On Canonicity

Fr. Alexander Schmemann 1921-1983

No term is used—and misused—among the Orthodox people in America more often than the term canonical. One hears endless discussions about the “canonicity” or the “uncanonicity” of this or that bishop, jurisdiction, priest, parish. Is it not in itself an indication that something is wrong or, at least, questionable from the canonical point of view in America, that there exists a canonical problem which requires an overall analysis and solution? Unfortunately the existence of such a problem is seldom admitted. Everyone simply claims the fulness of canonicity for his own position and, in the name of it, condemns and denounces as uncanonical the ecclesiastical status of others. And one is amazed by the low level and cynicism of these “canonical” fights in which any insinuation, any distortion is permitted as long as it harms the “enemy.” The concern here is not for truth, but for victories in the form of parishes, bishops, priests “shifting” jurisdictions and joining the “canonical” one. It does not matter that the same bishop or priest was condemning yesterday what today he praises as canonical, that the real motivations behind all these transfers have seldom anything to do with canonical convictions; what matters is victory. We live in the poisoned atmosphere of anathemas and excommunications, court cases and litigations, dubious consecrations of dubious bishops, hatred, calumny, lies! But do we think about the irreparable moral damage all this inflicts to our people? How can they respect the Hierarchy and its decisions? What meaning can the very concept of canonicity have for them? Are we not encouraging them to consider all norms, all regulations, all rules as purely relative? One wonders sometimes whether our bishops realize the scandal of this situation, whether they ever think about the cynicism all this provokes and feeds in the hearts of Orthodox people. Three Russian jurisdictions, two Serbian, two Romanian, two Albanian, two Bulgarian. A split among the Syrians . . . The animosity between the Russians and the Carpatho-Russians… The Ukrainian problem! And all this at a time when Orthodoxy in America is coming of age, when truly wonderful possibilities exist for its growth, expansion, creative progress. We teach our children to be “proud” of Orthodoxy, we constantly congratulate ourselves about all kinds of historic events and achievements, our church publications distill an almost unbearable triumphalism and optimism, yet, if we were true to the spirit of our faith we ought to repent in “sackcloth and ashes,” we ought to cry day and night about the sad, the tragical state of our Church. If “canonicity” is anything but a pharisaic and legalistic self-righteousness, if it has anything to do with the spirit of Christ and the tradition of His Body, the Church, we must openly proclaim that the situation in which we all live is utterly uncanonical regardless of all the justifications and sanctions that every one finds for his “position.” (The Canonical Problem 1, An Uncanonical Situation)

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