Augustine was installed as bishop at Hippo Regius in 395. To review, he was converted in 386; he was ordained in 391; and he was installed as bishop in 395, when he was forty-one years old. He would hold that post for thirty-five years, until his dying day, in 430. Let’s take a look first at this city where he was bishop, Hippo Regius, and then at his actual church building in Hippo. Then we will take a brief glimpse into his work as a bishop.
Hippo Regius is in modern-day Algeria, near the border of Tunisia. It sits right on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It was one of the last Roman cities to fall to the Vandals, which it did in 431. Hippo Regius has everything you would come to expect from a Roman city. It has temples to the Roman gods, which were converted to schools and Christian churches. It has a forum and a theater spanning 325 meters, which could seat six thousand people. And, of course, ruins of statues abound. There is an enormous bronze bowl that looks like a giant trophy that commemorates Julius Caesar’s victory in North Africa in 46 BC. Hippo Regius had a sprawling marketplace and a very busy harbor. It appears that the east was the wealthy side of town. Ruins of large Roman villas can be found there.
In the city was a large basilica, Augustine’s church. This church was nearly half a football field long. It had a center nave and two side aisles. The floor was covered with mosaics, and it had a marble apse. Wooden beams covered with terracotta tiles formed the roof. The acoustics in this building would have been exceptional. Between the altar and the congregation stood a large masonry structure of about four meters by three meters, and it is believed that on top of this was a wooden lectern, or a pulpit, from which Augustine would preach. At one time, a body was buried under it, and many believe that this was the original burial place of Augustine.
So we have Augusine’s city, and we have his church. What did he do as a bishop? First, he preached a lot and presided over the service at Hippo. A typical service had three biblical readings, one from the Old Testament, one from the Epistles, and one from the Gospels. Through these readings, the church would systematically read through the entire Bible. After these readings would be the singing of a psalm. Then would come the sermon—usually, but not always, on one of those scriptural readings. At the end of the sermon, the preacher would lead the congregation in prayer and in a doxology of praise. Then, of course, there would be the Lord’s Supper.
So Augustine preached and he conducted services. Second, he sat on councils and convened church councils. Many controversies were swirling around in Augustine’s day. The two big ones were the Donatist controversy and Pelagianism. In addition to those heresies, he would also get involved in moral issues in church disputes, and so he was busy working on those issues and those controversies. He would also counsel pastors and elders (“presbyters”), as well as people from all walks of life, including significant Roman officials. Augustine mostly did this counseling through a significant letter writing ministry that he carried out throughout his entire life. Third, he raised money. One wealthy patron, Pinianus, was a close friend of Augustine. Finally, Augustine oversaw and orchestrated the city’s withstanding of the siege of the Vandals, a unique job for a bishop.
So there we have Bishop Augustine’s city, Bishop Augustine’s church, and Bishop Augustine’s duties.