Loose Canons

I learned a lot of things I hadn’t known before about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada at its recent Sobor in Winnipeg this summer. Probably the most surprising to me, was discovering the nature and content of some of the canon law which dictates how the church and its faithful are supposed to practice their faith. Before I get into the details, a little history is in order.

At the Seventh Ecumenical Synod of the early Christian Church, held in 787 AD in Nicea, the assembled church fathers enacted a number of “canons” or church laws, the first of which confirmed all the canons enacted in the six previous such councils. In it, they state that these previous canons “remain unwavering and rigid” and that “we corroborate the entire and rigid fiat of them that have been set forth by the renowned Apostles, who were and are trumpets of the Spirit, and those both of the six holy Ecumenical Councils and of the ones assembled regionally for the purpose of setting forth such edicts, and of those of our holy Fathers.” Essentially they claimed that these canons were the divine word of God as passed on to us through the Holy Spirit and were unchangeable.

The six previous synods of church leaders had passed a large number of canons that formalized both the theological dogma as well as the practical rules of Christian life. By virtue of this first canon, all the previous canons were in effect set in stone.

Fast forward to the present time. Those canons are still technically in force, though for reasons soon to become obvious, many of them are not being enforced, nor are they ever likely to be enforced ever again. The reason is straightforward. Despite the claim of the first canon of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, many of these canons were the creations of some very fallible men, governed by the traditions and mindset of their time and society. By today’s standards, many of these canons are not only archaic and out of date, but some are downright racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, unjust and even downright silly. This is strongly brought out in a book I read recently by Charles Shingledecker called “The Crazy Side of Orthodoxy””. Lest I be accused of anti-Orthodox propaganda, I should add that the author is a devout and practicing Orthodox tonsured lay reader in his parish in the U.S.

One very blatant example that he cites in his book is the 22nd Canon of St. John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople and one of the early revered Church Fathers in the late 6th century, who decreed that women who suffered a miscarriage were banned from the church and its sacraments for a period of a year. Similarly, in the 3rd century, Dionysius, Archbishop of Alexandria decreed that women, upon entering their menstrual period, were banned from the church for seven days. The disregard of women’s rights and dignity goes even further. According to the 2nd Canon of St. Gregory of Neocaesarea, if a woman is raped, she should be investigated, and if it is found that she was not of high virtuous and chaste character (e.g. if she had pre-marital sex), then she should be considered a harlot and excommunicated. So, the victim of a rape is to be punished unless she was of saintly character beforehand.

As bad as it may seem to us from a 21st century perspective, we must remember that society back then was very skewed in favour of the male sex, and women had few rights or considerations. Even St. Paul, who was probably more responsible than anyone for the success of Christianity had some less than sympathetic ideas when it came to women. In 1 Corinthians he states “in the churches let your women remain silent. For it has not been permitted them to talk but to obey, as the law directs. If they wish to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home.” The church turned this into a canon at its Quintesext Council in Trullo in 692 AD. So, for all you women who sing so delightfully in church choirs – you are contravening church canons and should cease and desist.

As Shingledecker points out in his book, there are many more canons in existence and technically in force, that are similarly beyond the pale by today’s standards, both moral and scientific. For instance, you can be excommunicated if you have a Jewish doctor or take medicines from one. You can be excommunicated if you eat unleavened Jewish Matzo bread. Priests and other clericals are forbidden to eat and drink in a tavern. If you are a slave, you are forbidden from being a deacon or priest. If you are a female slave, you cannot be married in a church unless you have the permission of your master. If you are a Christian, you are forbidden to dance at weddings.

There are many more, but these are some flagrant examples of why the Orthodox church should set about a thorough review and updating of canon law, as these are not just an insult to our Orthodox Christian faith but arguably to God as well. Clearly the first canon of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod is wrong. To claim that it isn’t, is to imply that God is the ultimate author of some of these unfair, anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic canons. We do not need to be theological experts to recognize that those early church fathers were fallible men who made some mistakes. It is time that these mistakes were corrected. They are a stain on our beliefs and bring discredit to the Orthodox faith.