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from issue no. 09 - 2005

Canon 34 of the Apostolic Canons

Every ministry of unity is expressed in the form of communion

by Dimitri Salachas

A shot of the closing ceremony of the 
Inter-Religious Conference in Lyons

A shot of the closing ceremony of the Inter-Religious Conference in Lyons

The Apostolic Canons are a canonical collection, included in Book VIII of the Apostolic Constitutions, circulated in Syria probably toward 380, the author of which is unknown. They codify the ecclesiastical discipline that was already in force before the Council of Nicea (325), and that was to be confirmed also by later ecumenical councils. Canon 34 of the Apostolic Canons, fundamental to an understanding of the patriarchal and synodal institution in the Churches of the East, states: «The bishops of each nation [ethnos] must know [who is] the first [protos] amongst them and take him as head and do nothing of importance without his opinion, and each is to operate only on things regarding his own area and the territories that depend on it; but neither shall he [the first or head] do anything, without the opinion of all: so there will be harmony and God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit will be glorified».
Canon 34 is the oldest we have on council operations, and refers to the bishops of every nation. By “nation” [ethnos] is meant a region, or, according to some interpretations, a vast geographical area, with its ethnic and cultural features that Christianity, in its progressive spread, always aimed to respect. This Canon is well known in the West (cf Decree of Gratian, part II, cause IX, quest. III C V). It links two principles. The first is that in every region there must be a single protos, or head (institution of primatiality and unity). The second is that the protos cannot act without the many (institution of synodality). No ministry or institution of unity may exist that is not expressed under the form of communion. The Eastern conception of the Church requires an institution that expresses the oneness of the Church, and not only its multiplicity. But the multiplicity cannot be absorbed by the primatiality of the protos. The irreplaceable ministry of the protos cannot replace the ministry of the “many”, that is of the pastors of the local Churches. At the level, therefore, of the province (metropolis) or, in an ampler way, of the patriarchal Church, there is a center of unity - the metropolitan, the patriarch. The real equality of all the bishops is expressed around a center of real unity. The reference to such a center of unity is binding. But as the other bishops of the province or of the patriarchy must not take decisions that have effects outside their own area entrusted to them without taking account of the opinion of the metropolitan or patriarch, so also he cannot take binding decisions for the other bishops ignoring their opinion. Perfect reciprocity, in the likeness of that of the Three Persons of the Sole Divinity. The Holy Trinity is the archetype of the council unity of the Church. The synodal action of the bishops in harmony renders glory to God.

Dimitri Salachas
Professor of Eastern Canon Law at the Pontifical Urbanian University and the Pontifical Eastern Institute

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