An Academic Understanding of Canon 15 from Abp L'Huiller

H.E. Anba Bishoy is presenting a different understanding of Canon 15 of Nicaea than H.G. Anba Serapion and others. What do scholars outside the Coptic Church have to say on the meaning of this canon? As Abp L'Huiller explains below in "The Canons of the Council, Canon 15 (The Council of Nicea)", the meaning is perfectly clear, and has been widely disregarded. It seems that H.E.'s argument that the canon does not apply to H.E.'s own candidecy does not match with the understanding of scholars from groups who routinely disregard the canon, but who at least awknoledge that they are disregarding it, rather than arguing that it supports their choices.



Because of the great agitation and troubles which have recently occurred, it has been decided to abolish completely the custom which, contrary to the rule, has been introduced in certain places, so that it is forbidden for a bishop, priest or deacon to go from one city to another. If anyone, after the decree of the holy and great council, dares to attempt such a thing or busies himself in actually doing it, his scheme will be struck with absolute nullity, and he will be reinstalled in the church for which he was ordained bishop, priest or deacon.

The difficulties posed by this canon are not of a philological order; in the manuscripts we do not find any variants affecting the meaning.

Certain Greek editions as well as some ancient Latin versions omit the mention of the deacon at the end of the text. The mention of deacon, however, goes without saying since deacons are included earlier in the text. As for the adjective “apostolic” as a modifier in the noun “rule,” it does not figure in the ancient manuscripts of Synagogue or in the Syntagma in XIV Titles.

The fathers of Nicea felt the need to formulate the principle of stability for the clergy because for some time the infractions of this rule had become frequent, at least “in certain places.” Let us note that in the text the two terms κανών and συνήθεια are clearly opposed. The first does not refer to a canon of written law which has been previously issued, but it indicates the tradition Church norm. As for the second, it does not always have a pejorative sense. For example, it is the term used in canons to designate the legitimate custom of according certain honorary prerogatives to the bishops of Jerusalem; but here it means an abusive practice. The very fact that it was necessary to issue such an ordinance reveals a certain change in ecclesiological ideas. For Christianity during the first centuries, the local church was a structured, stable entity. Each bishop directed his community, advised by his presbyters and assisted by his deacons. The organic solidarity of the local church is well expressed in the famous formula of St. Cyprian: plebs sacerdoti adunata et pastori suo grex adhaerens. In this stable framework, the movement of a cleric from one church to another could only have a completely exceptional character. The same St. Cyprian announced the admission of the presbyter Numidicus into the clergy of Carthage as an extraordinary event. As for the link between the bishop and his church, it was considered as permanent; it was common to compare this relation with that between a husband and wife in marriage. The orthodox bishops participating in the Council of Alexandria in 338-9, after having recalled the words of St. Paul, “Are you tied to a wife? Do not try to break the relation,” added the following: “If this is said about a wife, how much more is it to be said about a church and its bishop. When someone is tied to a church, he must not seek to find another, so as not to be found to be an adulterer, according to the Holy Scriptures.”

The easing of the traditional discipline can be explained this way: the increase in the number of Christians had as a consequence the multiplication of churches. The priests were more and more called on to fulfill functions previously reserved for the bishop, and this entailed a dissolution of the presbyterate as a college. At first, the priests were the counsellors of the bishop; then they became his delegates. Simultaneously, the greater frequency of council meetings made the bishops more aware of their mutual solidarity and made them less aware of their relation with their own communities. The Council of Arles in 314 had condemned the transfer of lower clerics as well as that of priests and deacons. It was not at all a question of bishops, no doubt because the situation had never yet presented itself in the West.

How should we understand canon 15 of Nicea? In other words, what was aimed at by the fathers of the first ecumenical council in this decree? Did they want radically to forbid all transfers of churchmen, bishops in particular, from one church to another, or did they want only to forbid arbitrary transfers, that is those done without regular procedure? The reasoning set out at the beginning of the canon which says “because of the great agitation and troubles which have recently occurred…” could constitute an argument in favour of the second interpretation. Moreover, Eustathius, an important person in the council, had himself been transferred not long before from the see of Boerrhea to that of Antioch, with the approval of the bishops at the Council of Nicea. Were they contradicting themselves in this case? The question needs to be asked differently. First of all, let us not forget that written church law was only in its beginning stage; consequently, we must not expect to find answers for all sorts of questions. Much later, Balsamon introduced distinctions which Matthew Blastares would pick up and which would become from then on classic: (1) the word μετάθεσις (translation) was used to mean the transfer, decreed by an authoritative synod, of a bishop from one see to another which was canonically vacant. Balsamon justified this kind of transfer on the basis of canon 15 of the Holy Apostles, which says the following:

No bishop should be permitted to abandon his own community (παροικίαν) to take possession of another even if he is constrained by many people, unless he has a serious reason which forces him to do so, for example, if he can be more useful in this other community for the interest of religion (λόγω εύσεβείας). In this case, he cannot make the decision himself; he can only agree with the judgment and the fervent imploring of many bishops.

(2) The word μετάβασις (transitio) was used when a bishop for reasons other than his own desire, finds himself available, for example, if he cannot go to the place where he has been named bishop because of foreign occupation; this bishop can be elected by an authoritative synod to a vacant see. Such a “displacement” is not illegitimate and can be based on canon 18 of Antioch. (3) The word έπίβασις (invasio) was used to mean the arbitrary occupation of a bishop’s see. This offense is condemned with the greatest severity; canon 1 of the Council of Sardica sets out complete excommunication for a guilty bishop. But returning to the canon of Nicea, it would be an anachronism to think that the fathers of the council envisioned such distinctions. Their intention seems only to have been to stop the practice of transfers, without striking down retroactively those transfers that had been made before. This prohibition was not without effect: near 330, Eusebius of Caesarea, asked to occupy the see of Antioch, refused by referring to the principle set out by the fathers of Nicea. However, the ruling was very far from being scrupulously respected even though it was to be repeated many times.

Not only did the Arians not observe this ruling, but even the orthodox sometimes did not observe it. As much of a stickler for strictness as was St. Basil, he warmly approved the transfer of Euphronius from the see of Colonia to that Nicopolis, in the interest of the faith. As for St. Gregory the Theologian, who was criticized for his transfer to the see of Constantinople, he considered that he was attacked on the basis of laws long since out of date. He was not wrong in saying that his case was examined “with more anger than reason,” but he exaggerated when he spoke of “laws long since dead.” Even much later, transfers were never regarded as a normal thing. Balsamon, somewhat prone to admit infractions of the rule in this matter, never dared claim that stability in a church was not the general norm. He affirmed on the contrary that the transfer of a cleric was acceptable only for a very serious cause and on the pleading of many bishops. In the West, the rule was on the whole well respected in antiquity and in the earlier Middle Ages, not only for bishops but also for other clerics. In the East the rule was never very rigorously observed for priests, deacons and lower clerics; but, by contrast, it was better respected for bishops, no doubt for ecclesiological motivations. For a long time, the translation of bishops, without being as exceptional a phenomenon as in the first three centuries of Christianity, remained nonetheless rare. From the twelfth century on, translations and displacements of bishops were to become more frequent following the political upheavals caused by the invasions of the Turks and the Franks; and all this was accentuated as the later Middle Ages advanced. It is to be noticed, however, that the synodal acts referring to transfers most often carry justifications for the decisions on the basis of οίκονομία. In modern and more contemporary times, practice varies notably among the various patriarchates and autocephalous churches. In Russia, transfers were very rare until the second half of the sixteenth century; even for a long time after that, they were not frequent. This situation changed with the Oberprokurator N.A. Protasov (1836-55). K.P. Pobedonostsev, (1880-1905), imposed the practice of multiple and systematic translations. In February 1918, the local council of the Russian Church re-established the principle of stability, not allowing any infractions except under exceptional circumstances; nonetheless translations are made quite frequently. Since the last century, translations of bishops have been rather frequent in the patriarchate of Constantinople. In the Church of Greece, where the subject has been the subject of lively controversy, attempts to impose strict stability of bishops has been a vain effort. The Bulgarian Church no doubt has observed this rule the best: residential bishops with the title of metropolitan are not mobile; the only exception is a promotion to the rank of patriarch.

As for priests and deacons, we have already stated that he rule has never really been observed, although canon 5 of Chalcedon repeated the prohibition against transfers not only for bishops but also for other clerics. However, a cleric cannot be installed in another diocese without the written permission of the bishop from whose diocese he is coming.


Priests and deacons or, in general, any member of the clergy who have the audacity, not considering the fear of God and not knowing the Church’s rule, to abandon their churches, must not under any circumstances be received in another church but by all means must be forced to return to their proper communities, and if they refuse, they are to be properly excommunicated.

In addition, if anyone dares to take someone who is under the authority of another bishop and to ordain him in his own church without the consent of the bishop in whose clergy he was enrolled, let the ordination be regarded as null.

This canon follows logically from the preceding one. It envisions first of all the case of clerics who obstinately refuse, notwithstanding the rule of canon 15, to return to their own local church. In the second half, canon 16 renders null an illicit promotion of a cleric in a local church other than his own. No cleric can leave his own church and install himself elsewhere without the express written consent of his bishop (dismissory letters). The cleric who does not respond to this requirement cannot be received in another church, and if he is obstinate, he is properly to be excommunicated. Later canonists, notably Zonaras and Balsamon, have sought to clarify the meaning of the term άκοινωνήτος in the text, relating it to canon 15 of the Holy Apostles which says the following:

If a priest or deacon or in general anyone of the clergy abandons his community (παροικίαν) and goes into another, completely separating himself from his former charge, and lives in this new community against the warning of his own bishop, we order that he no longer be allowed to celebrate the liturgy, especially if he refuses to obey the call of his former bishop and persists in disorder. However, he should be allowed to receive communion as a layman in the new community.

Basing themselves on this canon of the Holy Apostles, Zonaras and Balsamon considered that the excommunication spoken of by the fathers of Nicea consisted in a suspension of liturgical functions. This interpretation was taken up again in the Pedalion and is rather probable, because it does not appear that excommunication here refers to a complete exclusion from the church community. If this was the intention of the canon, such a serious sanction would have been made more explicit. The ancient Latin versions as well as the Old Slavonic Kormchaya do not shed new light; they are in this instance a copy, pure and simple, of the Greek text. As for the authors of Kniga Pravil, they adopted the maximalist interpretation. Canon 16 of Nicea does not set out any sanctions against the bishop who accepts a cleric under these irregular conditions, although canon 16 of the Holy Apostles declares that such a bishop must be excommunicated (άφοριζέσθω) “as a master of disorder.” On the other hand, the canon of Nicea strikes down as null the promotion to a higher order of a cleric accepted illegitimately into another church. Unfortunately this rule has been and still is often broken. At the time of the Council of Carthage, August 28, 397, Bishop Epigonius complained about one of his fellow bishops who had ordained a reader of his diocese to be a deacon. The affair was roundly condemned, and it was decided that the guilty bishop, if he did not repent, would be regarded as excommunicated. On this occasion, the council reaffirmed the universal scope of this violated rule.


from: L’Huiller, Peter, Abp. “Section 2: The Canons of the Council, Canon 15 (The Council of Nicea).” The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996. 70-4.