Why Do So Many Want to Steer the Ship

A question from an inquirer:

A person pointed out to me that some of the church canons aren’t followed today such as: women not talking in church and polyphonic singing. Do all of the church canons need to be followed? If so doesn’t this mean that the church is self-condemned?

Also, I’m wondering if the three finger sign of the cross is correct, and was it right to change it?

My response:

There is a saying of St. John Chrysostom: the Church is a hospital, and not a court of law. It’s purpose is to bring the spiritually ill to a healing communion with God. The canons have never healed anyone. Only the grace of God, usually imparted via the mysteries, have salvific effect. So why do we have Canons? The Canons are compiled in a book called the Pedalion (the Rudder). What does a Rudder do? It steers a ship. It doesn’t power a ship (that’s grace), nor does the Rudder act on its own. It is not an auto-pilot. A Rudder is only effective when it is deftly manipulated by a trained captain. There is a reason the cook’s mate doesn’t steer the ship, right? So why do so many people think it is their job to steer the ship?

The canons are the province of the Bishop. The bishops must apply them as necessary to guide the Church. Some canons are the product of local councils addressing specific situations which may not even be present today. Some canons contradict one another, making it utterly impossible to follow both at the same time. Priests are guided by canons (as all of us are to an extent) but we do not interpret them or offer economia, absent the consent of our bishops. Strict legalism is a Western trait, which is why we see far more laypeople thinking it is their job to interpret canons in the west than we do in the east. But the canons have never been applied in a strictly legal manner. You ask are we then self-condemned? I ask, by what? Is there scripture that commands strict legalistic application of the canons? Was Christ a strict legalist or did he defy the strict legalism of the Pharisees? Are there decision of the Ecumenical Councils which command strict, legalistic application on the canons? If so, the Pedalion is a misleading name for the compilation of canons.

Thinking about things like the use of the three fingered sign of the cross is a good example here. The use of the sign of the cross far predated any canons about the sign of the cross? Was making the sign wrong then, since no canon permitted it? Certainly not, it is Holy Tradition. You ask about the Three Finger Sign. Can’t we ask about the Two Finger sign as well? In the Early Church it was One Finger!!! Was it wrong to change it to two? No, because it was intended as a refutation of Monophysitism. Was it wrong to use Three Fingers (which actually used all five?) No, there is absolutely nothing heretical in the 3 finger sign. It confirmed Trinitarianism and retains an element that refutes monophysitism. The GOC recognizes the Church as properly orthodox for centuries after the adoption of the three finger cross. Why should I deign to believe I know more than the many saints who made the sign using three fingers? God forbid!

I think in the West we look for bright line rules because it makes it easier. But we see only through our own lens of fallen humanity. This is very important to understand. The Church, at least in ecumenical council, is infallible. In local council it is not. But even if we were to assume that every canon from every local council was infallibly given, that does not mean that we understand them infallibly! So then we may be setting out to condemn others based on our own fallible understanding of something we view from our place in a broken and corrupted creation. That is a very dangerous business to be in! For this reason, we have bishops to guide us. And we are in obedience to our bishops. On matters of canonical construction and interpretation, it is not for us to substitute our judgment for that of the bishop.

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