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The Canons of the Orthodox Church as Medicine
Why the orthobro version of canon quoting misses the mark
The Orthodox Church is guided by a collection of canonical rules, called canons, that developed in the writings of the Saints; a selection of these writings were later compiled, adopted, and ratified by the Ecumenical Councils. Called the Rudder (Pedalion) of the Church as they guide its members to salvation, the canons cover a wide range of administrative and pastoral conventions, including matters related to liturgical practice, the sacraments, clergy and laity discipline, and the hierarchy. Although canon law as a discipline is not as developed in the east as it is in the west, the canons carry significant authoritative weight.
Unfortunately, there is a growing trend among new converts to throw around this authoritative weight by reading and haphazardly handing out canonical prescriptions on facebook feeds, in twitter threads, and via YouTube videos. The intended effect is decisive: “the canons have spoken: case closed.” But the canons were not developed to be the knockout punch in theological smackdowns; they were developed at a particular time in a particular place for a particular situation – to function as pastoral guidelines for dealing with difficult situations that arise from living in a fallen world. Herein lies the disconnect: those who quote canons to settle disputes tend to view the canons as commandments – as static non-negotiables such as do not murder or do not commit adultery – instead of strong medicine to be applied judiciously by the clergy.
The issue is that the facile framework of canons as commandments leads to a frailty of thinking – one that develops in those who adhere to it a dichotomous thinking too immature to deal with the complexities of life. And ultimately the inability to exercise appropriate pastoral care. Call it what you will – black-and-white thinking, fundamentalism, or the sectarian mindset – the outcome of this paradigm has an impressive historical record for producing Pharisees and heretics. Why? Because instead of faith in Christ, the exactitude of the rule, and one's adherence to it, becomes the foundation of spiritual security. Any transgression, then, whether individual or corporate, compromises both the faith and one’s security in it. This is made unabashedly clear by those who adhere to what we might call sacramental rigorism.
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VIEWING THE CANONS AS MEDICINE
Viewing the canons as medicine, as they are described by Trullo (692 A.D.), leads to a certain flexibility of thought not afforded by the sectarian mindset. Consider the following examples.
Let’s say you’ve been admitted to a hospital. The seasoned doctor facilitating your treatment decides to administer IV antibiotics. But, being somewhat of a BBC drama buff, you recall that this specific illness was treated with bloodletting for centuries before the comparatively recent advent of antibiotics. So, you ask for leeches in lieu of antibiotics. Confused but resolute, your doctor refuses. Instead of listening to him, you seek a medicine man who still adheres to this antiquated method.
Or perhaps a less extreme example: let’s say your doctor initially prescribed you one medication – but seeing that it is not effective decides you need to switch. Has he abandoned his profession or the hippocratic oath by switching your medication? Not at all. It actually means he is upholding it the best way he can by seeking the best treatment methods. But what if the patient believes that they are? What if the patient clings to the old medication, even if it has been shown not to work in his treatment, and then begins trying to prescribe it to others?
Let’s switch things up a bit. Instead of your doctor switching medications, let’s say that someone murders your doctor. The hospital, which is strapped for cash, cannot replace him. So they ask for volunteers. A 16-year-old interested in computer science agrees and sees you the next day as the attending physician. Would you be upset?
Examples 1 and 2 demonstrate an inflexibility of the patient that prevents themselves from being healed. By today’s standards, most would consider the patients in examples 1 and 2 as foolish. Example 3 is a little different: it is an actual injustice to the patient – or it would be, if it were true. The reality is, there’s something I failed to mention about example 3: the patient is in the hospital for paranoid delusions and schizophrenia. The doctor was not murdered; there never was a 16-year-old imposter-doctor.
Example 3 is an illustration of how sacramental rigorists – and those we term orthobros – view the Church when it does not adhere strictly to the canons. But as in examples 1 and 2, some of the canons might not be effective for the salvation of those being treated. In such cases, the orthobros act like the patient, insisting on the older medicine that will kill them – and those to whom they recommend it.
Reductio Ad Absurdum
Ultimately, viewing canons as commandments is symptomatic of a greater illness: the sectarian mindset. And in this view there is yet a greater inconsistency: if the canons are to be obeyed no matter what then why do we not depose clergy that eat at pubs (Apostolic Canons, LIV), excommunicate laity that don’t keep the strict lenten fast (LXIX), and depose clergy who teach on the internet (Trullo XX). Why aren’t young men who engage in masturbation forbidden from communion for 40 days and required to repent by only eating bread and drinking water (in some cases, 7 years of this is prescribed)? And why don’t we immediately depose or excommunicate those (Dyer, Fr. Peter Heers, Fr. Andrew Moore, Fr. Zechriah Lynch) that are engaged in conspiring against bishops (Trullo XXXIV)?