Bishop (Greek episcopus, overseer, whence Anglo-Saxon biscop), a term originally applied to all who had the oversight of souls, as to apostles (Acts ii. 20), elders, and presbyters (Acts xx. 17; 1 Peter v. 2), and even Christ himself "the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" (1 Peter ii. 25). In the apostolic age there is no very definite trace of any clear distinction between bishop and presbyter: the persons who approximately correspond to bishops are called evangelists (Acts xxi. 8) [perhaps] angels (Rev. x. 20; 1 Cor. xi. 10), rulers (Heb. xiii. 7), and by other titles. Seemingly, however, after the apostolic age a sort of deputy apostolate was formed with general powers to preach and visit the churches. By the side of these were superintendents of all the churches settled in a certain district, possibly identical with the "angels" of the Apocalypse (though this is much contested) and similar to the "Metropolitans" of later date. Bishops were such superintendents specialised to one church or group of churches, afterwards called a diocese. But the subject has been involved in endless controversy. While the Roman and Eastern Churches and English High Churchmen regard bishops as the successors of the apostles, and invested with the powers conferred on the apostles, the Presbyterian Church and almost all Protestant and non-Episcopal Churches, with many Anglicans, regard the episcopate as a purely human institution, likely to claim sacerdotal and exaggerated powers, and therefore full of danger to the spiritual life of the Church. (The Methodist Episcopal Church [of the United States] has indeed itinerant bishops, but avowedly as a human institution for convenience of superintendence.) The late Dr. Hatch in his Bampton Lectures produced evidence indicating that the title and some of the original functions are derived from the organisation of certain Greek friendly societies, which are known from inscriptions. Apart from mediaeval opinion and tradition there is no evidence in the earliest ages of the Church of a distinct "threefold ministry" of bishops, priests, and deacons. The epistles of the New Testament, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Teaching of the Apostles, discovered in 1877 - the two latter probably the earliest known documents of the post-apostolic age - give no indication of it, and represent a much less definitely organised church and hierarchy than the high Catholic tradition seems to indicate. There is, however, a distinct reference to the episcopate in a form analogous to its present one in the Ignatian epistles of the 2nd century, and it is found established by the time of St. Irenseus (90 A.D.), who, however, calls Polycarp indifferently "bishop" and presbyter. St. Jerome, too, seems to recognise that bishops were not originally distinct from presbyters, and the Council of Ancyra (314 A.D.) allowed presbyters to ordain other presbyters with the bishop's sanction.
Originally bishops were chosen by popular election; but the right was gradually engrossed, first by the provincial bishops, then by the cathedral chapter, and eventually by the Pope. Usually on the Continent the Crown now appoints Bishops. In England the Pope appoints Roman Catholic Bishops subject to a recommendation of the Chapter. In Russia the Czar nominates, usually from a list submitted by the Synod. In the Turkish Empire the Sultan confirms the election.
In the Eastern and Roman Catholic Churches the power of the bishop is much as it was in the 3rd century, subject to the rise of patriarchs and metropolitans, and, since the beginning of the present century, to the various concordats that have limited the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe. The bishop alone has the power of consecration and ordination. He must visit every part of his diocese once every two years. He has the general superintendence of divine worship, and makes regulations for his diocese subject to the common law of the Church. He can dispense from these, and in some slight degree from the laws of the Church. He decides, in the first instance, all ecclesiastical causes. He consecrates churches, and instruments of worship (e.g. chalices). He can suspend the clergy and excommunicate the laity of his diocese, and (except of course where the Church receives a subvention from the State in lieu of endowments, as in France and Italy) he administers the diocesan property subject to the Councils of the Church and the Metropolitan, and in the Roman Catholic Church to the Pope. His title is "Most illustrious and reverend lord." His insignia are pastoral staff, mitre (probably alluded to by Eusebius), ring, pectoral cross, episcopal throne, pontifical vestments, gloves, and sandals.
At the Reformation the Anglican and Scandinavian Churches retained some bishops when they broke with Rome, and the title has therefore been continued in them. The Lutheran Church retained it for a time, and the modern "superintendent" exercises a kind of episcopal function. The "Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America" (the American branch of the Anglican Church) had its first bishop, Seabury, consecrated in Scotland in 1784, and its next two, White and Provost (after some little difficulty owing to the rupture with England), at Lambeth Palace. The Scottish Episcopal Church has been a voluntary body since 1688, when all the Scottish bishops joined the Nonjurors (q.v.); the Irish Episcopal Church was disestablished by Mr. Gladstone's Act in 1868.
Recent years have seen an immense development of the Anglican Episcopate. There are now 2 archbishops and 32 bishops of English sees, besides 74 colonial, Indian, etc., and 10 missionary bishops. The "Church of England in Ireland" has 2 archbishops and 11 bishops; the Scottish Episcopal Church 7 bishops; the "Protestant Episcopal Church" of the United States 70 bishops altogether, including coadjutor and missionary bishops.
In England the Act 26 Henry VIII. c. 14 provides for the consecration of suffragan or assistant bishops to relieve those bishops of dioceses who are overworked or infirm. This Act was revived in the present reign; the number of suffragan bishops in addition to the above is now 16. In the American Church it is also the custom to consecrate suffragan or coadjutor bishops, with the prospect, however, of succession to the see. Suffragan bishops in England have no seat in the House of Lords, and are not usually termed "lord bishops." Of the English sees, Gloucester, Chester, Peterborough, and Oxford were created in 1541; Bristol in 1542; a see of Westminster was created in 1540 but dissolved in 1550; Ripon was created in 1836, when Gloucester and Bristol were united. New sees have been recently created by voluntary effort: Truro and St. Albans in 1877, Liverpool in 1880, Newcastle in 1882, Southwell in 1883. Such creation (by an Act of 1847) is not allowed to increase the number of lords spiritual. The two Archbishops and the Bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester, always sit in the House of Lords, and 21 of the remainder are summoned in order of seniority. For the mode of election see Conge d'Elire. The dress of an English bishop consists of a rochet, which is practically a surplice without sleeves, over which is worn the chimere of black satin, with the well-known lawn sleeves.
In 1850 a papal bull was issued appointing Roman Catholic archbishops and bishops with territorial titles in England. This caused great alarm, and an Ecclesiastical Titles Act was passed in 1851 by Lord John Russell imposing penalties for the assumption of such titles. But the Act proved a dead letter and was repealed in 1871. Previously the English Roman Catholic bishops had been, according to a usual custom, bishops in partibus infidelium, with sees that were purely titular, e.g. Chalcedon, Gaza, etc. Thus episcopal functions are exercised in London by a prelate with the title of Bishop of Emmaus.