Bishops - Part 5: The Canons
Fr. Thomas Hopko · February 7, 2011
Fr. Tom looks at the fourth century canons concerning bishops and clergy.
In this fifth reflection of ours on bishops and clergy generally in the Christian Church, I would like to present some thoughts and reflections about the canons of the Councils that were held in the fourth century that have to do with bishops and with the clergy generally. We mentioned last time that this radical change had taken place in the fourth century with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, his approbation of the Christian Church and the bishops, his giving all kinds of powers and privileges and position and properties to the Church, particularly to the control of bishops, and how this brought about the entrance into the episcopate of many who were unworthy of it, or many who were there not for the sake of the Gospel and the kingdom, but for the sake of some earthly position or earthly power or earthly presence or pre-eminence.
That is a big, big occurrence, a big event in the fourth century. Witnessing to this fact are the canon laws, or the canons, we should call them. They became canon laws in the six century, nomocanons. But there were these canons [from] councils, beginning with the Council in Nicaea in 325, the First Ecumenical Council, and other local councils during the fourth century. What they had to say about bishops, what they had to say about clergy&mkdash;they show that there was just a lot of trouble, and a lot of decadence had begun because of this new status of bishops and clergy within the Christian Church and within the Roman Empire.
What I’d like to do today is just for—I was going to say for our edification, but sometimes it’s not so much edification, but it’s for our admonition and our warning to see what kind of canons were written in the fourth century, beginning with the Council of Nicaea during the time of Constantine himself, and through the century, what kind of canons were written about the episcopate and the priesthood, which give us a good idea, a good indication of what was going on and what the difficulties were and would be through the centuries regarding bishops, priests, deacons, clergy, and generally the leading people within the Christian Church.
Just one little note on the term “canon”: “canon” means a norm. It comes from the term [for] kind of a plumb-line, by which you measure. The word “canon” in the New Testament was used for the faith. “Those who followed this canon,” St. Paul writes the Romans, which means this way of walking, this way of measuring, of understanding things. Then you had the expression, “the canon of faith—kanōna pisteōs” or “regula fidei” in Latin, which was considered to be the canon by which even the books of the New Testament were chosen and canonized, by which certain saints were canonized.
In fact, St. Nicholas of Myra and Lycia, who was at the First Ecumenical Council, he was a simple bishop of Myra and Lycia, not a theologian, didn’t write anything, but he was considered one of the greatest bishops in Christian history. In the main hymn in the Orthodox Church, a very ancient hymn, about him, which is then used generally about all good and virtuous and holy bishops in the Church, it begins with the expression, calling Nicholas “kanōna pisteōs,” a norm or a rule of faith, and then they call him also “eikiōna praotētos,” an icon or an image of meekness, that he showed himself an example to the flock in humility.
This term, “canon,” can be applied to writing, it can be applied to a person , and it can be applied even to Church hymns. In the Orthodox Church, the odes for the Biblical canticles at the services of the vigils, like matins and compline, are called a “canon.” It means it gives us a kind of a norm, a measuring rod by which we determine and understand our faith. It’s important that it’s almost a kind of [an] apophatic term, meaning it’s like what not to do, what not to be, because if you do it positively, it’s almost indescribable, what is expected of Christians generally, and of clergy in particular. But the canon shows the limitations, the bounds, the rule by which one would follow.
St. Irenaeus even used the term “canon” as the faith of the Church itself. He called the Creed a kanōn tēs alētheias,” a canon of truth. Sometimes there was a canon of preaching, the norms by which you preach, by which you teach, by which you, to use St. Paul’s expression, “rightly divide the word of truth,” how you distribute the word of truth. You have to have canons and guidelines to which to follow. That expression, by the way, [is] from Timothy, that the bishop is the one who “rightly slices”—”orthotomounta ton [logon] tēs alētheias,” in Greek—rightly slices, rightly distributes, rightly names the word of God’s truth.
So there are these canons, there are these norms, and later on in the Roman Empire they will become even laws of the empire itself, under Justinian particularly; they’ll be the nomocanons, where Church canons and state canons, imperial canons, were actually merged together again, because you had this merging, this kind of mingling of the Church and the empire during these particular centuries of Christian history, Church history, human history in the West.
The great majority of the canons of the councils of the fourth century actually have to do with clergy. They have to do with bishops. So what I’m going to do now, just to give you a taste of this, to see what was being held, what was being taught at this particular moment in Church history during the so-called, what Vladimir Lossky called “the Constantinian age” that began in the fourth century, this very peculiar time for Christianity. What were the norms? What was the discipline? What was expected of the clergy? Which then can indicate to us what the violations were, what the transgressions were, what the sins were, that especially grew up among the clergy at this moment in history and then continued because of the situation in some sense through the ages even just down to the present day. There’s some exceptions, but you might almost say since the fourth century to now there’s very little exception that these same kind of temptations for clergy that really became rampant in the fourth century have been with us until now.
We are still supposed to be guiding our life in our Church by these particular norms, by these particular canons.
I’m just going to go through them and to read them to you and to comment a little bit about them. It’s very interesting that the very first canon that’s listed by the 318 holy Fathers who were in Nicaea that you have has to do with castrations and physical wholeness. Here, it says:
If someone were castrated against their will or were born that way or castrated by barbarians or something, then if they are otherwise worthy, then they may be admitted to the clergy; they may be bishops and priests. However, if they willfully do this to themselves and presume to castrate themselves under the guise of some type of mis -placed or -guided asceticism, then they should not be promoted to the clergy.
Probably what this canon had in mind was the very famous case of Origen, the very famous theologian and biblical scholar and so on, whose theology was questionable in many, many ways, even though he died a martyr for the faith, but at the same time he did castrate himself as a young man, and then the Nicene Council under Constantine, probably remembering this, because they had to deal with the Origenists during that particular century, says that those who have done this to themselves should not become clergy.
The second canon of Nicaea says:
If it happens either from necessity or urgency of individuals that many things have been done contrary to a Church canon so that men just converted from heathenism to the faith and who have been instructed but just a little while and are straightway immediately brought to the spiritual laver of baptism, and as soon as they have been baptized, are as soon to be advanced to the episcopate or the presbyterate, it seemed right to us that for the time to come, no such thing will be done.
So the very second canon forbids newly baptized people or people in the catechumenate to be brought immediately to the episcopate or to the clergy.
Now, sometimes that did happen. St. Ambrose of Milan, for example, was a catechumen, and the whole Church of Milan wanted him as their bishop, and they said, “We want Ambrose! We want Ambrose!” and he said, “No, no,” but they said, “Yes, yes!” and then he did become a bishop. But that was the exception. What was happening a lot is that men would be baptized into the Church because they wanted to be clergy. Here today we can see how often that happens, too. People want to enter the Orthodox Church because they want to be priests.
I mean, I know priests, men who were in the Roman Catholic Church, but because they wanted to get married, they became Orthodox so they could become priests. They even told me, “If the Roman Church had married priests, I’d stay there, but I’ll come into the Orthodox Church because I want to be married.” Or you’ll have people who like the Orthodox Church who want to be a priest in the Orthodox Church. Then you’ll have other people who want to come, but when they realize that they’re forbidden to be priests, because they’re twice-married or some other reason, then they don’t even become Orthodox.
What this canon is telling us is that there are those who are just lusting after the priesthood or the episcopate, and they almost get baptized in order to become bishops or priests, to become clergy. I mentioned in my last talk, I believe, that there was this high-ranking Roman aristocratic, political man who said, “I would gladly become a catechumen, be baptized, if I knew that I would become the bishop of Rome.” So there was that tendency.
And then this particular canon also says that they have to be tested, and you have to be tested for a while, and you have to know the faith. And then it quotes the holy Scripture, where St. Paul in Timothy writes that it should not be a novice, it should not be a new convert, because they can get puffed up with pride, which leads to the question: who is a convert and who isn’t? For example, a Protestant Christian who becomes an Orthodox, in the Orthodox Church, is he considered a recent convert or not? On the other hand, they were Christians, so it becomes ambiguous. In any case, the canon here is very, very clear that no novice, no newly baptized, no catechumen should normally or normatively be ordained to the clerical office, “lest he should fall into pride,” as it says in St. Paul.
It also says in the very same canon, “If, as time goes by, any sensual sin should be found out about this person and that he should be convicted by two or three witnesses, let him cease from the clerical office, and whoso shall transgress these enactments will imperil his own clerical position as a person who presumes to disobey this great and holy synod,” which means that even if a person is a catechumen and not baptized, if he has been involved in egregious sins, carnal sins, sensual sins, fornications, adulteries, other types of sexual perversions, or if he would be a known thief, he should not be ordained a priest in the Church—even if those things happened before baptism.
Again, sometimes in history this would change. I mean, Augustine was a rather lecherous fellow before he got baptized and then became a bishop himself in the Western Church, but generally the reasoning behind this canon is not so much that the sin can’t be forgiven and though your sins be scarlet they can’t become white as snow. It’s that you have a bad reputation. You have to think what people outside think; that’s in the Bible also. It says “well thought of by outsiders” is one of the qualifications for the ordination according to the letter to Timothy in the New Testament Scripture. So if a person has a very bad reputation, or is known to have been convicted of a public crime and so on, let him become a monk, let him become a saint, let him become a missionary, let him become a philanthropist, but he does not have to be a clergyman. This is what the canon is saying, which means that that was probably happening, that people were entering the Church, men were entering the Church in order to be ordained, to become bishops and priests and to participate and to partake of the privileges and the properties and the possessions and the powers of that particular office.
Canon three says:
This great synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother or sister or aunt or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.
What that means is, you shouldn’t have any women in your house that are not your mother or your sister or your aunt. No woman should be under the roof of the house of a priest or of a bishop, particularly if they’re celibate.
Now, there was a time when the bishops were married, and certainly at this time married men could be bishops and they would have wives, but they certainly couldn’t have any other women of any other kind, and certainly not concubines. That was absolutely forbidden, which means that things like that must have been going on.
Canon four of Nicaea says:
It is by all means proper that a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops in the province. But should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, at least three should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent bishops also being given and communicated in writing that the ordination should take place, and in every province, the ratification of what is done should be left to the metropolitan.
Now, what this is saying is: You can’t get a couple bishops together and make another bishop. It’s got to be all the bishops of the provincial synod, headed by the metropolitan, and without their permission, no man can be ordained and consecrated a bishop. It says if it’s difficult to get them physically present to do the ordination, then there should be letters sent, but the letter of every bishop of the region and especially the metropolitan has to be there for a consecration of a man to the episcopate. It cannot be done otherwise.
Here there’s a question of terminology, because nowadays, certainly in America now, we say that a diocese—at least in the Orthodox Church in America, the OCA—nominates a candidate for bishop, and then the synod of the Church elects the person. It might be just a matter of words, but those were not the kind of words that would have been used in the first three centuries, and even in the fourth century and later they were not used. It was the local church that elected the bishop, really chose the bishop, by whatever means: sometimes acclamation, sometimes voting, sometimes fighting, whatever, but it was the local church that chose the candidate. He wasn’t elected by the bishops of the region or the metropolitan. He was elected by his own church.
But that election had to be confirmed by all of the bishops of the region and the metropolitan, and it was confirmed by the fact that they ordained him. They came and laid their hands upon him and said the prayers to give him the grace of the episcopate, to give him the office of the episcopate. It’s very interesting that in the first three centuries it wasn’t at all considered that bishops have the power to make bishops. It was considered that the bishops have to do the ritual of invoking the power of God upon a man because they had to assure that the man was qualified, theologically and morally and as a person and as a character. It wasn’t so much a case of power as a case of determining the worthiness of the candidate and then actually enacting the service to show that he was entering the ranks of the episcopate of the Church and that he could be a bishop of the Church.
In the fourth century, you get the beginning of this view that bishops have the power to consecrate and presbyters don’t, but presbyters can serve Eucharist, so they have the same power as the bishop. That’s all very misleading. In fact, only the bishops have the authority for the integrity, the unity, the identity, the continuity, and the unanimity of the Christian faith and Church. That’s their duty; that’s their ministry, but they do it within the body. It isn’t a case of power. All power belongs to God; authority belongs to Christ. But they show forth that power of God in the community by enacting the service and by testing the candidates for the episcopate.
Within a given church, the bishop tests the presbyters and the deacons, and they have to be tested, and no one should be ordained that is not tested. The canons will also say that, following the Bible. But here, this fourth canon of Nicaea, the very first ecumenical council, insists that all of the bishops of the region have to agree when a church needs a bishop—the bishop has died or they’re a new church—they have to agree who that man will be. The Church elects them, but they ordain him, but they don’t necessarily ordain whom the people elect if they determine that that person is not qualified to carry on this particular ministry, which again probably means that things like this were going on. Things like this were happening.
Canon five of Nicaea says:
Concerning those, whether of the clergy or of the laity, who have been excommunicated in the several provinces, let the provision of the canon be observed by the bishops which provides that person cast out by some be not readmitted by others.
In other words, if a man or a woman is excommunicated in one church, they can’t just go to another church and be accepted, which of course is done today all the time. If they’re suspended, if they’re disciplined, no one else should touch them. They can’t do that. It says, however:
Nevertheless, inquiry should be made whether they have been excommunicated through captiousness or contentiousness or any ungracious disposition in the bishop.
In other words, that you have to find out if the excommunication was proper or not.
And the due investigation is (and here you have a decree of canon five) it is decreed that in every province, synods shall be held twice a year in order that when all the bishops of the [province] are assembled together, such questions may be made by thoroughly examined so that those who have confessedly offended against their bishop may be seen by all to be for just cause excommunicated until it shall seem fit to a general meeting of the bishops to pronounce another sentence, a milder sentence upon them, if that is in order. Let these synods be held, the one before Lent, that the pure gift may be offered to God by all after all bitterness has been put away at the holy Pascha, and the second should be held in the fall.
Now this canon remains in the Church to this day. All the bishops of a region have to meet together at least twice a year. They have to straighten everything out. They have to make sure that everything’s done decently and in order. They have to make sure that they are of one mind and one heart. They have to make sure that there are no disagreements among them about anything whatsoever in order that they can celebrate the holy Pascha—that’s Easter, the Resurrection of Christ—and in the fall so that there would be unanimity and harmony and unity in the Church.
This is extremely important, because nowadays, especially in America, we have bishops living in the same city that are not members of the same synod. You have one who’s a member of the synod of Moscow, one who’s of the synod of Antioch, one’s of the synod of somewhere else, one’s in the OCA or something, and they never meet together; they never sit down together. And if they do so, it’s only voluntarily; it’s not a really synodical act. It’s not a canonical, synodical act, because, for example, in America, the Episcopal Assembly and the former SCOBA (Standing Conference [of Orthodox Bishops of America]) were not canonical synods. The bishops in America were belonging to separated synods, very often thousands of miles away in the old country. Well, that violates this canon completely and totally.
And then the absolute insistence that the bishops have to meet, they must come together, they must solve these things probably shows already in the fourth century that that wasn’t happening. Bishops were just doing whatever they wanted. They were making up their own rules. They were teaching their own interpretations of the Gospel. They were enforcing different disciplines related to, I don’t know, receiving converts or disciplining penitents or something. Well, this canon says this can’t happen; this can’t be, but apparently it was happening in the fourth century, and you had to have a canon law about it.
The sixth canon of Nicaea says:
Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis prevail, that the bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all of these, since the like is customary for the bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces: let the churches retain their privileges. This is to be universally understood, that if anyone be made bishop without the consent of the metropolitan, the synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop. If, however, two or three bishops shall, from natural love of contradiction, oppose the common opinion of the rest, it being reasonable and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, then let the choice of the majority prevail.
So here you have pretty much the same thing that we already considered in the earlier canon, that there’s regions—and here it mentions three: Alexandria, Rome, and Antioch. By the sixth century, there will be Constantinople and there will be Jerusalem, and then in the later times there will be Moscow, there will be Bucharest, there will be Belgrade, there will be other centers of regions that have metropolitans or archbishops or patriarchs that have to have harmony and unanimity within their particular regions. So it says here, let these customs prevail, that who cares for which regions…
And by the way, interestingly, just as a little footnote, Greece—Athens, Corinth—belonged to the Western patriarchate when this was written. Greece only went under Constantinople and the Eastern much later in history—I can’t remember exactly when: eighth, ninth century. But in the early time, Greece was part of the Western patriarchate; it was part of the patriarchate of Rome or the episcopate, the metropolitanate of Rome.
Later on, these titles changed. “Metropolitan” simply meant the bishop of the metropolis, the main city, and it actually had a meaning in those days; it wasn’t an honorific title like today. Today they just give the title “metropolitan” to any older bishop or, certainly in some churches they do. But in the fourth century it meant you really were the bishop of the main city of a region. Then there were sometimes the regions had developed into many metropolitanates, and then they had a patriarchate and so on.
But the point here—the point is very, very clear—is that you have to have harmony between the churches. Each bishop in his own diocese can’t do whatever he wants. Two or three bishops can’t get together to make another bishop. There has to be concurrence, harmony, and certainly the blessing of the metropolitan.
Canon seven says;
Since custom and ancient tradition have prevailed that the bishop of Ælia (that is, Ælia Capitolina, that is, Jerusalem) should be honored, let him, saving its due dignity to the metropolis, have the next place of honor.
So it puts Jerusalem in there even though it wasn’t a very major see, but it became an important see under Constantine because he was there, Helena was there, they found the Cross there, they built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre there, and it became then a thriving church, which it wasn’t very much in the earliest Christian Church. You had the Church of Jerusalem, the Church of the Jews, first bishop was James, but it wasn’t like a prominent, great city in its region, but then it took on a certain prominence in the fourth century.
Canon eight says:
Concerning those who call themselves Cathari (that is, “the pure ones”), if they come over to the catholic and apostolic church (in other words, they’re sectarian Christians, and they’re entering into the orthodox, catholic Church), the great and holy synod decrees that they who are ordained shall continue as they are in the clergy.
Isn’t that interesting! That the clergy of [a] sectarian church were considered to be received as clergy.
But it is before all things necessary that they should profess in writing that they will observe and follow the dogmas of the catholic and apostolic Church, in particular that they will communicate with persons who have been twice married and with those who, having lapsed in persecution, have had a period of penance.
See, these Cathari, or pure ones, are Donatistic types. They thought they were holier than others, and they wouldn’t accept the Church’s penitential discipline, but they were still validly ordained bishops within their churches, keeping the sacraments and the teachings pretty much intact. It was that they were not following the penitential discipline properly. So they were received in their orders, so to speak. This is the Nicene council. They were not rebaptized or anything like that. They were received in their orders, but they had to write and say that they would follow all the teachings of the catholic Church. Then it continues:
Wheresoever, then, whether in villages or in cities, all of the ordained are found to be of these only, let them remain in the clergy and in the same rank in which they were found…
In other words, if these people are in an area where there is no orthodox church, let them just continue on
...but if they come over to where there is a bishop or presbyter of the catholic Church, it is manifest that the Church must have the bishop’s dignity, and he who is named bishop by those who are called Cathari (or the pure ones, the rigoristic ones) shall have the rank of presbyter, unless it shall seem fit to the bishop for him to partake in the honor of that title. Or, if this should not be satisfactory, then shall the bishop provide him for a place among the chorepiscopoi or the presbyters.
The chorepiscopoi were country bishops who were kind of vicar bishops with the bishop.
In order that he may be evidently to be seen to be of the clergy and (very important) that there may not be two bishops in the same city.
In other words, the claim was: You can’t have two bishops in the same church. You can’t have two churches in the same city, headed by different bishops. In a given region, you have to have one bishop in that one church, and then the bishops have to be in communion with each other. This is especially important if there were people who were not orthodox and catholic who are received into the catholic Church, that there would not then be some other kind of church in that very same region, because there’s only one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and each local church has to have its only one bishop.
Canon nine says:
If any presbyters have been advanced without examination, or, if upon examination, they have made confession of crime, and men acting in violation have laid their hands upon them, notwithstanding their confession, such the canon law does not admit. For the catholic Church requires that only they may be ordained who are blameless.
And that’s quoting Timothy in the New Testament again. There has to be a testing; that’s the New Testament rule. And they have to be blameless: no public crime, no sensuous life, and they have to see that they are qualified. One of the big things that happened in the fourth century is a lot of unqualified people, neophyte people, people who had been criminals or whatever, were finding their way into the clergy, and that is what these canons are treating.
Canon ten says:
If any who has lapsed has been ordained through the ignorance or even the previous knowledge of the ordainers, this shall not prejudice the canon of the Church, for when they are discovered, they shall be deposed.
In other words, lapsi, those who had denied Christ under persecution, they were not allowed to become clergy. So it says that if that has ever happened, it’s not right; they have to be deposed.
The next canon, eleven, has to do with the lapsi and the penitents and [whom] the Eucharist may be given to: those who have lapsed, those who have returned to the Church, and so on. It has to do with catechumens and bishops even and others.
But now we get to canon 15 that says:
On account of the great disturbance and discords that occur, it is decreed that the custom prevailing in certain places contrary to the canon must wholly be done away, so that neither bishop, presbyter, nor deacon shall pass from city to city, and if anyone, after this decree of the holy and great synod, shall attempt any such thing or continue in any such course, his proceedings shall be utterly void, and he shall be restored to the church for which he was ordained bishop or presbyter.
Which means you can’t transfer bishops. The bishops can’t move around. You have to serve in the church in which you were ordained. And until this very day in the Orthodox Church, when a man is ordained, it tells for what church he is being ordained, and in what church he is being ordained. It’s interesting that St. Gregory the Theologian himself, at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, in the same fourth century, was removed from being archbishop of Constantinople, because earlier he had been the bishop of Sasima, and he had transferred the see.
The council actually took a special vote and said, “We know he was transferred here from Sasima. Sasima was a tiny little place. He has served here for a couple of years already among the Orthodox party. The Arian party has been removed. There is only one orthodox, catholic church in this capitol city, and we, the bishops, say that Gregory should be allowed to remain as bishop.” But then the bishops of Egypt showed up, and other places, and they said, “Oh, no. This is a very bad precedent.” Of course, the Alexandrians already didn’t like the Constantinopolitans, and we’ll see that there was great rivalry between these metropolitan sees, between Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople; there came to be real rivalry. But in any case, Gregory said, “Rather than cause trouble, I’ll just resign and leave,” and he went home, and then he wrote some pretty vitriolic poems about bishops and how bishops act and how they behave, which we’ll talk about next time in my talk.
But in any case, it’s very interesting: bishops couldn’t be transferred. Nowadays they’re transferred all the time, all over the place. That’s something really to think about. Should we really transfer bishops? Or, once a man is in a church or a presbyter is in a church, should he not simply stay there? Well, maybe not necessarily. Maybe the good of the Church shows that once in a while it’d be good to transfer or move or for some reasons, especially if they’re for the salvation of the people’s souls and the good of the Church, but still there is a problem here, because transfers were forbidden by the canon of the First Ecumenical Council.
Canon 16 says:
Neither presbyters nor deacons nor any other enrolled among the clergy who, not having the fear of God before their eyes, nor regarding the ecclesiastical canon, shall recklessly remove from their own church, ought not by any means to be received by another church, [but] by every constraint should be applied to [be] restored [to] their own parishes, and if they will not go, they must be excommunicated.
That means that if somebody starts running around from church to church, not that they’re formally transferred, but they just jump from one to another, a presbyter leaves his church and goes to another, or a bishop just decides to travel around and try to get into another church or get another diocese, they have to be excommunicated.
If anyone shall dare surreptitiously to carry off and in his own church ordain a man belonging to another church without the consent of his own proper bishop, from whom, although he was enrolled in the clergy list he has seceded, let the ordination be void.
In other words, if one bishop ordains a man to deacon or subdeacon or presbyter or anything, who has left another church and does so without the express consent and blessing of the bishop of the church that this man has left, then he should not be ordained. Now, again, that happens all the time today. Someone gets in trouble with their own bishop, they jump to another bishop and get ordained.
In fact, we had a professor at St. Vladimir’s when I was teaching there, named Professor Barrois. Professor Barrois had been a Catholic priest and then he became a Protestant, and then late in life he became an Orthodox. He had been married and divorced, and then remarried. Once a student, not knowing this whole story, said to Professor Barrois, “Why didn’t you become a priest, Professor?” And Professor just smiled. He was a very humble man, and he said, “Oh, I don’t want to have the holy Church have to answer for Georges Barrois,” but then he added, “but I believe that if I really wanted to be ordained, I could find a bishop who would ordain me.” I’ll never forget when he said that, but luckily and blessedly he himself did not seek to be ordained, because he knew, according to the canon, he was not qualified and would cause some type of scandal, because the whole purpose of these canons is to avoid scandal. So the only scandal would be the scandal of the Cross and not the behavior of the bishops or the clergyman.
But here it says, “No one should jump from one bishop to another bishop for the sake of getting ordained, and no bishop should ordain anybody who comes from another bishop without the express permission of that bishop to do so.
Canon 17 says:
For as much as many enrolled among the clergy following covetousness and lust of money, have forgotten the divine Scripture which says, “He hath not given his money upon usury,” and in lending money ask the hundredth of the sum as a monthly interest, the holy and great synod thinks that it is just that if after this decree anyone to be found to be receiving usury (or any bishop to be lending money at interest—that’s [how] we would put it in modern terms, if any bishop is involved in laundering money or lending money at interest or whatever) whether he accomplish it by secret [transaction] or openly as by demanding the whole or more than he has loaned, whatever for filthy lucre’s sake, he shall be deposed from the clergy and his name stricken from the list.
So not only will we see that there will be a canon against selling sacraments, but there’s even a canon that bishops and clergy must not be allowed in financial dealing, and certainly not involved in lending money for interest, which was forbidden to Christians generally, which is very interesting in a capitalist society.
Someone once said, “We’re not practicing usury; we’re just selling the use of money. I let you use my money to get yourself a car, and then you pay me back a little money more for the privilege of using my money.” Well, that’s one way of putting it, and I don’t know how anybody could have a house or a car or insurance or anything else in America if they weren’t dealing with interest. But the clergy are not supposed to be the agents of that activity; that’s what this canon says, way back in the fourth century.
Then there’s a canon 18 that says:
It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that in some districts and cities, deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters. Whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the body of Christ to those who do offer, with the bishop’s blessing. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop, and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer the communion to them. Furthermore, let not the deacons sit among the presbyters, for that is contrary to canon and custom and order. And if, after this decree, anyone shall refuse to obey, let him be deposed from the diaconate.
Now what’s behind all that? What’s behind all that is the rising power of deacons, because in the fourth century, presbyters almost completely disappear from the picture, and they don’t emerge practically through the entire history of the Church again.
Once I was teaching a course on hagiology at St. Vladimir’s, and some of the women students were complaining there’s very few women ordained saints, and I said to these women, “Oh, well, that’s not true. If you eliminate the bishops who are among the saints, who all have to be men, in all of the other categories, you have women, sometimes as many women as men. Maybe not as many, but you have them.” You have women monastics, you have women martyrs, you have women healers, you have women charismatics, you have women equal-to-the-apostles, you have prophetic women, and I don’t know about the numbers.
But then I joked with the seminarian women, I said to them, “But you know, I’m a presbyter, and, you know, there’s almost no presbyters canonized in the Church?” If you look in a Menaion, there’s very, very few presbyters, especially if you eliminate those who are canonized because they were martyrs. In the entire Russian Orthodox Church, from 988 to 1988, there was not one presbyter canonized in the entire Russian Church. Not exactly: there were three: two who had become monks, and one who was a fool-for-Christ. But there was no presbyter canonized as presbyter. The bishops took everything over, and then the presbyters, as we shall see, little by little, came to be just considered almost menial servants of the bishop, with no power or authority or anything of their own except the authority or power that was that of the bishop.
That was not the teaching of the first three centuries. In the first three centuries, the presbyters and deacons had to be assigned by bishops, they had to be governed by bishops, they had to be guided by the bishop, they had to be in communion with the bishop, they had to serve the bishop, but it wasn’t understood that their power came from the bishop. It was understood that their power and authority and their ministry came from God. It was recognized, sealed, affirmed, and guided by the bishop, but it wasn’t given by the bishop. So it wasn’t that the bishop has the full authority and power of priesthood and doles out parts of it to presbyters and parts of it deacons. Later on, that will become the teaching, both in Orthodoxy and certainly in the Latin West, and then all of that will be practically denied by the Protestants, which is another story that we’ll get to later on.
But in any case, what you see here is the emerging power of deacons, and in the fourth century, the cursus honorem, so to speak, the way that people would get promoted was almost always from deacon or archdeacon to bishop, and that still happens today. You have celibate men who serve as deacons to bishops; then they may be ordained a presbyter for a little while, or even just a couple of months or weeks or something, and then they’re made a bishop.
So they go from directly from deacon to bishop, and that’s even more difficult in our time, because the pastoral care is being done nowadays exclusively by presbyters. The bishops almost have no hands-on, pastoral work with people. They don’t have a congregation. They’re not with them every day. They’re not suffering with them, praying with them, praying for them, teaching them, knowing them, knowing them by name. The bishops don’t do that any more, and the deacons are mainly perfunctory liturgical celebrants and secretaries and co-workers with bishops, who then advance themselves to the episcopate.
So there’s a lot here to think about, really, but what we see already in the fourth century [is that] you have a kind of rising power of deacons who were pushing themselves not only before presbyters but even before bishops at the holy altar and were not knowing their proper place. In the first three centuries, that would never happen. They would know where their thesis, their place, was, and they would live within it.
Canon 19 says that there are some sectarians called
Paulianists, who have flown for refuge to the catholic Church. It has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized.
Not like the Cathari (the pure ones, the Donatists), but the Paulianists, because the Paulianists were heretical. They were teaching a different Christian faith, and therefore they had to be baptized
And if any one of them who in past time has been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and then ordained by the bishop of the catholic Church. But if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed. Likewise, in the case of their deaconesses…
And there were plenty of deaconesses at this time. In Constantinople at the time of John Chrysostom, there were about 300 deaconesses, women in the diaconate, and that’s been in the Orthodox tradition all through history. It disappears after the catechumenate for adults disappears, but there were always many deacons. Nonna was a deaconess, the mother of Gregory the Theologian. Tatiana was a deaconess. Phoebe in the New Testament was a deaconess. Actually, in Greek, they were just called “deacons,” with a feminine article: “hē diakonos,” which simply meant “minister.” So the women who are doing ministry…
...who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. In other words, if they seem to be qualified, good people, they leave their heretical church, they get baptized, they enter the orthodox, catholic Church, then they can be ordained and hold their position.
And it says:
And we mean by “deaconesses” such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity.
Apparently in that particular group there was no laying on of hands of the women servants, where in the orthodox, catholic Church there were.
Now, canon 20 has to do with kneeling and doing penitential acts on the Lord’s Day and the days of Pentecost, from Pascha to Pentecost, and that is forbidden already by the First Ecumenical Council. But see how many of these twenty canons have to do with clergy, and what they were dealing with and what the kinds of problems were. These are instructive for us. If we’re going to understand who the bishop is, who can be a bishop, what the bishop should do, how the bishop should act, we have to follow these canons.
But what we see already, in the year 325, is that all kinds of abuses were entering into the Church already, because the clergy came to be a prestigious power, preeminent place, a place with possessions and properties and powers, and then people were entering into it who were not qualified, and then we see people were entering into it shortly after baptism. People were wanting to be in the Church to be a clergyman before they even were baptized. And all of this is considered to be absolutely horrendous, but what may in some sense may even be comforting to know is that this was going on already in the fourth century. Already in the time of Constantine the Great, the Church had to deal with these kind of issues, so they are not new at all, but they do change their forms through history, and that’s what we are going to continue to deal with as we continue with these reflections.