In this blog we have made mention on several occasions to the “canonical” Orthodox Church and “canonical” priests/bishops, in contrast to uncanonical “orthodox” churches that are found in Adelaide. But what does this word “canonical” mean, and why is the distinction between “canonical” and “uncanonical” important?

What does “canonical” mean?

Archangels Michael and Gabriel - Adelaide

Archangels Michael and Gabriel - Adelaide

The English word “canonical” comes from the Greek word κανων (kanon or canon) which literally means rule. As with the English word, this word originally meant a straight edge or stick that was used by carpenters and builders, but it also gained a metaphorical meaning – straight conduct or way of life.

A local church is canonical if it has been established according to (and remains in compliance with) the canons (rules) of the Orthodox Church. Similarly, a mystery (sacrament) such as a baptism, marriage or ordination is called canonical if it is performed in accordance with the laws of the Orthodox Church.

Dormition of the Theotokos - Croydon

Dormition of the Theotokos - Croydon

A deacon, priest or bishop is called canonical if they have been canonically ordained and have not been canonically removed from office (ie, defrocked).

Why does it matter?

All organisations have rules in order to ensure their smooth running. In some cases these rules actually serve an important role in protecting their members and the public at large. Consider the Medical Board of Australia, for example, which is a government department responsible for accrediting doctors, nurses and hospitals – informing the public of which of them are qualified to provide medical services safely and which are not.

Sts Constantine and Helen - Goodwood

Sts Constantine and Helen - Goodwood

Like all organisations, the Orthodox Church has rules to ensure its smooth running. Unlike all other organisations, however, we as Orthodox believe that the Church is also (like its Founder) divine. As such, every faithful Orthodox must take its rules and regulations that much more seriously. No responsible Australian would encourage or support a doctor or hospital which the Medical Board had not accredited (or whose accreditation has been stripped), much less go to them for medical advice. Likewise no responsible informed Orthodox should support an unaccredited (that is, uncanonical) church or priest.

It is worth emphasising that, according to the canons (rules) of the Orthodox Church, an uncanonical church is not an Orthodox Church, no matter what they may call themselves. This means that no rite performed by an uncanonical church or by uncanonical clergy is considered to be a Mystery (ie, sacrament) of the Church. This means that according to the Orthodox Church:

St Nicholas - Thebarton

St Nicholas - Thebarton

  • Those who are “baptised” in an uncanonical church are considered unbaptised.
  • Those who are “married” in an uncanonical church are considered to have had a civil marriage only (not the Mystery/Sacrament of Marriage).
  • Those who are “ordained” in an uncanonical church are considered to be unordained.
  • Those who “confess” their sins to an uncanonical “priest” receive no forgiveness.
  • Those receiving “Holy Communion” in these “churches” receive not the body and blood of Christ but just bread and wine.

These are critical issues that go to the heart of our Orthodox faith, which is why the question of what is “canonical” is an important one.

Who determines what is canonical and what is not?

Imagine the mayhem if doctors were allowed to declare themselves “accredited medical practitioners”, or hospitals where allowed to call themselves “accredited hospitals”. Any doctor or hospital would be allowed to call themselves “accredited”, regardless of their actual qualifications, skills or competency. Thus the word “accredited”, instead of designating a certain satisfactory level of competence, would actually lose all meaning as it would no longer give a true indication of a doctor/hospital’s competence.

Likewise in matters of the Orthodox Church, an individual parish or church cannot unilaterally declare itself to be a canonical Orthodox parish, and neither can a person declare himself to be a priest. These rights belong to the Church herself, and are exercised through the leaders (ie, the bishops) of her world-wide communion.  As with doctor/hospital accreditation, it must be this way also in the Church otherwise any individual could put their hand up and claim to be an Orthodox priest, or any group could claim to be an Orthodox Church, and the very title “Orthodox Church” would lose all meaning.

Which are the uncanonical Greek Orthodox “churches” in Adelaide and who are the uncanonical “clergy” serving these?

In Adelaide there are four uncanonical churches that call themselves Greek Orthodox.  These are:

Misguided faithful at Panagias "church" Croydon 15 August, 2011.

Misguided faithful at Panagias "church" Croydon 15 August, 2011.

  • Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel – Adelaide
  • The Dormition of Theotokos Church – Croydon
  • Saints Constantine and Helen Church – Goodwood
  • Saint Nicholas Church – Thebarton

The uncanonical “clergy” serving these “churches” are:

  • Mr Nikolaos Despinoudis
  • Mr John Pokias
  • Mr Petros Tsekas
  • Mr Andreas Kollas
  • Mr Panagiotis (Prokopios) Kanavas
  • Mr Efstratios Vasilaris
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