By Benjamin M. Guyer
The English word canon comes from the Greek κανών. The term originally pertained to a measuring rod, but eventually referred to the standards which regulated various trades in the ancient world. After the rise of Christianity, it was also used to describe Christian norms. Many readers will be familiar with the phrase “canon of Scripture,” but canon has also been used in other, no less important ways. For example, it can describe normative liturgical practice; it can refer to disciplinary procedures; it can denote decisions reached through mutual counsel. Consequently, canon is a word of notable polysemy; appealing to one set of canonical norms refers one to other sets of canonical norms. Canon law is one of the canons used by the Church for maintaining its common life. The canon of Scripture contains “all things necessary for salvation,” but it does not contain all things necessary for running the Church. This latter task is fulfilled by canon law.
A Historical Sketch
The origins of canon law in the Episcopal Church extend through the Church of England back to the medieval period and thus to the early Church. In 325, the Council of Nicaea passed twenty canons for regulating the life and practice of the Church in the Roman Empire. The Nicene canons, which were prefaced by the first version of the Nicene Creed, regulated a large number of jurisdictional, liturgical, and theological matters. Later councils, both Eastern and Western, continued the practice of passing canons.
In the early medieval West, canon law was regional and kings exercised ecclesiastical oversight. In England, for example, kings appointed bishops and royal law enforced the observance of ecclesiastical law and liturgical practice. In the 12th century, when jurisdictional debates between the papacy and European kings reached a fevered pitch, the period of “classical” Western canon law began. This followed the Gregorian reforms of Pope Gregory VII (+1085), who sought to make the Church wholly independent of royal authority. However, the great early work of canon law was not completed until around the mid-12th century, when a monk named Gratian compiled and edited The Harmony of Discordant Canons. Almost nothing certain is known about Gratian, but in his work he placed thousands of canons, rulings, and theological statements into a coherent whole. His work quickly became the theological best seller of its day and by the end of the 12th century was disseminated throughout Europe. It was soon known simply as the Decretum Gratiani — The Decree of Gratian — and it formed the basis of all later Western canon law.
Medieval canon law did not disappear from the Church of England or other Protestant churches on the European continent. In the 16th century, there was nothing strange about being a Protestant canonist. Although Henry VIII banned the study of Roman canon law in England, Archbishop Cranmer sought — unsuccessfully — to reform English canon law. Under Elizabeth I, there were reforms of both canon law and the ecclesiastical courts, and under King James VI and I new canons were promulgated in 1604. For centuries, English canon law was a field ripe for study, practice, and publication.
Two factors changed this situation. First, during the mid-19th century, a series of legal reforms in England undermined the independence of the national church. This marginalized the study and practice of canon law. Second, the international development of the Anglican Communion led to the proliferation of provincial bodies of canon law. These various regional canons overlap significantly but also diverge from one another. We have no set of shared canonical norms for church membership or the transference of holy orders, and no set of shared canonical norms which define provincial autonomy and interdependence. Recent years have seen a significant interest in returning canon law to the Anglican agenda, and the Anglican Covenant is the most recent manifestation of this trend. Nonetheless, the Anglican situation today is much like that which Gratian faced centuries ago: we need a harmony of our discordant canons.
Law as κανών
Any Anglican theology of law is bound to use both pre- and post-Reformation authors such as Gratian, Aquinas, and Hooker. At the beginning of his Decretum, Gratian offers two important definitions: “What is put in writing is called enactment or law, while what is not collected in writing is called by the general term ‘custom.’” Aquinas used this distinction to posit a difference between divine law and natural law, both of which are unchanging, and human or positive law, which can be revised. Following Aquinas, Hooker maintained the same. Canon law is human law and insofar as it achieves a good end, the law itself is good. Should canon law fail in this, it must be revised. It is precisely here in a discussion of the good that canon law invokes other canons, namely, the canon of Scripture. If Scripture contains “all things necessary to salvation,” then canon law should be written to aid the Church in attaining these same divinely revealed ends.
Canon law is thus evangelical through and through. A church’s witness to the wider society begins with its own, internal witness. In this way, canon law is constructive, even in its punitive functions. The purpose of ecclesiastical discipline is never to punish but always to restore. The violation of canon law is a matter of no small importance in the Church, just as the violation of civil law is a matter of importance in the State. Only the arbitrary use of authority allows law to be violated in an ad hoc fashion. In the State this is called tyranny; in the Church it is called abuse. A church that cares nothing for canonical infractions also cares nothing for restoration. A church without confession is a church without repentance, and such a church is also without forgiveness, for it stands in need of lawful and righteous judgment. How can there be justice if there is no law?
Canon law is one of several canons in the Church’s history. It has a vitally important role in maintaining order in the daily life of the Church, and in its particulars canon law expresses how a church strives after Gospel. The goodness of canon law is determined by its ability to achieve the divine ends given in Scripture. But canon law also serves a restorative purpose. The ordered maintenance of canon law testifies to a church’s commitment to a just and lawful internal life, itself inseparable from evangelical witness.
Gratian: The Treatise on Laws, translated by Augustine Thompson, OP, and James Gordley (Catholic University of America Press, 1993), provides an excellent introduction to the Decretum. Roman Canon Law in Reformation England (Cambridge University Press, 1990) and The Spirit of Classical Canon Law (University of Georgia Press, 1996) by R.H. Helmholz are essential reading. J.H. Baker, Monuments of Endlesse Labours: English Canonists and Their Work 1300-1900 (Hambledon Press, 1998) is a fine collection of short biographical essays on key English canon lawyers. Norman Doe, Canon Law in the Anglican Communion: A Worldwide Perspective (Clarendon Press, 1998) presents groundbreaking work on contemporary Anglican canon law. Much helpful information is available from the the Ecclesiastical Law Society and the Anglican Communion Legal Advisers Network.
Benjamin M. Guyer is a doctoral student in British history at the University of Kansas.