As I have said in a previous posting, Orthodox Canon Law is complex, and takes a different approach to that of Roman Catholic Canon Law. Orthodox Canon Law should be applied with the heart of a pastor rather than with the mind of a lawyer.
So, the first question should not be: What is the Law? but: What is Godâs Will? We assume Godâs Will is that all His sons and daughters enter into His Church. Therefore, how can the Law be applied to make this possible in this case?
There are two approaches to the application of Canon Law: these can be put simply as the âstrictâ approach and the âpastoralâ approach. If anyone want the more academic descriptions of these approaches I am happy to provide it.
In the case John cites, the first question must be: was the personâs first marriage actually a marriage in Orthodox terms? This is quite a complex technical question: were both parties baptised in the Orthodox Faith? were they married in the Orthodox Church? It may be that the marriage was a nullity (that is, it didnât exist in terms of Orthodox Canon Law), and therefore can be ignored in considering the question of the personâs entry into the Orthodox Church, as can the civil divorce.
The person then âremarriedâ (which would not be a âremarriageâ in Orthodox if the first marriage was not accepted). Again, was this marriage actually a marriage in Orthodox terms?
In Orthodoxy (unlike Roman Catholicism) there is no such thing as an âirregular marriageâ (what Rome might call a valid but illicit marriage). A person is either married according to the Orthodox Church or not married.
If the person is not married in Orthodox terms, his or her situation in Orthodox Canon Law is that he or she is a single person who is living in a marriage-like relationship.
Applying the Law strictly, this is unacceptable and would be grounds for refusing to allow the person to be received into the Orthodox Church so long as it continued. The ideal, of course, would be that both partners are received into and then married in the Orthodox Church. Let us assume that the personâs partner is not agreeable to this, can the person be received into the Church and receive Holy Communion?
Again, the strict interpretation of the Law would be: no. He or she should leave the partner, and then be received into the Church. The pastoral application (which would depend on a sound understanding of the personâs situation) might be: yes, because through no fault or his or her own he or she is in a situation which arose prior to any knowledge of the Orthodox Faith and in which he or she has ongoing moral responsibilities (especially if there are children). So the pastoral approach might temper Law with Grace in a specific case and for a particular individual, without establishing any precedent about such cases in general.
This type of situation, incidentally, was clearly known in the early Church, and is referred to by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:7-14 in which he directs the âbelieverâ who has an âunbelieverâ as a husband or wife not to divorce the partner but, if the partner is willing to live together, to maintain the relationship: âFor the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctioned by the husband.â Thus, the conversion of one partner provides a ground for separation, but does not require it. Most have interpreted âwilling to live togetherâ to mean living together in harmony where the âunbelieverâ does not seek to interfere with or undermine the Faith of the âbelieverâ.