First of all, it is essential to look at
what the mystery of the Church is.
The Church is the Body of Christ and the communion of deification. Christ assumed human nature, mortal and passible but utterly pure, in order to overcome the devil, sin and death.
The Church is before all ages, eternal, but it was manifested in the flesh of Christ.
The Church is the Body of Christ, which means that, according to the Apostle Paul, Christ is the head of the Church. “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all”
The Apostle Paul writes in the same Epistle: “Christ…loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).This means that the Church is holy, spotless and pure, and this is due to her head, who is Christ.
The Church, as the Body of Christ ,has no spot or wrinkle, but is holy and without blemish. It is understood by this that the holiness of the Church comes from, and is due to, her holy head, and not to the holiness of her members. The members of the Church, the members of Body of Christ, do not sanctify the Church but are sanctified by her, above all by her head, by Christ.By extension, the sins of the members of the Church and the unworthiness of her clergy – bishops, priests and deacons – do not “defile” the Church. Rather, the clergy, even if they are unworthy, remain within the Church and officiate, when no canonical act of the Church has been issued for their suspension or removal from office, and in due course they are cast out from the Church, just as the human body casts out all alien elements that cannot be assimilated.
St Gregory of Sinai interprets the following passages from the Apostle Paul:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Cor. 12:27) and “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called” (Eph. 4:4-5).
He writes that, just as the body without the spirit is dead and without feeling, so someone who has been deadened by neglecting the commandments after his baptism “becomes inactive and unillumined by the Holy Spirit and by the grace of Christ.”
This Christian has the Spirit, through the faith and the regeneration that he received at Baptism , but the Spirit is inactive and immobile within him, as he is spiritually dead.
He goes on to use the example of the relationship between the soul and the body. The soul is one and there are many members of the body. The soul sustains and gives life to them all, and animates those which are receptive to life. When, however, some members have been deadened and cannot move due to an illness, the soul retains them, but they are lifeless and without feeling.
The same happens with the members of Christ in the Church. “The Spirit of Christ is wholly present in all who are members of Christ, activating and giving life to all who are capable of participating in it, and He still mercifully keeps as his own those who through infirmity cannot participate.”
St Gregory of Sinai concludes by saying that every believer who remains within the Church, which is the Body of Christ, shares through faith in adoption to sonship by the Spirit, but he may remain inactive and unillumined through negligence and lack of faith, deprived of the light and life of Jesus.
Every Christian, therefore is “a member of Christ and possesses the Spirit of Christ, but he may remain inactive and unmoving, and incapable of sharing in grace.”This is a remarkable passage and it gives a theological explanation of our relationship with Christ in the Church. It is absolutely clear here that if a member of the clergy has not been deposed or a layperson has not been excommunicated, yet he sins, he remains in the Church, but he is not a living member, as he is incapable of sharing in divine grace and is spiritually dead. Obviously, his presence in the Church does not defile theChurch.On the day of Pentecost the Disciples became members of the Body of Christ, as all those who have believed in Christ, been baptised and received the Holy Spirit have also become members. The Church as the Body of the God-man Christ is the great mystery above all others. The Apostle Paul writes: “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory” 1 Tim. 3:16.The first Christians, as described in the Acts of the Apostles but also in the Epistles of the Apostles, lived in the Church united with Christ in the Holy Spirit.
When we read these texts we are amazed at their way of life. We find the same things in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers of the second and third centuries, as well as in the first martyrologies.When some Christian theologians began to be influenced by philosophy and became secularised, the Church, through the Local and Ecumenical Councils, laid down dogmas and Canons to preserve the members of the Church from heresy and schisms.
The decisions of the Ecumenical Councils originated from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.Just as the Church in the first period lived without the Holy Scripture, which took shape with the passage of time, so it also lived without the sacred Canons, which were formulated later on to preserve the unity of the Church. This means that we cannot bypass the sacred Canons, but neither can we set them above the Church. It is the Church, as the mystery of Christ, that writes the Holy Scripture through the holy Apostles and Fathers, and lays down the sacred Canons. And the Church, through the Fathers, resolves every issue that arises. Academics may make proposals, but the Church in Council makes the relevant decision.Also, the Fathers of the Church expressed various opinions in their writings about contemporary pastoral problems, and many of these patristic opinions were subsequently adopted by Quinisext Ecumenical Council in its second Canon (Archim. George Kapsanis).
This means that the Fathers, mainly by deliberating in Council, interpret the sacred Canons with divine inspiration and adapt them to various contemporary problems, using strictness or economy as appropriate, as is most advantageous to mankind, in accordance with Christ’s words:
“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Consequently, the Church as the mystery of Christ is wider than Holy Scripture and is revealed in Holy Scripture; she is wider than the sacred Canons and is revealed in the Canons; and she is wider than the Sacraments and is revealed in the Sacraments.
“This experience of the Church goes further than either the Scripture or the tradition, and is only reflected in them” Fr Georges Florovsky.
There are cases in which those who were torturing martyrs believed in Christ, confessed Christ, were martyred for Him, and were included in the Church’s calendar of saints without having been baptised, without having been chrismated, without have taken Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, and without having being numbered among the saints by a particular act.It is evident that this happens because the Church herself, as the Body of Christ, as she is expressed by the deified saints and in Council, is the great mystery. There are many Sacraments or Mysteries in the Church, but the Church herself is the great mystery.
According to St Dionysius the Areopagite, the hierarchy is an image of divine beauty, which performs “the mysteries of illumination” through priestly orders and knowledge, but the “mysteries of illumination” are the real mysteries in the Church.
I accept the Canons of the Church absolutely, but I cannot ignore the fact that the Church is above them. The Church interprets them correctly, lives and conducts herself with the abundant grace of Christ, and acts through them.
When I speak about the Church, I do not mean a human institution, but the theanthropic Body of Christ, and the revelation of the Holy Spirit Who illumines the deified and divinely inspired saints and works through them, within the conciliar institution of the Church.The ever-memorable Archimandrite George Kapsanis, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St Grigoriou on the Holy Mountain, notes with reference to the sacred Canons:
“The sacred Canons do not of themselves save the believer. But they help him to remain in the Church in union with the other members, so that it is possible for him to be saved.”
He remarks, however, that “Canons as boundaries do not exhaust the great mystery of the Church, but without them the Church is not expressed as a community of love, as God-given order and union, as the harmonious Body of Christ” (Archim. George Kapsanis).
Consequently, we respect the Local and Ecumenical Councils, but we respect absolutely the great mystery of the Church, within which the mystery of man’s salvation is accomplished.
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and St Vlassios