Rules: Canons or Cannons?


Elder Paisios is well known for advising spiritual fathers and confessors not to turn canons into cannons. That is, don’t turn the rules of the Church into military weapons to attack people.

When I use chose the title, “canons or cannons”,  I didn’t mean the grammatical difference between these two words. I was thinking more about what we mean by Church rules, i.e. the canons and how should they be used and how they are misused.

Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, in an article about the constitutional position of the Church of Greece, while written in another context makes several cogent points on this theme.

“1. The sacred canons are not legal texts, despite their legislative style of layout. They are church texts that are tightly linked to doctrinal-definitions and whose purpose is the unity of the Church and the expression of the mind-set or phronema  of the Church. We can only interpret the canons correctly when we link them to the purpose  of  doctrines, otherwise we will misinterpret them.

2.We cannot appeal to the canons in a selective and piecemeal way. We cannot break the canons when they clash with our own personal passions or choices, but appeal to them when we want to censure others who hold a different opinion to ours. The whole of Church life should be regulated by the letter but more especially by the “spirit” of the sacred canons.  […]”

Let’s consider these two points.

First, are the canons of the Church then laws, in the same sense as secular laws? 

While there is a superficial similarity between Church law and canon law there is an essential difference. Secular law gains its authority from secular powers, whether this is a monarch or an elected democratic system or other man made system. These systems carry the authority of human beings. Whereas,  Church law is ultimately based on the will of God and formulated through His Church. This gives Church law another quality altogether. While secular law regulates society and serves to  protect rights and freedoms, Church law is there for human salvation.

St. John Scholasticus, the fifth century Patriarch of Constantinople, made a clear distinction between secular law and canon law.  In his digest on canon law he clearly explains that the canons are “divine laws not civil ones” and that those who set out the canons look to the salvation of the soul and not to punishment, as is the case with civil law.

If we look at one of the main sources for canon law, the proceedings of the Ecumenical Councils, we find two things. The Ecumenical Councils set out the infallible doctrines of the the Church. They also set out the ways and means for living out those doctrines, and if something is not going right in our lives, it shows us how to correct it. So, in the Ecumenical Councils we find the Creeds and Decrees, which lay out the doctrine of the Church and we also find the Canons, which explain how we can heal whatever is not going right.

When speaking of the canons St Gregory of Nyssa says that the decrees are sound doctrine whereas the canons are the means by which we heal “every sickness of the soul” and in his introduction to his canons he compares their use to the medical method used by doctors [Canon I St. Gregory of Nyssa from the Greek]

In the same vein Matthew Vlastares, who compiled a compendium of Church law in the Fourteenth Century notes that “if there is sin there is also a cure and we can give suitable medicine to the sick person to become well”.

What place penances then? These are clearly seen as the means by which healing is brought about, the means of treatments, the way the wounds of sin are healed.

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Gerontikon) we see in the Sayings of Elder Poimen:
“Another monk said to the saint (Poimen), “I have sinned grievously and I want to spend three years at repentance. Is that enough time?” The Elder replied, “That is a long time”. The monk continued to ask how long the Saint wished him to repent. Perhaps only a year? St Poimen said, “That is a long time”. The other brethren asked, “Should he repent for forty days?” The Elder answered, “I think that if a man repents from the depths of his heart and has a firm intention not to return to the sin, then God will accept three days of repentance”.
We find something similar in Abba Sisoes when asked by the monks whether one year is sufficient for repentance if a brother sins, Abba Sisoes said, “I trust in the mercy of God that if such a man repents with all his heart, then God will accept his repentance in three days.”

This means that God forgives the truly penitent, but that according to the degree of the sickness some time is needed for healing to occur. The canons are there, not to mete punishment, but to provide healing for the soul.

I now turn to my second point, how do we avoid a purely legalistic interpretation and application of the “rules”?

In the Gospel there is a clear message about the legalistic interpretation of rules. One just has to read Christ’s admonitions to the Pharisees to get a feel for this. More especially Christ is looking at the hypocrisy of people who say one thing but do another, or stick to the letter of the law, but do not follow the spirit of it with their heart. The sort of behaviour that is done to please people, rather than God, that is done to be self-righteous rather than humble.

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matthew 23:23)

Sticking to the precise letter of the law rather than embracing the spirit is often done not for God, but to be seen to be doing the right thing in the eyes of others. Appearing like the ideal family at Church, while arguing and bickering continually at home is one example. St. John Chrysostom gives yet another example with Fasting. Again, he talks about fasting as a medicine, but also points out the dangers of sticking to the rules and not following the spirit the law. We should not just abstain from certain foods but take on the whole spirit of the fast.

St. John Chrysostom says “Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.”

Concluding, the rules are there to heal us, and bring about our salvation. If we follow not only the letter of the law, but the spirit, and seek advice where we lack discernment then the rules, the canons, will become a true guide to the straight path.


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