Some Thoughts on the Holy Canons
by Fr. Alexander Lebedeff
As usual, I am expressing my own
thoughtsnot the position of my bishops or the Russian
Fr. Marion Robinson is absolutely correct when
he points out the selective use of canons in jurisdictional
polemics and states that "all Orthodox Canons are not
equally enforced and that indeed many are ignored."
This is perfectly natural.
The compendium of the Canons of the Church is
an enormous document, containing a vast amount of information and
explanation. If one tries hard enough, one can usually find some
passage in a Canon or in the commentary on it to support one's
position. This is very similar to the method used by "Bible
thumpers" who selectively use passages of the Scripture to
bolster their arguments [sola Canona?webmaster].
Obviously, when one considers that the Canons
were written over a period of almost ten centuries, by different
individuals in different time periods and locations, one should
understand that there will be many things in the Canons that are
of a very specific and local nature, meant to address a
particular problem of that place and age. One should not be
surprised to even find contradictory Canonsand they do
So, how must we, as Orthodox Christians,
approach this book of Canons, which bishops, priests, and laymen
promise to uphold?
We must approach it with reverence and
spiritual understanding, discerning in it the "Mind of the
Church" as expressed over the past twenty centuries, both during
the time the Canons were compiled and the time of the
commentaries right up to our own day.
It is the Western rationalistic mind that would
look at the Canons as a purely legalistic compendium of laws and
regulations, applicable to all situations.
The correct approach, in my opinion, is to
study the Canons and try to understand the "mindset" of
the authors, and to try to apply that mindset to the problems
facing us today.
Many of the Canons are obviously reflections of
the realities of the times they were written. Some just are
unapplicable to today's realities and must be set aside as purely
part of the history of the Church. Others must be
"updated" to apply to today's circumstances. For
example, the Canons forbidding clergy to stay at
"hotels" or "inns" reflected the dubious
moral reputation of those establishments at the time. Now, a
clergyman can stay in a hotel without his reputation being
besmirched. In present times, the Canons would probably have
forbidden clergy to go to bars and nightclubs. In this case, as
in many others, it is not the specific language of the Canon that
is important, but the underlying concepthere, that a priest
should not go to a place of "ill repute"a
canonical rule that should be just as applicable in our time as
in any other.
Some Canons were meant to establish general
norms, but not absolute requirements. For example, the Canons
regarding the minimal age of candidates for ordination (twenty-five for
deacon, thirty for priest, thirty-five for bishop) were, as we know from the
lives of the saints, never strictly followed (wasn't St.
Athanasius twenty-seven when he became bishop of Alexandria?)
Other Canons, such as the ones forbidding going
to Jewish doctors, can be viewed as being a reflection of the
general attitude of the time, and are clearly not followed in our
age. We Jordanville graduates all remember the wonderful Jewish
doctor (Dr. Hirschfeld?) in Herkimer who treated all the
seminarians for free (actually with one conditionthat we
participate in the Herkimer blood drive once a yearand we
got a free meal for that, too).
The Canons that express dogma are, of course,
sacrosanct. Those that guide Church administration (trial of
priests and bishops, diocesan prerogatives, marriage requirements
for clergy, etc.) are still very much applicable in our time.
Those that guide the behavior of clergy and the faithful are also
applicable, with appropriate updating reflecting the realities of
our time. Some are just anachronisms or historical artifacts.
It is the "Mind" of the Church as a
whole that is important here.
Certainly, there will be those who will
scrutinize their copy of The Rudder until they find some obscure
citation they can use to bolster their argumentation. Let them
enjoy themselves. A "rigoristic" approach to the Canons
is just as foolish as a total dismissal of their relevance and
The "Mind" of the Church will remain
Only by studying it, and bringing our own minds
into concordance with it, will we be fulfilling our
responsibilities before the Church.
Taken from an Internet posting to an Orthodox forum.