It is by all means proper that a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent [bishops] also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place. But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.
Ancient Epitome of Canon IV.
A bishop is to be chosen by all the bishops of the province, or at least by three, the rest giving by letter their assent; but this choice must be confirmed by the Metropolitan.
The present Canon might seem to be opposed to the first canon of the Holy Apostles, for the latter enjoins that a bishop ordained by two or three bishops, but this by p. 12 three, the absent also agreeing and testifying their assent by writing. But they are not contradictory; for the Apostolical canon by ordination (χειροτονίαν) means consecration and imposition of hands, but the present canon by constitution (κατάστασιν) and ordination means the election, and enjoins that the election of a bishop do not take place unless three assemble, having the consent also of the absent by letter, or a declaration that they also will acquiesce in the election (or vote, ψήφῳ) made by the three who have assembled. But after the election it gives the ratification or completion of the matter—the imposition of hands and consecration—to the metropolitan of the province, so that the election is to be ratified by him. He does so when with two or three bishops, according to the apostolical canon, he consecrates with imposition of hands the one of the elected persons whom he himself selects.
Also understands καθίστασθαι to mean election by vote.
The Greek canonists are certainly in error when they interpret χειροτονία of election. The canon is akin to the 1st Apostolic canon which, as the canonists admit, must refer to the consecration of a new bishop, and it was cited in that sense at the Council of Chalcedon—Session xiii. (Mansi., vii. 307). We must follow Rufinus and the old Latin translators, who speak of “ordinari,” “ordinatio” and “manus impositionem.”
The Council of Nice thought it necessary to define by precise rules the duties of the bishops who took part in these episcopal elections. It decided (a) that a single bishop of the province was not sufficient for the appointment of another; (b) three at least should meet, and (c) they were not to proceed to election without the written permission of the absent bishops; it was necessary (d) to obtain afterward the approval of the metropolitan. The Council thus confirms the ordinary metropolitan division in its two most important points, namely, the nomination and ordination of bishops, and the superior position of the metropolitan. The third point connected with this division—namely, the provincial synod—will be considered under the next canon.
Meletius was probably the occasion of this canon. It may be remembered that he had nominated bishops without the concurrence of the other bishops of the province, and without the approval of the metropolitan of Alexandria, and had thus occasioned a schism. This canon was intended to prevent the recurrence of such abuses. The question has been raised as to whether the fourth canon speaks only of the choice of the bishop, or whether it also treats of the consecration of the newly elected. We think, with Van Espen, that it treats equally of both,—as well of the part which the bishops of the province should take in an episcopal election, as of the consecration which completes it.
This canon has been interpreted in two ways. The Greeks had learnt by bitter experience to distrust the interference of princes and earthly potentates in episcopal elections. Accordingly, they tried to prove that this canon of Nice took away from the people the right of voting at the nomination of a bishop, and confined the nomination exclusively to the bishops of the province.
The Greek Commentators, Balsamon and others, therefore, only followed the example of the Seventh and [so-called] Eighth Œcumenical Councils in affirming that this fourth canon of Nice takes away from the people the right previously possessed of voting in the choice of bishops and makes the election depend entirely on the decision of the bishops of the province.
The Latin Church acted otherwise. It is true that with it also the people have been removed from episcopal elections, but this did not happen till later, about the eleventh century; and it was not the people only who were removed, but the bishops of the province as well, and the election was conducted entirely by the clergy of the Cathedral Church. The Latins then interpreted the canon of Nice as though it said nothing of the rights of the bishops of the province in the election of their future colleague (and it does not speak of it in a very explicit manner), and as though it determined these two points only; (a) that for the ordination of a bishop three bishops at least are necessary; (b) that the right of confirmation rests with the metropolitan.
The whole subject of episcopal elections is treated fully by Van Espen and by Thomassin, in Ancienne et Nouvelle Discipline de l Église, P. II. l. 2.
This canon is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Gratians Decretum, Pars I. Dist. LXIV. c. j.