One of the things that newcomers quickly learn about the Orthodox Church is that it is a Church with various rules. Everyone who takes their Orthodoxy seriously makes some attempt to observe the rules of fasting, and of course the rules governing the reception of Holy Communion (though these vary slightly from place to place). Marriages can only be celebrated at certain times of the year, and there are even a few directions (some of them merely advisory) relating to funerals. There is also a whole book of rules called the Typicon which prescribes in minute detail how the church services are to be performed.
This emphasis on rules sometimes puzzles and worries the non-Orthodox. Nowadays religion tends to be thought of as a private affair, to be practised on one’s own terms, and in some denominations any constraints are apt to provoke the retort: ‘And you call yourself a Christian!’ More significantly, Christianity is supposed to be a religion of grace, not of ‘the Law’. Why then are rules considered necessary?In the first place, rules help a community to preserve its identity and cohesion (as an extreme example, think of the Jews). Particularly nowadays, when secularism and materialism have invaded every aspect of life, a religion with sane and sensible rules has a better chance of surviving with its essential teachings and insights unimpaired. Other Christian bodies once had rules too, but they were allowed to lapse, or were modified or progressively ignored. Arguably some of them were bad rules, but when the rules went, other things went too, and belief, worship and ethical teachings were all radically affected. Change became the order of the day. Orthodoxy has been very successful in preserving its traditional character, its liturgy, its music, and its essential beliefs. Of course there is more to this than the simple keeping of rules; but the rules have played their part.
Another thing which increasingly distinguishes Orthodoxy from other forms of Christianity is a lively sense of the sacred. Orthodox churches look and feel like holy places; icons and relics are venerated and their powers believed in, and worship is still, for the most part, quietly fervent. Emphatically Orthodoxy is not a Church where ‘anything goes’.
(It is easy to think of rules as things which the clergy impose on the laity. Actually, within the Orthodox Church, it is the clergy who bear the brunt of canonical rules and canonical censure – and that is as it should be. It protects the laity from clerical whims, false teaching, and – as far as rules can do so – from the abuse of priestly power.)
Finally, moderate rules are good for the spirit. They help us to acquire humility and self-discipline and they keep us in touch with reality. Rules jolt us out of that perpetual tendency to put ourselves at the centre of the universe and to make our Christianity easier and more ‘convenient’. Observance of the rules helps us to live Orthodoxy as it is meant to be lived.
Yet although it involves rules, Orthodoxy is not a rule-book: it is new Life in the Spirit. There are people who know and observe every Orthodox canon but who never acquire the true spirit of Orthodoxy. They cling to rules because they offer a refuge from doubt or insecurity, or from the awful burden of personal responsibility. Rules are for normal situations and must always be subordinated to people’s deepest needs and the Great Law of love. People are more important than rules, and it was for this reason that Jesus did not hesitate to heal on the sabbath.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side because they were too anxious to observe the rules of their office. Priests and Levites, if they were to serve in the Temple, had to be free from the taint of blood, and the injured man was bleeding from many wounds. Yet in preserving the law of purity they violated the much greater law of humanity. Here as in the case of David and the showbread (Luke 6:1-5), there are times when the ritually sacred must take second place.
Another thing about Orthodox rules is that they are there to help people; not as instruments of condemnation. A priest may find himself having to say to a person: ‘What you have done is against the teaching of the Church.’ But a good priest will not leave it there. He will add, ‘However, let us see if we can pick up the pieces and make a fresh start.’ Orthodox rules are quite unlike the Mosaic Law and are never to be used to divide people into saints and sinners.
We are all sinners and paradoxically this is a matter for rejoicing: Christ came for the sake of sinners, and we know that publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God ahead of the righteous. St John of the Ladder says: ‘You will be careful not to condemn sinners if you remember that Judas was one of the Apostles and the thief was one of a band of murderers; but in one moment the miracle of regeneration took place in him.’ Always it is the possibility of such a regeneration, and not concern for the rules, which should guide our thinking and our response.
Finally, the rules are not meant to be applied pedantically. People at the start of the spiritual life may find it hard or impossible to observe all the rules. They may need easing in to the rules of fasting for example; and at the end of the day, although fasting is important, it is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
We should also be aware of the damage that can be done if a spouse is not Orthodox and is faced with seemingly incomprehensible rules that bear no relation to ordinary living in the West. In such a case we should be prepared to relax our own observances out of consideration for our non-Orthodox partner. If we are too concerned with the letter of the law we kill the spirit and lose our way.