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Electile Dysfunction?

BMCR reviews another book that chips away at the myth of the “Constantinian Revolution.”

Peter Norton, Episcopal Elections 250-600: Hierarchy and Popular Will in Late Antiquity. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 271. ISBN 978-0-19-920747-3. $99.00.

According to church historians who subscribe to the theories of Max Weber, the early church’s spiritual power became routinized into a form of hierarchical authority represented by office-holding bishops who were more bureaucratic functionaries than charismatic leaders. With the growing involvement of the Roman state in church affairs after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the process further accelerated with the result that local Christian communities more or less lost their ability to shape their own destinies, squeezed as it were between interventionist Christian Roman emperors and equally imposing metropolitan bishops who single-mindedly pursued their own agenda. Thus most historical narratives of late antique Christianity focus upon the interactions between these two groups of powerful actors, with local communities outside the metropolitan cities frequently relegated to a secondary or tertiary role. The result is that, for moderns who regard the effective autonomy of local communities and democratic practices on a grassroots level as signposts of societal health, the converging authoritarian trends in the late Roman state and church serve to indicate a deeply-set malaise.

Against such an image of a society that was moving inexorably towards greater autocracy in respect of both imperial power and ecclesiastical authority, Norton offers his fruitful book as a riposte as well as a cause for hope. Episcopal Elections closely examines the specific circumstances by which bishops came into office as well as the types of interventions and obstructions that continued to threaten or undermine the ability of local communities to elect their own religious leaders. While the scope of the study appears at first sight to be quite narrowly circumscribed, this project has direct relevance for our broader understanding of the evolving relationship between local Christian communities, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and the late Roman imperial state. Through an appraisal of the forms of agency that determined the (s)election of late antique bishops and their efficacy, Norton presents a well-crafted argument against a set of widely-shared assumptions regarding the extent to which the rise of imperial Christianity in the later fourth century onwards repressed the effective autonomy of local Christian communities.