I once had to write essays for my ordination training. I found this one and thought it might be worth a blog post in the hope that it might clarify matters.
Lawful Authority and Canonical Obedience, what does it mean and what does it include and exclude?
When was the last time you got told off? How did you feel? Indignant or ashamed? Angry at the injustice or acceptance that it was a “fair cop”? Of course it depends on the circumstances, but the fact that you have just been told off means that you have broken some kind of law or rule. You may even question whether the law was fair or unfair in the first place. So why is that law there in the first place? If it’s unfair, then obedience to it surely shouldn’t matter. But if the law is there, then there is a reason for it, is there not?
We often view Law very negatively. Sometimes we see it as nit-picking, fiddly, technical, just getting in the way, wasting time by moving too slowly and then coming out with the wrong answer! Sometimes we’re indignant at the effrontery that the Law has in telling us what we can or cannot do. Look at how often some folk, unhappy with one court’s ruling, appeal to a higher court in order to get their way.
Is that how we should live life?
Our Lord Jesus finds Himself in a land where there are two laws – the Roman Law and the Jewish Law – which are balanced on a knife edge. One false move could incite religious riots and the deaths of many! It is into this situation that Our Lord finds His ministry challenged by the Pharisees and Scribes who are out to destroy Him by forcing Him either to reject the Jewish Law and thus be guilty of blasphemy and apostasy, or to uphold the Jewish Law and thus rebel against the occupying power.
Our Lord set His agenda out very plainly. He has not come to abolish the Jewish Law, nor does He condone lawless rebellion. Rather, one must “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” In this, He demonstrates that it is the Will of God that we live in peace and harmony with each other. We need to abide by laws to keep community together.
But which laws?
There can be only one Law. Look at the two commandments the Lord gives us. We are to Love God first and we are to love our neighbours as much as ourselves. The community of Christians can only be built upon the principles of the same unconditional love that God demonstrates Himself in all three Persons.
St Ignatius of Antioch advises us “And do ye, each and all, form yourselves into a chorus, that being harmonious in concord and taking the key note of God ye may in unison sing with one voice through Jesus Christ unto the Father, that He may both hear you and acknowledge you by your good deeds to be members of His Son. It is therefore profitable for you to be in blameless unity, that ye may also be partakers of God always.”
St Ignatius stresses that we must be bound in unity, not all singing the same voice part but rather in harmony to produce beautiful music. How can beautiful music be achieved without a conductor – someone to keep unity? Who might that be?
St Cyprian maintains that Christian Unity can only come from God and be maintained by the bishop and that the bishops should set the example for unity: “this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided”
So you see that living in such turbulent times, the early Christians prized unity in order to preserve Christ’s message of true love, and that this unity is to be found in the bishops of the Church. St Ignatius mentions in each of his letters that obedience to the Bishop keeps us under the rule of Christ, “For when ye are obedient to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, it is evident to me that ye are living not after men but after Jesus Christ, who died for us, that believing on His death ye might escape death.”
Thus, we see from the earliest authorities that the standard of living for Christians is in obedience to the Bishop and the Bishops to each other. This standard of living is called, in the Greek, a canon and so we find that, as Christians, we owe our Bishop canonical obedience so that we may truly follow the teachings of Christ. St Benedict says in his Rule: “Our hearts and our bodies must, therefore, be ready to do battle under the biddings of holy obedience; and let us ask the Lord that He supply by the help of His grace what is impossible to us by nature.”
Every priest and deacon at his ordination must swear canonical obedience to his bishop, “I, N, do swear that I will pay true and canonical obedience to you, the Bishop Ordinary of the Diocese of the United Kingdom and your successors in all lawful and honest commands. So help me God.”
This is all very well, but the Bishop is a fallible human being like we are, isn’t he? What is to stop him from over-exercising his authority?
We’ve already seen that the obedience must be canonical; it must come from the agreed standards of the Church. These Canons have their roots in Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers and the Seven Oecumenical councils and from these we have our standard of living. This is the famous Canon Law. While there is a lot of it, the underlying principle is that same commandment of Love that Christ has commanded us. Obedience to the Bishops is restricted to the Canons of the Church and his authority is in “all things lawful and honest”. His commands must be in the spirit of the Canon Law. For example, a bishop cannot demand that all his clergy grow beards, but he can command a priest to adjust his dress if it undermines his priestly authority. The Bishop is responsible for liturgy in churches in his diocese but has no authority to regulate anyone’s personal prayer life, save only to ensure that his priests say their daily office of prayer.
We tend to have a very negative view of law because we are always thinking of how it can be broken or sidestepped. This is, of course, a hazard of being a human being with free-will; we can freely choose not to obey the law. Perhaps we should learn to take a different view of Church Law and see it as a wonderful gift of God to us. After all, a Bishop is very much a servant of his diocese. On his head lie all the concerns of every single member of his flock. He must be a good shepherd and remember the stern warning that Our Lord had for all those in authority, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”
Once we realise the hard burden that our bishops bear on our behalf, then we should seek to ease that burden by being obedient to him that together that we may hear the words of Christ spoken among us by the diligence of our obedience to Him. If we do something wrong, and the Bishop has to have a quiet word, do we have the ability to see how much love is being shown to us? If not, how do we develop that ability?
 St Matthew v.17-18
 St Matthew xxii.21
 St Matthew xxii.37-39
 Letter of St Ignatius to the Ephesians IV.2
 St Cyprian De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 4-5
 Trallians II.1
 Rule of St Benedict, Prologue
 Found in Ordination to the Diaconate
John P. Beal, James A. Coriden, Thomas Joseph Green New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, p346 Paulist Press
 St Matthew xx.27
 St Luke xvii.2