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The successors to the Apostles

Elucidating the ruling of the 39th Apostolic Canon

By father Epiphanios Theodoropoulos


Undoubtedly, there are very few Canons of our Church that have been misunderstood and misinterpreted as much as the 39th Apostolic Canon.  After the recent appearance of two more misapprehensions regarding the said Canon, it was deemed necessary to elucidate its meaning to the best of our ability.  

According to the Canon: “Presbyters and Deacons cannot, without the consent of the Bishop, perform anything. For he is the one to whom the people of God have been entrusted and from whom it is demanded that he be liable for their souls.”

What, therefore, does the expression “cannot perform anything” involve?  What exactly does the word “anything” imply? Is it a connotation of something absolute, or is it just something relative and confined?

It is our belief that anyone with common sense will reject and dismiss every thought of an absolute inference.  Any “absolute” connotation would be both naturally and logically unacceptable; because if this were indeed the case, we would be obliged to admit that every Clergyman needs the Bishop’s consent to eat, or drink, or sleep, or dress, or walk… This would obviously be inconceivable.

However, a Clergyman is not obliged to seek the Bishop’s consent for his purely ecclesiastic activities either, as long as he remains within the limits of his jurisdiction.  Can you imagine the situation of a Bishop, with all his Clergymen asking for permission each day to perform the Holy Sacraments or other Divine Services, or to preach a sermon, or to counsel or reconcile conflicts, or to converse with heretics, or to assist the poor, or to publish theological essays or any kind of religious books or articles, etc.?  He would not be able to cope with this kind of workload, even if he had only ten Clergymen reporting to him!…

None of the above activities therefore requires the consent of the Bishop. Of course, should any of those activities not be performed as they should, then there would certainly be a responsibility on the part of the Clergyman, but that would only be a responsibility that pertains to the violation of other Canons or traditions and customs, but not a violation of the 39th Apostolic Canon.

For example:  A priest who –after citing the Holy Testament- interprets it to the churchgoers, but deviates during his sermon into unbearable obscenities. He must undoubtedly be punished. He will be punished, but not because he didn’t obtain the Bishop’s permission prior to the sermon (he doesn’t need this kind of permission, as long as he (a) is an authorized priest and (b) he is inside the church that he belongs), but will be punished for his use of obscene language, which scandalized the churchgoers.

Another example:  A priest publishes a theological treatise, which contains heretical teachings.  He too will be punished, but not in violation of the 39th Apostolic Canon (because he published a book without the consent of the Bishop!), but because he would be in violation of the Church’s dogmas.

A third example:   A priest circulates a pamphlet or an article, in which he criticizes ecclesiastical affairs.  Does it stand to reason, that he will be accused of violating the said 39th Canon, because he supposedly didn’t ask for prior permission from the Bishop? If anything, that Bishop would be in danger of being indicted for violating the Constitution, which forbids preventive censorship and provides the freedom for each person to express his thoughts. If by chance the said priest’s text contains abuses or slander or coarse language or any other reprehensible thing, then he will most certainly be indicted, but not in violation of the 39th Apostolic Canon; he will be punished on the basis of the Canons that are pertinent to that specific offense.

So, what does the expression “cannot perform anything” finally refer to?  It refers of course to those “things” that lie within a Bishop’s jurisdiction!  A clergyman cannot perform anything that lies within a Bishop’s jurisdiction, unless he has previously obtained the Bishop’s relative approval.  But, to avoid giving the impression that this interpretation is an arbitrary conjecture on our part, we shall invoke the opinions of the most respected Canonologists:


1) Zonaras: “As for the presbyters and deacons who serve under territorial bishops, there is no provision for them to do anything on their own initiative, such as the imposition of a penance and the excommunication of whomsoever they wish and whenever they wish, or to recant an excommunication or reduce or increase its duration, as these things belong to the authority of arch-priesthood; and, unless they have received consent from a bishop, it is not permitted for them to do any such thing.” (G. Rallis - Μ. Potlis “Constitution” (Σύνταγμα...) etc., Vol.B, page 54)


(Τοις πρεσβυτέροις και διακόνοις, υπό τους κατά χώραν τελούσιν επισκόπους, αφ' εαυτών τι πράττειν ουκ εκκεχώρηται, οίον επιτιμάν και αφορίζειν ους βούλονται και οπηνίκα·  ή λύειν αφορισμόν ή μειούν ή επιτείνειν· ταύτα γαρ της αρχιερατικής εισιν εξουσίας·  και ει μη παρά τού επισκόπου το ενδόσιμον λάβοιεν, τοιούτον τι ποιείν ουκ εφείται αυτοίς.)


2) Valsamon:  “Do not say it as a generalization, that presbyters and deacons cannot do anything without the consent of the bishop; instead, you should say that they cannot do anything that belongs to (the authority of) a bishop, without obtaining his permission, as is the releasing of church property, the imposition of a penance, and other such things.”


(Το μηδέν επιτελείν τους πρεσβυτέρους και διακόνους άνευ γνώμης τού επισκόπου, μη είπης καθολικόν είναι, αλλ' ειπέ μη έχειν επ' αδείας τούτους ποιείν το οτιούν ανήκον τω επισκόπω, χωρίς γνώμης αυτού, οίον το εκδιδόναι ακίνητα της εκκλησίας, το εισοδιάζειν τα περί αυτήν, το επιτιμάν και έτερα τοιαύτα).


3) Aristenos:  “Without the bishop, a presbyter can do nothing, nor can a deacon; for in him (the bishop) were the people entrusted. It is not befitting for a presbyter or a deacon, without the opinion of their own bishop, to either excommunicate, to increase or decrease penances, or do anything else like that, as the people have been entrusted to the bishop, and it is he that shall be liable for their souls..”


(Άτερ επισκόπου ποιείν πρεσβύτερος ουδέν, και διάκονος· και γάρ ούτος πεπίστευται τον λαόν.  Ουκ έξεστι πρεσβύτερον ή διάκονον, άνευ γνώμης τού ιδίου επισκόπου, ή τον λαόν αφορίζειν, ή αύξειν, ή μειούν επιτίμια, ή έτερον τι τοιούτον ποιείν, ως τού επισκόπου τον λαόν εμπιστευομένου, και τον υπέρ των ψυχών αυτών λόγον απαιτηθησομένου.) (αυτόθι).


4) Saint Nicodemus:  “This Apostolic Canon ordains that Presbyters and Deacons, without the opinion and the permission of their Bishop, cannot perform any function of priesthood, if those (functions) belong only to the authority of a Bishop’s arch-priesthood, or, even if they do have the power to perform functions, through the Sacrament of their ordination, they cannot proceed to perform them without the opinion of the High Priest (Bishop). These (functions) for example are: the confessing and the forgiving of penitents –in accordance with the 6th, 7th and 50th Carthage rulings – to dedicate virgins to God –according to the same 6th– to ordain and tonsure Readers or Monks and other SIMILAR functions.” (Sacred Pedalion, 6th publication, Athens 1957, page 44)


(Ο παρών Αποστολικός Κανών διορίζει, ότι οι Πρεσβύτεροι και οι Διάκονοι, χωρίς την γνώμην και άδειαν τού Επισκόπου των, δεν ημπορούν να ενεργήσουν κανένα ιερατικόν λειτούργημα, τόσον από εκείνα όπου ανήκουσιν εις την αρχιερατικήν εξουσίαν τού Επισκόπου, όσον και από εκείνα των οποίων έχουσι μεν αυτοί την δύναμιν, δια τού Μυστηρίου της χειροτονίας, την δε ενέργειαν αυτών να επιτελέσουν δεν ημπορούν χωρίς τού Αρχιερέως την γνώμην.  Ταύτα δε, χάριν παραδείγματος, είναι το να μη εξομολογούν μήτε να συγχωρούν τους μετανοούντας, κατά τον ς, ζ, και ν της εν Καρθαγένη·  το να αφιερώνωσι τας παρθένους εις τον Θεόν, κατά τον ς της αυτής· το να μη χειροθετούν και κείρουν Αναγνώστας ή μοναχούς και άλλα ΠΑΡΟΜΟΙΑ.) ( "Ι. Πηδάλιον", έκδοσις ς, εν Αθήναις 1957, σελ. 44).

Conclusion: To invoke the 39th Apostolic Canon against priests who have never undertaken confessional without a bishop’s consent, nor have imposed or recanted an excommunication, or tonsured Monks or Nuns, or laid their hands to ordain Readers, or founded any Churches or Monasteries, or issued any marriage licenses, or sold any church property, or done any other such thing without the bishop’s consent, then the invocation of the said 39th Canon, against such priests, is entirely unfounded.


Source: fr. Epiphanios Theodoropoulos “ARTICLES, STUDIES, EPISTLES”, Volume Α΄ - Athens 1986.

Translation by A.N.

Greek text

Article published in English on: 27-3-2006.

Last update: 27-3-2006.