Dear Father Simon
Please do not say: âI am no canon lawyer just a pastor trying to shepherd those few people God has called me to.â!! âJUST a pastorâ??
Canon lawyers (and theologians) are easily made and all too often divert the Church from its true mission and ministry by âstraining at gnatsâ (and, almost inevitably, âswallowing camelsâ). They can, but do not necessarily, serve to manifest Godâs infinite love and compassion for His children. They may or may not hold deeply to the Faith. The most learned theologian I know has (as he will say in private conversation) no particular faith, but enjoys a well-paid academic position. I know canon lawyers for whom canon law is the faith, and who enjoy, as much as civil lawyers, scoring legal points and winning debates.
Pastors do what the Church exists to do, and what all its servants (including canon lawyers and theologians!) are called to do: serve the People of God and make His love known to the world.
If we look at the many examples in the Gospels in which the Lord addresses (often implicitly) questions of law, we see how the only real purpose of the law is to guide and heal, rather than to enforce and punish. The law, like the Sabbath, is made for man. This is why traditionally Orthodox Canon Law emphasized that the word âcanonâ comes from a Greek word, kanon (kanones/ÎºÎ±Î½ÏÎ½ÎµÏ), deriving from the Hebrew qaneh (kaneh / ×§× ×); it means a âreed or straight rodâ used for measuring (that is, a yardstick). In Greek philosophy, kanon referred to the standard of judgement. It does not refer to law as traditionally understood (âPark here and be subject to a fineâ) but to an ideal standard of conduct against which we can all be measured. And, given that âall have sinned....â, none of us is likely to conform perfectly to the perfect measure. We need, and ideally seek, guidance, support and healing.
Traditional Orthodox authorities generally refer to the Canons as theological opinions (theologoÃºmena, pl.; theologoÃºmenon, sing.; Î¸ÎµÎ¿Î»Î¿Î³Î¿ÏÎ¼ÎµÎ½Î±, Î¸ÎµÎ¿Î»Î¿Î³Î¿ÏÎ¼ÎµÎ½Î¿Î½), as common standards or general measures (canons, ÎºÎ±Î½ÏÎ½ÎµÏ), never as laws (nomoi, Î½ÏÎ¼Î¿Î¹), never inerrant, forever unchangeable. Canons are merely temporal, and are neither the Gospel nor dogma (Î´ÏÎ³Î¼Î±) nor exactness (akriveia, Î±ÎºÏÎ¯Î²ÎµÎ¹Î±). Some Orthodox theologians have noted that that if the Ecumenical Councils had intended that the disciplinary canons be used as laws, they would have called them nomoi/Î½ÏÎ¼Î¿Î¹ (laws) rather than kanones/ÎºÎ±Î½ÏÎ½ÎµÏ (standards).
The canon lawyer may forensically identify failures in conformity. The pastor will seek to bring forgiveness and healing, applying the teaching: âA bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.â A canon lawyer may declare that the wick is smouldering in contravention of a particular canon and is subject to the penalty of being extinguished....a pastor will seek to bring life and fire back into the wick.
I think the text which all canon lawyers should recite daily (hourly?) is: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.â
And, of course, the only true Orthodox canon lawyer is also an Orthodox pastor!
So what did I decide in the civil case I mentioned?
I rejected the appeal on the ground that the law made no allowance for the exceptional circumstances of the manâs case. Had I done otherwise, the social security authority would have appealed against my decision and he would have been caught up in further fruitless legal action.
Shortly after receiving my decision, the man wrote a very moving letter to the Registrar of the Tribunal, expressing his gratitude for the respect and dignity with which he had been treated in his appeal and saying that, although he thought the decision was unjust (he was right!) he appreciated the fact that I had said this in my decision. I wrote at some length that the correct application of the law in this case inevitably resulted in an unjust outcome which I assumed could not have been the intention of the legislators when enacting what was supposed to be beneficent law. This conclusion is probably ironic since the government is now busily âreformingâ social security law to further reduce judicial discretion.