On 18 October 2017, this very question was addressed by Deacon Andrei Psarev, a professor of the Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville. Fr Andrei, a notable expert in the history of the Russian Orthodoxy in the diaspora, has devoted more than fifteen years to research in the field of canon law and to the teaching of the subject in the seminary.
Since the majority of the audience were either the parishioners of the Church of the Elijah Prophet or Moscow college students, Fr Andrei began his talk with a brief introduction into church law, emphasizing the main points in which it departs from the secular understanding of law. Church (or canon) law is a series of standards and regulations which guide both the internal life of the Church as a common body and the parish community. The relationship of the Church with the world at large also falls within the remit of canon law.
“How permissible is it for a parishioner without any knowledge of canon law to reprimand a fellow parishioner?” Fr Andrei posed this pertinent question in the course of our discussion and noted that “very many people involved in church life need to take heed of this”. The study of canon law is thus particularly helpful in providing insight into the specifics of inter-church relationships.
At the end of the lecture, the rector of the Church of Prophet Elijah in Cherkizovo, Archimandrite Savva (Tutunov) gave his own answer to the question of the day “What use is canon law to us, parishioners?” The rector has also dedicated many years to research into canon law and has written a number of monographs on the subject.
“I believe that the most important question here”, said the Rector “is not what canon law is for but why study it in the first place?” Indeed, parishioners are unlikely to be able to put their knowledge of canon law to practical use; this knowledge will be used primarily by the priests and the episcopate and only then would the implications be imparted to the faithful. However, the world has changed beyond recognition in the last 150-200 years. Back then, the majority of the faithful did not even possess their own copy of the Gospels and all teaching was imparted to the people via the priests – a situation which would be inconceivable now. These days everyone can learn anything at all, especially if they have access to the Internet. Church laws are there for all the faithful who are full members of the Church and live a Eucharistic life. Such parishioners would profit from learning even a few of the basic precepts set out by canon law. This knowledge would enable them to form their own opinions concerning processes and regulations within the Church, rather than rely on frequently false information from outside”.
However, as Fr Andrei noted, ecclesiastical canons are to be viewed first and foremost as medicine administered to each believer according to his or her individual need, his or her particular “spiritual diagnosis”. The principle of precedent is particularly important in this regard. He drew the audience’s attention to the fact that “All Church rules are based on concrete cases. The individual situation is found at the crux of every intersection of moral imperative and canon law, and it is this that defines the absolute standard. Canon law cannot and must not be understood in an abstract way. Indeed, the extensive practical experience gathered by the Church in the course of more than two millennia underpins all ecclesiastical activity in the area of canon law.” This is precisely the reason why canon law has to evolve in line with historical developments and why its most pertinent questions need continual discussion and refinement. The participants of the “St Elijah Forum” then examined the most important trajectories this discussion has taken so far, as well as other controversial areas under consideration. In connection with the latter, Fr Andrei made a brief report on the work of the Inter-Conciliar Canon Law Commission which is preparing a number of important documents dealing with proscribed clerical conduct. The Forum also looked at the modern understanding of the ecclesiastical principle of oikonomia as well as the areas in which it is applicable.
Photo: Maria Temnova