Quite often, I see on this Web portal a lot of irony related to the word “canonical.” People poke fun on Canons and “the Canonicals,” meaning, under the latter, the clergy and the hierarchs of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (formerly UOC-Moscow Patriarchate).
I believe it’s worth recalling, just what these Apostolic Canons are. They are parts of one single document, the authorship of which, or the exact date when it was created, remain unknown. Based on the wording of the document, as well as on the mentionings of it in the ecclesiastical literature, it was written somewhere in the Middle East (most likely in Syria), some time in the late 4th century. Its original language could have been Syriac, but we know the Greek version of it as it is this Greek version that was disseminated by the Church in the late 4th – 6th centuries A.D. In the 6th century A.D., this document was translated into Latin; however, the translation included only 50 canons (from I to L), while the Greek version included 85. During the so-called “Quinisext Council” in Trullo (692), the Church, at that time still formally not divided into the Orthodox and the Catholic, accepted the Greek 85-canon version of this document as an official document of the whole Church (1). As a document accepted by a Church Council of such great regard, this document has been and, in my opinion, should remain a bona fide part of the Holy Tradition of the Church, something that has been serving and, in my opinion, still has to serve as a set of practical directions for each and every member of the Church in good standing.
What are these Canons? I am familiar with one English translation of the document, which can be retrieved from the Internet (2). The text of this document talks about the order of ordination of deacons, presbyters, and bishops; about certain demands put on deacons, presbyters, bishops, and laymen; about rights and prerogatives of bishops (particularly, it states that no bishop in any metropolis of the Empire who is the chief executive person in that metropoly should ever make a decision not based on the consensus among all bishops); and, finally, about the Scripture Canon, i.e. about what books should be regarded by all faithful as true authentic Scripture.
So, what should be our attitude to this document? By “our,” I mean Orthodox as well as Roman Catholic Christians. Of course, Protestants, who disposed of pretty much everything except Scripture (the “sola Scriptura” principle), will despise these Canons, saying that they are merely writings of men and have no authority. However, to us – to Orthodox and Catholics alike – Scripture is not the ONLY source of authority; when we say “the Word of God,” we mean Scripture AS WELL AS writings of Holy Fathers of the Church and documents of the Church Councils. The Canons are, undoubtedly, one of the latter – so, can we jettison tem, take them lightly, ironicaly, cynically, poking fun on them?
I believe the answer is no. We have to take them seriously. Some say that the Canons have only a certain “historical” interest, because things in the society have changed. But then, what other parts of the deposit of Ecumenical or local Councils (unless these parts were declared not valid by the Church Herself) can we, arbitrarily, disregard? How about the Nicene-Constantinople Creed? After all, some might say about it the same thing as people say about the Apostolic Canons, no? Old… un-Biblical… (indeed, nowhere in the Bible can you find the expression, “homousion to Patri,” “of one essence with the Father”), … tentative… written by men…?
I think it is way too easy to declare something “old” and “antiquated” and “no longer valid,” or “not pertaining to us.” Indeed, why keep these silly demands for priests, like the demand to marry only once, and only before the ordination? Or the demand for laity not to enter the building where heretics gather for prayer – isn’t it antiquated? Old-fashioned, narrow-minded, obscurantist? Let everyone enter any house of worship, as long as it is “spiritual…” And generally, why all these rules? Maybe let’s just come together and love one another right now, and to hell with all these stupid dead dogmas, all these superfluous, repressive rules?
“Easy” as it certainly is, that attitude is definitely not right. Yes, things change. Yes, rules are difficult, and observing rules causes a lot of human suffering. But if we declare all rules unnecessary, then how do we differ from our brothers and sisters Protestants? Aren’t we, Orhtodox and Catholic Christians, ostensibly declaring that everything in the documents of the holy Councils of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church carries a seal of the Holy Spirit?
It’s a separate issue, though, that in the Church, there has always been this principle of “oikonomia” – the principle that says that for a more important general good, bishops occasionally can give permission for their subordinate clergy and laity to violate canons. For example, according to the Sixth Apostolic Canon, no presbyter can have a secular job in addition to his job as a parish priest. Yet, my own parish priest, Father Christopher Harner, who is the father of four children and whose wife is unemployed, does work part-time in a secular office. So, apparently, his (any my) bishop, His Eminence +ALEXIOS of Atlanta, has given him permission to hold a secular job. Yes, it is against the Sixth Canon, but it is, most certainly, for the bigger good. Another example: Canon LXIV prohibits common prayer with heretics, and, according to the Orthodox faith, the Roman Catholic Church does promulgate certain heretical teachings (Filioque, the primacy of the pope etc.). Yet, I myself witnessed Ukrainian Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic priests worshiping together on certain occasions, for example on the day of anniversary of a Ukrainian Orthodox mission parish in Seattle, WA (and I know that similar events do take place in other American cities). Again, what a Canon forbids may be overruled by a bishop, but for a certain concrete reason and always for a greater good. And again, under no circumstances can any one individual declare all Canons “antiquated” and “no longer pertaining to us.” This cynicism is, actually, blasphemous.
Yes, it’s all very complicated. However, things in real life are never simple. They seemed simple only to Poligraph Poligraphovich Sharikov, the famous hero of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog.”