CANONICITY – ITS USE AND ABUSE

 

There is much misunderstanding about the use of the word “canonical” in Orthodoxy. The word has acquired a quite wrong meaning in popular usage, which ought to be corrected. Canonical is now used to mean “connected to a Patriarchate”. This is of course a nonsense inasmuch as the very word obviously means adherence to the canons. There are lawful reasons for not being connected to a Patriarchate. There are also examples today of groups which started out in a “canonical” jurisdiction which through no fault of their own have been wrongly and quite unjustifiably abandoned by their original jurisdiction – and left that way through obstinacy on the part of that original jurisdiction.

Though all of these “non-canonical” jurisdictions may have Apostolic Succession as has been admitted by many “canonical” Bishops, and while they say that they take lawful stances as allowed by the canons, they nevertheless are not permitted to participate in joint deliberations should they wish to.

The “canonical” joint episcopal committees in various locations around the world are essentially political organisations comprised of jurisdictions which have common attitudes towards ecumenism and modernism in the Church and being to greater or lesser extent sympathetic to both tendencies.

They however, determine who is “canonically” Orthodox on a political, not actual canonical and ecclesiastical basis.

In both the “canonical” and “non-canonical” jurisdictions, it is not possible to find other than political criteria for applying the notion of “canonicity”. Mere possession of Apostolic Succession, or adherence to the canons of the Church, or even commemorating a Patriarch satisfies the political judgement. The only thing that satisfies it is being mutually connected to a Patriarchate. It is political or personal judgement, not spiritual that prevails.

Apostolic Succession is not understood in the Orthodox Church in a legalistic way. One may have tactile Apostolic Succession, yet violate the canons, ignore the conscience of the Church, and preach heresy. This, then, estranges such a bishop from the grace of the Church, though we can’t point to a moment when that grace ceases. Hence real heretics were received back into the Church in various ways in the Early Church: some by confession, some by Chrismation, some by Baptism.

What constitutes the criteria by which Orthodox validity is established is that firstly, the Bishops who head any Church must have the fullness of Apostolic Succession. They must trace their Consecrations to valid Orthodox Hierarchs. This is the most basic definition of validity in Orthodoxy. Secondly they must demonstrably adhere to the canons of the Church, and teach the same doctrine as the Church.

When Bishops separate from their jurisdiction over matters of Faith, they are often suspended, excommunicated, or deposed by the very hierarchy to which they are in resistance. Some of the greatest Fathers of the Church, including Saint John Chrysostom himself incurred this treatment. So we must discern very carefully the reasons for their separation, their sincerity, and their purposes.

Essentially, we judge the validity of any Orthodox group by its possession of the fullness of Apostolic Succession, including adherence to basic canons, teaching the fullness of Orthodoxy without any innovations and, in the cases of Churches which are separated from their original jurisdictions, by the patristic foundation, canonical justification, and sincerity of their separation. Especially looking at whether they consider themselves out of communion or merely considering themselves in communion when their original jurisdiction does not. There are very few clear-cut cases, and there is no infallible authority to adjudicate matters.

Surely then, it is better not to apply blanket condemnation to all who may not be in “communion” with a patriarchate. Surely it is incumbent on all authorities to attempt to rectify matters. And surely it is not right to condemn those whose consciences have deep misgivings about some major problem which they see in their original jurisdiction.

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