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Some Thoughts on the Holy Canons

by Fr. Alexander Lebedeff

As usual, I am expressing my own thoughts—not the position of my bishops or the Russian Church Abroad.

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 Canons—and they do exist.

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 concept—here, 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 condition—that we participate in the Herkimer blood drive once a year—and 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 applicability.

The "Mind" of the Church will remain unchanged.

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.