Sunday, 23 July 2017

Why a Ring for Bishops.?

From "The Pilot", 1968 comes this, an interesting historical ramble.

Some Church Customs Explained

By S.G. Thicknesse

Why a Ring for Bishops?

Among the collection of ancient and mediaeval rings in Room 29 of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is a strange gold one as long as a brooch, with diamond-shaped alternating with circular panels, and each panel stamped with a letter. It is the ring of Alhstan, Bishop of Sherborne, 824-867, and bears his name.

In the first two or three centuries strict Christians seem not to have worn rings; but gradually, as the bishops began to be men of importance, they began to wear signet rings, as did men of note in the Roman Empire. This was partly because an increasing number of things needed to be marked with a recognizable and authoritative seal.

By the seventh century the ring of a bishop had assumed a dual importance, as a king's ring also had. It was at once (with the pastoral staff) the sign of his office, with which he had been invested at his consecration, and his official seal, which he set to the business of his diocese and the affairs of his growing estates. By the tenth century the bishop had become a magnate, a lord at once spiritual and temporal.

For two hundred years ecclesiastical and lay powers-popes and kings-were to struggle over the right to give the bishop his ring. The Pope claimed that the ring was the seal of a bishop's spiritual office for which he was chosen and consecrated by the Church. The king claimed that since the bishop was also a great lay lord, often a royal official, he must be chosen first by him, and receive the ring as a token of royal investiture and loyalty.

In the twelfth century a compromise was reached (in England between Henry I and Archbishop Anselm) and the ring was blessed and put by the Church on the finger of the bishop-elect whom the Church had accepted and the king had nominated.

In the centuries after this shadow victory, mystical importance began to be attached to the bishop's ring, which was often made of very costly and elaborate materials. This made it an object of attack by Reformers and Puritans, and though a ring is now worn by most of the bishops, there is no mention of it in the `Form for the Ordering of Bishops' in the Elizabethan Prayer Book.

The ring had become the symbol of the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit. It was worn on the index finger of the right hand, the middle of the three fingers a bishop raised in blessing, `the finger of God' and the finger of discretion and silence, a symbol of the episcopal claim to reveal or seal up the mysteries of God. 

Or it was worn on the fourth finger of the right hand, as a sign of spiritual marriage with the Church, or, alternatively, as a sign that the bishop was the representative of Christ, whose spouse and Body the Church was. But thirteenth-century critics thought it necessary to remind the bishop that he was not himself Lord, but shepherd.

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