Suffragan bishops in the Anglican Communion are nearly identical in their role to auxiliary bishops in the Roman Catholic Church.
The concept of a suffragan bishop in the Church of England was legalised by the Suffragan Bishops Act 1534. The first bishops consecrated under that Act were Thomas Manning, Bishop of Ipswich and John Salisbury, Bishop of Thetford on 19 March 1536. The last medieval suffragan bishop in post was John Sterne, Bishop of Colchester, who died in post in 1607/8. No more suffragans were appointed for more than 250 years, until the consecration of Henry Mackenzie as Bishop of Nottingham on 2 February 1870. At that point, the sees of suffragans were still limited to the 26 towns named in the 1534 Act; the Suffragans Nomination Act 1888 allowed the creation of new suffragan sees besides the 26 so named. The appointment of bishops suffragan became much more common thereafter.
Some Anglican suffragans are legally delegated responsibility for a geographical area within the diocese. For example, the Bishop of Colchester is an area bishop in the Diocese of Chelmsford. Such area schemes are presently found in the dioceses of:
- London (since 1979)
- Chelmsford (since 1983)
- Oxford (since 1984)
- Southwark (since 1991)
- Lichfield (since 1992)
- Leeds (since 2014)
Area schemes have previously existed in Worcester diocese (1993–2002), Salisbury diocese (1981–2009), Lincoln diocese (2010–31 January 2013) and Chichester diocese (1984-2013). Other suffragans have or have had informal responsibility for geographical areas (e.g. in Winchester and in Peterborough), but these are not referred to as area bishops.
English diocesan bishops were commonly assisted by bishops who had been consecrated to sees which were in partibus infidelium (titular sees that had in most cases been conquered by Muslims) before the English Reformation. The separation of the English Church from Rome meant that this was no longer possible. The Suffragan Bishops Act 1534 allowed for the creation of new sees to allow these assistant bishops, who were named as suffragan. Before then, the term suffragan referred to diocesan bishops in relation to their metropolitan.
Suffragan bishops in the Church of England who look after parishes and clergy that reject the ministry of priests who are women, usually across a whole province, are known as provincial episcopal visitors. This concession was made in 1992 following the General Synod's vote to ordain women to the priesthood.
The dioceses of Leicester, and of Portsmouth do not have suffragan bishops, but the former has a stipendiary assistant bishop, with very little difference from a suffragan bishop, except that she or he does not have a See.
The Church of Ireland has no suffragan bishops, not even in the geographically large dioceses.
Suffragan bishops are fairly common in larger dioceses of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), but usually have no responsibility for a specific geographical part of a diocese. ECUSA is not within the jurisdiction of the English law that requires diocesan and suffragan bishops to be appointed as bishop to a specific place, and so suffragans are not given the title of any particular city within the diocese. For example, Bishop Barbara Harris was titled simply “Suffragan Bishop of Massachusetts”.
Coadjutor and assistant bishops are different episcopal offices than suffragan. A coadjutor is elected by a diocesan convention to become the diocesan bishop (also called “the ordinary”) upon the ordinary’s retirement. A suffragan is also elected by a convention, but does not automatically succeed the diocesan bishop. However a suffragan’s office does continue to in the diocese until he or she chooses to retire. An assistant bishop is appointed by the diocesan bishop, and his or her office ends when the ordinary who appointed her or him leaves office.
Roman Catholic Church
In the Roman Catholic Church, a suffragan is a bishop who heads a diocese. His suffragan diocese, however, is part of a larger ecclesiastical province, nominally led by a metropolitan archbishop. The distinction between metropolitans and suffragans is of limited practical importance. Both are diocesan bishops possessing ordinary jurisdiction over their individual sees. The metropolitan has few responsibilities over the suffragans in his province and no direct authority over the faithful outside of his own diocese.
Bishops who assist diocesan bishops are usually called auxiliary bishops. If the assisting bishop has special faculties (typically the right to succeed the diocesan bishop) he would be called a coadjutor bishop. Since they are not in charge of a suffragan diocese, they are not referred to as “suffragan bishops”.
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