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Law and repentance
17-05-2010, 09:19 PM,
Dear Fr. Gregory,

An interesting case where, I suspect, the law said that out of time is out of time; but where, I hope, there was sufficient lee-way for you to decide to exercise compassion. If so, that really is what Jesus did.


In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
18-05-2010, 05:49 AM,
Dear Father Simon

Please do not say: “I am no canon lawyer just a pastor trying to shepherd those few people God has called me to.”!! “JUST a pastor”??

Canon lawyers (and theologians) are easily made and all too often divert the Church from its true mission and ministry by “straining at gnats” (and, almost inevitably, “swallowing camels”). They can, but do not necessarily, serve to manifest God’s 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 “canon” comes from a Greek word, kanon (kanones/κανόνες), deriving from the Hebrew qaneh (kaneh / קנה); it means a “reed or straight rod” 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 (“Park here and be subject to a fine”) but to an ideal standard of conduct against which we can all be measured. And, given that “all have sinned....”, 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 (theologoúmena, pl.; theologoúmenon, sing.; θεολογούμενα, θεολογούμενον), as common standards or general measures (canons, κανόνες), never as laws (nomoi, νόμοι), never inerrant, forever unchangeable. Canons are merely temporal, and are neither the Gospel nor dogma (δόγμα) nor exactness (akriveia, ακρίβεια). 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/νόμοι (laws) rather than kanones/κανόνες (standards).

The canon lawyer may forensically identify failures in conformity. The pastor will seek to bring forgiveness and healing, applying the teaching: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.” 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.”

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 man’s 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 “reforming” social security law to further reduce judicial discretion.

Fr Gregory
18-05-2010, 08:47 AM,
Dear Father Gregory,

Ah but what it is to be reminded of what one has so often said unto others! How many, many times I have said to others that there’s no such thing as ‘just’ something or other. Even that scraggy old grass growing alongside the A34 is not ‘just’ a load of weeds and grass. The A34 is one of the South of England’s notorious car parks that occasionally passes for what it was designed to be, a major highway with flowing traffic. But what joyous moments I have spent stuck there in traffic jams admiring the astonishing beauty of that grass being rippled like waves by the wind. It is, of course, no more ‘just’ grass and weeds than the trees that so delight me when their leaves are moved by the wind and the sunlight shimmers through them – or those wondrous sunsets the Divine Artist paints so many evenings or the beauty of the star strewn heaven He displays night after night… They are of course all manifestation of the Creator. “Every visible or invisible creature is a theophany or appearance of God.” (John Scotus Eriugena).

So yes I have often corrected those who told me that something or other was ‘just’ whatever it was. And then there was that expression used so frequently in the prayer tradition of the Christianity of my teenage years, “Lord we just want to ask you…” I still want to ask Him of course and much and often but rarely these days do I ‘just’ want to ask God for whatever it may be.

And after all that I manage to come out with such a faux pass as apparently belittling my calling and ordination (which I fought against and resisted so long, having some concept, however inadequate, of how awesome a thing it was) by saying “I am just a pastor”. Mea culpa! Your correction is as well deserved as it is well intentioned and I assure you it is equally well received. Thank you Father Gregory.

So many thoughts and memories crowd in – hearing the words read at my ordination as a priest about the seraphim standing along side me at holy communion… or then the day I became an hegumenos, as Abba Seraphim prayed one of the prayers referring to my being elevated to hegumenos, he turned to face east and there right in front of my eyes, on the back of his Episcopal crown, was an icon of our Lord elevated on the cross: “And I, if I be lifted up…” Just a pastor indeed!!! Yes, truly I thank you my friend for it is good to be corrected and reminded.

On the matter of your tribunal decision and my previous posting in which I wrote about struggling towards some concept of the spirit rather than the letter of the law I was feeling my way towards what you have so clearly expressed when you write about “the intention of the legislators when enacting what was supposed to be beneficent law”. And this reflects my appreciation of the canons, which interestingly enough I hardly ever refer to as canon law because I prefer to think of them as canons, intended to help and guide me as a pastor in my ministry of healing, of salvation – not as law in that ‘harsh’ sense. The verse you quote is undoubtedly one of my favourite verses in the Bible and is my guiding principle as a pastor, not to break that bruised reed nor snuff out that smouldering wick but to breathe life into it.

I sometimes do get concerned with some of the discussions in the Forum whether they can be confusing for newcomers (which is, I concede, a bit rich coming from one who writes “I am just a pastor” thereby risking confusing any enquirer or new member into thinking that the whole pastor business is of little consequence!) and so I am really thankful that you have written such a helpful posting here on the canons and why we have them and what they are for. For they are not to be dismissed or thought lightly of (any more than being a pastor is to be dismissed or thought lightly of) or ignored because I should simply do what Jesus would do but rather the canons are there to hopefully help me do what Jesus would do. Yes I may apply them with economy and yes I must apply them with love and yes I must ever remember the bruised reed and smouldering wick and remember what it is that I am about when I am guided by the canons but nonetheless guided by them I must be as a spiritual doctor or physician responsible for people’s spiritual health and well being rather than ‘just’ (!) making it up as I go along as the fancy takes me.

Thank you again,

18-05-2010, 09:50 AM,
Dear Father Simon,

Having been under your care from my initial enquiry through my Catechumenate, Baptism and Chrismation, and now on my pathway to God in the Church, I have to agree totally with Father Gregory. You have indeed fanned my smouldering ember into a flame. Your example as a pastor is of the highest order. I count myself so very fortunate to have you as my priest, and, I hope, my friend.

'Just' a pastor, indeed!!!
With love and prayers,
18-05-2010, 04:11 PM,
Dear Antony-Paul,

Whilst I am rightly corrected for my “just a pastor” nonsense I cannot accept the praise, no matter how kindly you meant it my friend, implicit in your kind and generous words. I fall back on the words of the holy Prophet Samuel that man looks on the outside but God sees the inside. You only see that part of me turned towards you and others. God sees all of me including all I keep so well hidden from so many, including yourself. If I do a better job than many at keeping some of my sins hidden, this simply reflects my recollection of what I was taught by my vicar forty years ago, that people would forgive me for breaking any of the commandments except for the Eleventh Commandment. The eleventh? Yes, he explained, Thou shalt not get caught! They’ll forgive you breaking any of the commandments except that one. Thou shalt not get found out. If you break that one, then watch out!

But though a pastor is still a sinner this sinner is still a pastor. And this sinner recalls two things that often give him much, even great encouragement. Firstly the words of our beloved patriarch His Holiness Pope Shenouda III that the joy you feel on reading that wonderful letter is in no way diminished by the ugliness of the postman who delivered it! And secondly one of my most favourite stories from all the Desert Fathers. A monk was so disturbed by the sin of his priest that he felt unable to receive the holy communion from him and he prayed that he might know what to do. The monk dreamed a dream that he was walking through the hot, dry desert and he was thirsty and parched and eventually he came to this crystal clear stream of water and it was the most delicious drink he had ever tasted and refreshed him wonderfully. So he determined to seek the source of this pure water. When he found the source, where the spring bubbled up out of the ground there was the carcass of a dead wolf that had evidently collapsed there as it struggled to drink its last, its dying drink. And there lay the rotting carcass with the mouth open and with the spring bubbling up and flowing out through the mouth of the rotting carcass of the wolf. And yet the stream was pure and undefiled and clear as crystal. And so the monk awoke and went and received the holy gifts from the hands of the priest.

If I ever signed myself Ugly Postman let alone Rotting Carcass I suspect I would risk condemnation for false humility – but it is not feelings of unworthiness that the story of the crystal stream and the rotting carcass produces in me… I can manage the feelings of unworthiness easily enough without needing that story. No, if I ever signed myself Rotting Carcass it would be with feelings of utter joy that I can hardly hope to share with you, feelings of such joy that despite me and my sins God gives the crystal pure water of eternal life to people through me, yes that through my hands He gives to people His Body and Blood, the medicine of immortality, the medicine of eternal life.

The postman words give me hope and encouragement – but the rotting carcass story, now THAT makes my spirit SOAR. And to all my fellow pastors who read this, especially my dear Father Gregory who once said in a sermon in the Bournemouth Church where I am now priest and pastor that if it wasn’t heresy he would say that God made a mistake when he chose him to be a priest!, if you are ever discouraged as a pastor by your sins I hope you remember this story and it gives you the same hope and JOY it gives me.
19-05-2010, 08:40 AM,
law and repentence
Yes, "what would Jesus do?" It seems to me that any human organisation can tie itself in knots with rules and regulations and lose sight of what is fundamental. Is it permitted to do good or evil on the Sabbath? Christ asked, the answer being obvious. Human beings do not devise laws, only rules, because only God can devise laws that flow with mercy. However, we must always remember that the Church is not a human organisation contrived by human beings, it is the Body of Christ our Saviour who dispensed love and mercy. The Cappodocian Fathers believed it right to bar adulterers from receiving Holy Communion for as long as three years, but I suspect mercy and understanding tempered actual practice.
Every case of a breakdown in marriage must be considered by a deep knowledge of those involved, not with a mind to impose punishments, but to free the people involved from the burden of sin(s). In looking at the words of St Paul it seems that there is no problem in married couples seperating, but the problems come from the wish to marry someone else.
Who can look into the heart and discern true motives from false lusts?
Canon Law can only be a guideline for the implementation of mercy as guided by the Holy Spirit.

Kirk Yacoub
20-05-2010, 09:31 PM,
Given our recent discussions, I though the following extract from the blog of Fr Tobias Haller BSG was relevant. Fr James has been Vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in Fordham, NY, a vibrant multicultural urban congregation, since 1999, and is a somewhat controversial Episcopalian theologian. His blog is “In a Godward Direction”: <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href=""></a><!-- m -->

“What kind of church are we to be? Shall it be the “O.K. Club” or “St Saviour’s Hospital”? The church of those who are at ease in Zion, or those who dwell in the exile of Babylon? Will it be the church of the Pharisee or the Publican? Of those who bind burdens, or those who liberate? The church of Caiaphas, secure in his skill, or of Cephas, who knew his failings? The church of Paul at his worst, or Paul at his best? Will it be the church of those who close the door on others, or of those who are trying to get in? Will it be the church of those for whom the Decalogue, the Summary of the Law, and the Golden Rule are not enough, or of those who know how hard it is to follow even these high standards? Will it be the church of those who are prepared to cast stones, and were condemned by their own consciences, or those whom they accuse, and whom Jesus refuses to condemn? Will it be the church of those who sit in judgment, or of those who love much, and minister to Jesus by washing his feet with their tears?

I pray our church will be a wing of St Saviour’s Hospital. There are no outpatients there, and everyone who arrives is a terminal case: they die to self, in order to rise to life everlasting. For the church is not a society of nice people who obey the rules. The church is the Body of Christ. There is no salvation in the Law. None. The Law did not and will not save us. Jesus did and will.”

Fr Gregory
22-05-2010, 08:35 AM,
Many thanks for the blog, Fr. Gregory, and the subsequent thoughts.

Perhaps key here is the notion of repentance?

The woman taken in adultery was not told that since no one else condemned her she was 'fine' and should continue to explore 'alternative life-styles', she was told to sin no more. If we are not conscious of our sin, then we cannot repent; if we do repent and try to follow that through, then the forgiveness of God's Church is part of the way in which we try not to repeat our sin; if that sin lies on us, unforgiven even though we repent of it, that is hardly conducive to spiritual recovery. Long before psychol-analysis, Christianity understood the need to 'own' one's shortcomings, admit to them and try to move beyond them.

The Church is, indeed, a hospital where all may find the cure for what ails them; but we need to enter that place and undertake the treatment.


In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
22-05-2010, 08:54 AM,
That Church as hospital blog is right up my street. Whilst not denying any of the other understandings of the Church perhaps my own favourite emphasis is the Church as spiritual hospital. I would have directed any interested to a posting I put in the Education section of the Forum some months ago but it is now one of a number of my old postings that although still there by name have no content when I click on them, so for those who appreciate the emphasis on the Church as spiritual hospital, an extract from what I posted:

The Great Physician, at great personal cost to Himself, has provided the medicine for our healing, our salvation, even His own Body and blood. And He has founded a great spiritual hospital, the Church, where we can receive this medicine. The bishops and priests are the doctors who administer this medicine of Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ. They are not some ‘holier than thou’ elite though – no, these doctors also are afflicted by this same spiritual epidemic and they themselves partake of this same medicine. As well as the spiritual doctors who administer this medicine, there are also specialists who have spent years studying the spiritual life and can offer us insight into our own condition and guidance and help. Orthodox Christianity is some not isolated individualistic ‘me and my God’ thing, something we can do all alone – rather it is something we do in communion with others, with the help and support of our spiritual brothers and sisters, and with the guidance and wisdom and prayers of a spiritual father.

When people learn they have a potentially fatal illness they will go to great lengths to save their lives, perhaps travelling abroad for specialist treatment. At one time people suffering from chest diseases such as consumption would go to live where the air was considered healthier and better for them. Some Christians become monks or nuns and withdraw from the world and its temptations, going to live far away as they fight this disease of sin. Whilst we might not all do that, though some of us may, we are all called to work out our salvation together with God, to make changes in our lives, to repent from our sins, to make time for prayer and to partake of the heavenly medicine.

As with all medicines it is important that we receive the body and Blood of Christ in the right way not just any old how as the fancy takes us. We want to benefit from it not to harm ourselves as can happen if we ignore the instructions for taking medicine.

If we are taking medicines for our lungs or heart or liver then along with that medicine we will be advised to adjust our lifestyle by quitting smoking, cutting out greasy fatty ‘junk food’ or abstaining from excessive alcohol – otherwise our lifestyles will counter the effect of the medicine and we may not get better but rather continue to grow worse. We may well also be advised to exercise for our health. Likewise in the spiritual life as Orthodox Christians as well as receiving the medicine of the Body and Blood of Christ we are called to practice fasting and abstinence from certain foods and we are called to pray as part of the therapeutic exercises to make us spiritually well and whole. Orthodox Christianity is not something to be enjoyed on Sundays only whilst in Church and then forgotten about the rest of the week. We must get up early enough to pray at the beginning of each day and make time to pray in the evening as well. This is a whole way of life we are talking about here.

What we are trying to do, what we are striving or struggling to do, is to be saved from our sins, to be healed, to overcome our sinful habits, to be changed and transformed. There is an important word in Christianity – repentance. This means actually changing, giving up our sins, overcoming our sins, sinning those sins less, even less and less… We are striving to be saved from our sins. We are striving and struggling to attain some measure, however feeble it may seem to us, of holiness without which we cannot hope to enjoy God.
22-05-2010, 09:24 AM,
law and repentance
Bravo Father Gregory! Yes, the Good News is that Christ saves us through His grace and love without any legalistic requirements. Mankind invents rules and becomes entangled in them, losing sight of God's overwhelming love for us. Our Lord's beloved disciple, St John, repeatedly exhorted us to "love one another, love one another", which is another way of saying "love thy neighbour as thyself", one of the two supreme Commandments of God. The Church is the Body of the living Christ, we are members of that Body, a Eucharistic community bound together by the partaking of our Lord's Holy and Life-giving flesh and blood, striving, with His indispensible aid, to live a life of selfless love, obeying the Commandments to love God with everything we have, and to love every human being as we would love ourselves. This is the bedrock for Canon Law. If Canon Law helps us to live a better life within Christ, then it is good, if Canon Law tangles us up in legalistic squabbles,then it's of no use whatsoever.
Christ had a few hard sayings regarding marriage, and quite rightly the Church needs to understand and propogate what He says in order to help us so that we do not sin, but His love and mercy overrides everything. A sin confessed and repented is a sin forgiven. We will not be condemned, we will be able to go and sin no more. I hope and pray that those clergy who are involved in dealing with the faithful in regarding matters such as marriage do so in the Holy Spirit of Christ's forgiving love for us.

Kirk Yacoub
19-12-2012, 04:10 AM,
RE: Law and repentance
I think the problem of adapting the teachings of the Lord to the circumstances we sinners manage contrive for ourselves is present in every age, and it is perhaps optimistic to expect Canon Law to keep up.
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27-07-2013, 12:08 AM,
RE: Law and repentance
In Orthodox Canonology this is called Oikonomia.

It teaches that for the good of human salvation certain Canonical issues can be softened and avoided.
"The true Christian is a warrior making his way through the regiments of the invisible enemy to his heavenly homeland." - St Herman of Alaska.

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