Rudder – What is Canon Law?

Armodoxy for Today: The Rudder

One of the best investments that I made in my lifetime paid off in 1983. The Patriarch of the Armenians in Turkey, His Beatitude Archbishop Shnork Kaloustian, of blessed memory, was visiting the San Francisco Bay area.  Abp. Shnork was not a stranger to the Bay area. He had served as the Primate of the Western Diocese when it was still known as the Diocese of California back in the 1950s.

Abp. Shnork was a giant in the Armenian Church. He was well loved and honored by the people and revered for his wisdom and knowledge of the Christian faith.   His knowledge of the Armenian Church was complimented by his humility. He served Christ through the Armenian Church during some of the most difficult years in the post-Genocide era.

In 1983 the Patriarch visited California and the Bay Area. I was serving in the South Bay, the Armenian Church of Santa Clara Valley, later what became known as the St. Andrew Armenian Church. It was over the weekend that I was notified that Patriarch Shnork wished to visit our parish. I was the youngest priest in the diocese, ordained only a year earlier. What an honor! This was one of my idols. Abp. Shnork was the author of “Saints and Sacraments,” the English-language staple of the Armenian Church educational and Sunday School programs. It is probably the most quoted and copy/pasted book in Armenian Church newsletters!

For me, he was the scholar that I wanted to connect with. There were only a few in his category. While in seminary at Holy Etchmiadzin I had seen many of his books in the library, skimmed through them but never had the opportunity to read them thoroughly. They were foundational volumes explaining the teachings of the Armenian Church. They were written in Western Armenian, and so they were even more enticing to me because they gave me a chance to practice a skill I needed to learn.

The day arrived. He came with a few priests in his entourage. He entered the sanctuary and from the Book of Hours we recited the Psalms in antiphon, a custom reserved for the visit of a clergyman to a church. After our prayers, I gave him a tour of our church and landed in my office. He was fascinated by the books in my library, most of which were from my seminary days. And then, almost like a magnet drew him to its binding, he reached up and grabbed a large book called “The Rudder” from my shelf. He thumbed through it and quickly asked me, where he could acquire a copy. I offered him my copy. Here was a high-ranking Armenian clergyman, serving the Armenian Church in one of the roughest conditions in the world, in Turkey. As much as it was an honor to have him in my humble office, it was a greater honor to offer him this book.

He thanked me graciously and said that he would send me a few books when he returned to Istanbul.

The Rudder is a collection of texts of Orthodox Canon law. These are the church laws that developed within Christianity. The Early Church needed to bring order to the many ideas and interpretations that were floating around the Christian world. They convened Ecumenical meetings – bringing together leaders and representatives of the different church communities in the world – and made pronouncements about Christian theology, scriptures, Church structure and Christology. The Armenian Church was represented at the first three Ecumenical Councils in 325, 381 and 431 AD.

These canons are the rules by which the Church operates. Canon law is how order is maintained and how chaos is avoided.

“Rudder” is built on the metaphor of the ship, to describe the One Holy Universal and Apostolic Church. The rudder gives direction to the ship as canon law helps steer the Church.

Often people try to bring Christianity down to reading the Bible. The Bible was compiled by these Ecumenical Council. The Rudder is the documentation of the Early Church, its struggles, its concerns and its decisions. While the Rudder includes texts that are pertinent to churches beyond the Armenian Church, in practicality, for us in the Armenian Church, the Rudder provides the canons of those first three Councils in one volume. Patriarch Shnork was overjoyed to find this volume that day.

Epilogue: A month or so after he returned to Turkey, I received a large box at the Cupertino post office. I picked it up and couldn’t wait to open it, and so I did in my car. It was a copy of everyone of Patriarch Shnork Kaloustian’s books! It was collection of explanations and examinations, of feasts, saints, both Armenian and general Christian saints, the sacraments, theology and scripture. That “Rudder” that I gave the Patriarch was the best investment in my life, the return was a treasure that I continue to use regularly as a reference for my sermons and writings.

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