On Canonicity - whatever that may be

I came to Orthodoxy through the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 2005. At the time, ROCOR was in communion with the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and the Orthodox Church of Sinai. To the rest of the Eastern Orthodox churches, ROCOR was considered "uncanonical". At the time there were many articles published on ROCOR clergy blogs and elsewhere expressing the view that this was a bizarre use of the word canonical.
The thrust of their arguments was that referring to ROCOR as uncanonical seemed to have little to do with the degree to which ROCOR adhered to the canonical tradition of the Church and more to do with the fact that it wasn't in communion with the churches using the term in this partisan way.


In 2007 ROCOR entered into full communion with the Patricarchate of Moscow and was subsequently recognised as canonical by the other Eastern Orthodox churches. The language used by ROCOR shifted at this point, and we, too began to refer to certain other churches as uncanonical, despite us having been in communion with many of these very same churches only months earlier.  In fact, in some cases, it was members of our very own Holy Synod that had consecrated the bishops of these churches which were now suddenly deemed uncanonical. This was very difficult to understand for many of us who had been taught that canonicity is not about being in communion with one group or another, but rather about faithful adherence to the canonical tradition of the Church.

How could we look at these churches that adhered faithfully to the canons of the Church and tell them that they were uncanonical, meanwhile entering into communion with churches whose practice on a number of fronts seemed not to be in keeping with canonical tradition?
I am now a member of the Orthodox Church of the Gauls, which is not an Eastern Orthodox church and makes no claim to be such.  We are part of a different communion of Orthodox Churches.  Our faith, our teachings, as well as our spiritual and liturgical life, are Orthodox.  Our bishops have their apostolic heritage in the same succession and lineage as the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, and we are in communion with other churches with similar roots.  Yet, many within the Eastern Orthodox church refer to us as "uncanonical".  Indeed, the OrthodoxWiki article refers to us as "independent".
This latter term is particularly interesting.  In a sense, I can understand one communion referring to another as uncanonical.  When there is any kind of disagreement, human weakness will nurture a desire to demarcate others as somehow "not like us" and perpetuate that demarcation, even if the differences are imagined rather than real.  Such a label is an effective way to do this.  However, it is more difficult to understand the reference to us being independent.

By what defintion is the Orthodox Church of the Gauls independent?  We do not stand alone: we are part of a wider communion of Orthodox churches, sharing the same Orthodox faith and practice.  If we are "indepedent", then so is the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, or any of the other member churches of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions of churches, but this seems a very counter-intuitive use of the word independent, as it would be if a police constable operating under orders, as part of a police force, were said to be functioning as an independent agent.  The word simply cannot be legitimately applied to that situation according to any common understanding of the word in the English language.

Regarding canonicity, I suppose that this just isn't something that we feel we must demonstrate to others.  We merely seek as best we can to order our life on the Apostolic Orthodox-Catholic Faith.  Are there canons of the ancient councils that we do not apply rigorously?  Yes, there undoubtedly are.  Yet has the Phanar not hosted services in which the Pope of Rome has been commemorated in the litanies alongside the ruling bishop?  Does the Greek Orthodox church not permit subdeacons to marry?  Do the Antiochian and Russian Orthodox Churches not permit the offering of the Eucharist on the weekdays of Lent?  Was Metropolitan Nicolae (Corneanu)'s reception of communion in a Catholic church not greeted with nothing more than a "Please don't do that" from the Holy Synod of Romania?  All of these actions contravene at least one canon or another, and I'm sure that a little research could generate a plethora of further examples.  Yet nobody (perhaps apart from our Old Calendarist sisters and brothers) condemns these churches as being "uncanonical" on the basis of these examples of apparent disobedience of the Church's canons.  So I must wonder how my church is any less "canonical" than those listed above?

Some might say that we are uncanonical because our foundation as a distinct church did not arise from a decree of autocephaly from our mother church.  Yet, did what is now the Russian Orthodox Church have such a decree or did it claim autocephanlous status for itself?  Anybody with a passing knowledge of Orthodox history will confirm that the latter is true.  Yet nobody today challenges the canonicity of the ROC on this basis.  And despite the Orthodox Church in America having been founded by precisely such a decree, has its autocephalous status not gone largely unrecognised because the remaining Eastern Orthodox churches cannot seem to agree among themselves who has the canonical authority to issue such a decree?
Neither an Ecumenical Council, nor the Patriarchate of Constantinople or of Moscow, nor any other Mother Church can create a new local Church. The most that they can do is to recognise such a Church. But the act of creation must be carried out in situ, locally, by the living Eucharistic cells which are called to gradually make up the body of a new local Church. 
- Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia. 
My purpose here is not to disparage the good and holy people in any of these churches, but rather to highlight that the entire modern discussion of whether a particular church is canonical is filled with so much contradiction and misdirection as to be of very little value, if any at all, and seems to my inexperienced and uneducated mind to serve little purpose other than as a weapon to perpetuate segregation.

It is my opinion that, when assessing the Orthodoxy or otherwise of any ecclesiastical body, the questions asked should simply be these:
  • Is this church's faith and practice an expression of Orthodox doctrinal, spiritual, and liturgical Tradtition?
  • Is this church's episcopate part of the lineage of the apostles through sustained Orthodox succession?
  • Does the ethos of this church reveal the salvific love of Christ towards his creation?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then perhaps we ought to consider whether we can embrace them as sisters and brothers in the life in Christ, and greet them with a kiss.



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