Rome and Alexandria simply recognized Paulinus (who is recorded by some ancient calendars as a saint) as the rightful Bishop of Antioch and maintained communion with him. It would be too much to go into a great deal of detail at this time regarding these circumstances. Suffice it to say that there were no complaints in Rome and Alexandria, despite the totally irregular, and ‘uncanonical’, manner in which the consecration of a presbyter to the order of bishop was carried out, by a single bishop, with no Synodal approval, in a confused situation among violently divided Orthodox Christians. Let us note that St. Jerome was a continual supporter of Paulinus of Antioch (St. Jerome having been ordained by him), while St. Jerome violently attacked St. Meletius as an heretic (he also attacked St. Cyril of Jerusalem as an heretic); the fact that the Church’s ultimate judgment on St. Meletius and St. Cyril was to vindicate their Orthodoxy tells simply that the Blessed Monk of Bethlehem was gravely mistaken in his judgment (though, it should be noted that his fault lies more in one of undue zealotry, if at all, since the Orthodox Churches of Rome and Alexandria had either hostility by their representatives or put themselves at a calm and temperate distance from communion with St. Meletius and St. Cyril). Matters were further complicated in Antioch by the single-hand consecration by Paulinus of Evagrius as his successor (which the Blessed Thedooret deems a grave canonical violation, despite councils in Rome, Antioch and Capua regarding it as acceptable). Evagrius’ death in 392 did not end the matter totally, although no Eustathian bishop was elected. By the early 400s, however, both parties were reconciled to each other (this was given greater impetus by the fact that the Orthodox Patriarchates of Rome and Alexandria in 399 refused communion with the Eustathians for their obstinacy).

Another case would be that of Siderius, a young man, who was consecrated Bishop of Palaebisca and Hydrax by Bishop Philo of Cyrene in the mid 4th century, again, contrary to Apostolic Canon I and Canon IV of Nicea. Palabesca was, in fact, never a see, but had been in the territory of a Bishop Orion, who, apparently had neglected it (thus calling forth the demand by the laity for a bishop). Bishop Philo, however, felt he had no responsibility to the local metropolitan, which see was then in the hands of Arians (and thus, Philo of Cyrene refused communion with it). Of course, any consent was impossible from other bishops, as they were in hiding from the Arians. However, despite this, St. Athanasius, as testified, for example, by Synesius in the later 4th century in Epistle 67, overlooked this, and indeed, promoted Siderius to an higher office.

Not long after in the 5th century, St. John of Chalons in Gaul was consecrated single-handedly by St. Patiens, the Metropolitan of Lyons, as recorded by St. Sidonius Apollinaris. In Book IV, Letter 35, of St. Sidonius’ assembled letters, we find the terrible situation of the Church in Chalons. Of the three candidates put forth, all three were completely unacceptable.  Not finding any of the proffered candidates acceptable, St. Patiens chose the then Archdeacon, St. John of Chalons. However, though St. Euphronius concurred in the election of St. John, he was not present. The letter is presented here, lest it be thought unfounded conclusions are being drawn:

I CANNOT delay an hour in letting you know of an event which must cause you the greatest pleasure, anxious as you were to learn what success attended the piety and firmness of our metropolitan and father in Christ, Patiens, upon the occasion of his visit to Châlon. He went to ordain a bishop for that town, where discipline had been imperilled after the retirement and subsequent death of the young bishop Paulus. Some of the provincial bishops formed his escort; others had preceded him. When the Episcopal Council met, it found that the opinion of the citizens was not unanimous, and that there existed private factions of the kind so ruinous to the public welfare. The presence of three candidates aggravated these evils. The first had no moral qualification whatever, but only the privilege of ancient lineage, of which he made the most. The second was brought in on the applause of parasites, bribed to support him by the free run of a gourmand’s table. The third had a tacit understanding with his supporters, that if he attained the object of his ambition, the plundering of the Church estates should be theirs. Seeing this, the holy Patiens and the holy Euphronius determined that no thought of odium or popularity should move them from the firmness and severity of the saner judgement. They communicated their intention to their fellow bishops in secret conclave assembled, before they made it public. Then, with a complete disregard of the unruly crowd, they suddenly joined their hands upon the holy John, a man conspicuous for an honourable, humane and gentle life, and without the faintest suspicion of what they proposed, or the slightest desire for preferment. This John was first a Reader, and had been a server at the altar from his tender years. In course of time and strenuous duty he became archdeacon, in which office or rank his efficiency kept him back; they would not give him promotion because they did not wish to relieve him of functions he performed so well. Such was the man, a member only of the second order, on whom they laid their hands, to the perplexity of the factions, which had no acclamations ready for one never even put forward for the office, but dared not at the same time say anything against a man whom his own career acclaimed. So, to the stupefaction of the intriguers, the rage of bad citizens, and the delight of good, without one dissentient voice, they two consecrated their new colleague. And now, unless the monasteries of the Jura  keep you, where you love to ascend as if in foretaste of a celestial habitation, this letter ought to reach you, bringing the happy news, how these our fathers and protectors opined in accord, or accorded in opinion—-whichever you will. Rejoice too in his name whom Euphronius and Patiens consecrated, the one by testimony, the other by laying on of hands, the two together by their concurring judgement; in all which events Euphronius acted as beseemed his age and the long tenure of his high office, Patiens, for whom no praise could ever be too high, as befitted one who by his ecclesiastical dignity is the first person in our city, and by the priority of the city, the first citizen in all the province. Farewell.”

In this sense, St. Sidonius (as well as St. Patiens, and St. Euphronius) counted the participation by letter of a Bishop to be acceptable, although, in actual fact, only one Bishop, Metropolitan St. Patiens of Lyons, actually celebrated and performed the actual laying on of hands for the consecration of a Bishop.

In 556, Pope Pelagius I (commonly called the ‘second pope of the ‘Byzantine Papacy’, and formerly legate [apocrisarius] of the Orthodox Church of Old Rome to the Church of Constantinople) was consecrated bishop, by two bishop, assisted by a presbyter. It should be noted that the presbyter’s role was simply to hold the Gospel book, and stand as a sort of witness; the Church of Constantinople and the Emperor, perfectly aware of this, did not seem to challenge the authenticity of the Consecration.

In the early 7th century, there, of course, is the famous case of St. Augustine of Canterbury who was given permission by St. Gregory Dialogist to perform consecrations by himself. St. Gregory Dialogist compares the co-consecrating bishops to ‘co-witnesses’ in the event (thus contributing to a long discussion about the nature of the co-consecrators).  In Book IX of the assembled letters of the Dialogist. Letter 64, we find the following:

Augustine’s eighth question: I ask whether, if length of way intervenes, and bishops are not able to assemble easily, a bishop should be ordained without the presence of other bishops.

Answer of the blessed pope Gregory: Indeed in the Church of the Angli, wherein you are so far the only bishop, you can not ordain a bishop otherwise than without bishops. For, when bishops shall come from Gaul they will attend you as witnesses for the ordination of a bishop . But we desire your Fraternity so to ordain bishops in England that the bishops themselves be not separated from one another by long distances, to the end that there be no necessary cause why they should not come together in the case of the ordination of any bishop. For the presence of some other pastors also is exceedingly advantageous; and hence they ought to be able to come together as easily as possible. When therefore, God granting it, bishops shall have been ordained in places not far from each other, an ordination of bishops should in no case take place without three or four bishops being assembled. For in spiritual things themselves, that they may be ordered wisely and maturely, we may draw an example even from carnal things. For assuredly, when marriages are celebrated in the world, some married persons are called together, that those who have gone before in the way of marriage may be associated also in the ensuing joy. Why then, in this spiritual ordination too, wherein man is joined to God through a sacred mystery, should not such come together as may both rejoice in the advancement of him who is ordained bishop and pour forth prayers to the Almighty Lord for His protection?


St. Isidore of Seville states that the ancient rule was established to avoid tyrannical and disorderly proceedings.St. Isidore says in “De Ecclesiasticis Officiis”, Book II, Sec. 11:

“Furthermore, that a bishop is ordained not by one but by all the bishops of the same province is acknowledge to have been instituted on account of heresy, lest the tyrannical authority of one undertake anything against the Faith of the Church. Therefore a bishop is instituted by all those gathering around, or by not fewer than three being present, the others nevertheless consenting by testimony of letters.”


We also have the well-known case of the Irish Church, which, in general, from its founding in the 5th century until the 11th century, practiced, as a seeming norm, single-handed consecration. It would certainly be foolish to proclaim that all the holy Bishops and elders of the Pre-Schism Irish Church were deluded spiritually for hundreds of years, and that there were no true Mysteries there. How then could St. Columba have conversed with Angels if he was a fraud? Or St. Columbanus of Bobbio? What about St. Secundius? Or St. Oengus of Tallaght and his miracles? The same for St. Kentigern and many others.  Was this an intentional disregarding of the Rule? Or was it rather the continuation of an idiosyncratic circumstance? The Irish Case is a rather extreme example, yet, communion was never severed with them, and the 680 Synod of Old Rome  (which, among other things, vindicated St. Wilfrid of York, and also vindicated the Orthodoxy of the “Scoti” [ancient name for the Irish]) with its statements as to the unity of the Irish to the Church, as well as St. Bede the Venerable’s glowing testimony of the “Isle of Saints”, should tell us that this case was perceived as somewhat unique.

We can, of course, see that in many surviving manuscript images, there was often physical single-handed consecration of bishops, even if other Bishops were present. For example, in the “Synopsis of Histories” (Σύνοψις Ἱστοριῶν), by John Skylitzes.We see that St. Euthymius of Constantinople (+917) was being consecrated Patriarch by the laying on of hands of one Bishop, while the others stood by, as co-witnesses, without laying hands on:



We can see that a similar procedure was followed for Patriarch St. Polyeuctus of Constantinople (+970) .

consecration of patriarch st polyeuctus

This may illustrate that the ‘amount of hands’ touching a bishop-elect’s head was not as important (as long as there was some laying on hands, at least) as the consent of the Synod to the action.

To skip ahead in Orthodox history to the early 1600s, we find that Patriarch Theophanes III of Jerusalem, after he had aided in the installation of Pat. Philaret of Moscow, single-handedly consecrated Metropolitan Job (Boretsky) to the See of Kiev (thus restoring an Orthodox Bishop after nearly a quarter of a century of Uniate domination of Polish occupied Ukraine).

Lastly, although the Church has been wary of certain passages in the Apostolic Constitutions, and has never given them a blanket approval, there has been a guarded respect for the books. As such, we find written in Book 8, Ch. 27 that “in cases of necessity a bishop may be consecrated by one.”  Considering all mentioned above, it seems reasonable to conclude that this statement is not at all contrary to Church Tradition taken into context.

Indeed, the question seems more depended upon the common consent of the Metropolitan or Patriarch and the general consent of the Episcopate of the local Church than it did necessarily and absolutely upon the number of Bishops. In and of itself, the argument revolves more around the proper authorization and circumstances, than it does having two or three, or even seven, bishops. Determining the circumstances that would allow for a single-handed consecration is a matter of some delicacy. Unfortunately, it is a question that has had a long and sore history in many times and places of the Orthodox Christian world.