The Canons of the Coptic Church

Only fifteen years after its foundation, the church was already faced with the need to enact certain regulations for the Gentile converts to Christianity. These enactments, made at the Council of the Apostles at Jerusalem in 48 (Acts 15), may be regarded as the beginning of what was known later as canon law, and, in the centuries that followed, the church was forced on many occasions to enact such laws to establish correct belief, to regulate the performance of the Divine Liturgy and the administration of the sacraments, and to control the conduct of the clergy and laity alike.

These laws, or canons, are of two kinds, those that may be called 'general' and those that may be termed 'local,' depending on whether they were applicable to the church as a whole or only to a restricted part of it. Up to the middle of the fifth century, the general canons were received everywhere by the church, and even some of the local canons were also accepted as being suitable for general application.

The Pre-Nicene Canons

The Didascalia, or the Teachings of the Apostles, which is the earliest attempt at forming a corpus of canon law, belongs to the second half of the third century. This corpus is based in part on an earlier canon, the Didache, or the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, which belongs to the second century at least. The Didascalia provides disciplinary measures as well as spiritual and moral precepts for the clergy and the laity. It also contains regulations relating to liturgical questions, such as the canonical hours and the periods of fasting.

The 127 Canons of the Apostles are divided into two books, the first of which contains seventy-one canons and is derived in part from the Apostolic Church Order (canons 1-20), the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, also known as the Egyptian Church Order (canons 21-47), and excerpts from the Apostolic Constitutions, Book VIII (canons 48-71), which are attributed to Clement of Rome (c.95). The second book, with fifty-six canons, is based on the Apostolic Constitutions, Book VIII, 47.

The Thirty Canons of the Apostles contain regulations regarding the order of the service, the hierarchy, the feasts of our Lord, and the congregational life. The introduction gives an account of the laying on of hands that the apostles received prior to the Ascension of our Lord. Furthermore, the canons offer admonitions for the spiritual life.

The Canons of the Councils and the Synods The Ecumenical Councils

Nicea (325). The First Ecumenical Council assembled at Nicea in Bithynia. The twenty canons of the 318 holy fathers are of greatest importance for the study of canon law. After the Confessio fidei, the creed promulgated by the council, there follow the canons. These canons state that pagans are not to be ordained, unless they have been well instructed in the Christian faith; that members of the clergy should not castrate themselves; and that they should not live with women, except those belonging to their families. Furthermore, those who have been excommunicated should not be restored to communion by another bishop, and those who engage in usury shall be cast forth. Canon six states, "Let the ancient customs which are observed in Egypt, Libya, and the Pentapolis prevail, so that the Bishop of Alexandria may have jurisdiction over all these [nomes], since this is also customary with the Bishop at Rome." Special requirements are set forth for those who lapsed during the persecutions.

The Eighty-Four Oriental Canons of Nicea may have been the work of Maruta, bishop of Mayafarqin (Martyropolis) in Syria in 400. These canons contain regulations for bishops, priests, and monks, and also rules for those who return to the Orthodox faith after having left the sects of Paul of Samosata and the Cathari. Fellowship with sorcerers is prohibited. The canons also deal with the relationship among the heads of the churches in Persia, Ethiopia, and Cyprus, and with the duties of metropolitans and bishops. The thirty-seventh canon recognizes the primacy of the pope of Rome, based on apostolic order.

Constantinople (381). The canons of the 150 fathers who assembled at the Second Ecumenical Council, held in Constantinople during the consulate of Flavius Eucherius and Flavius Evagrius, are seven in number. These canons are a reaffirmation of the Nicene canons, laying emphasis on the rule that bishops may not ordain outside their dioceses. Canon three grants the prerogatives of honor after the bishop of Rome to Constantinople because it is the New Rome.

Ephesus (431). The Third Ecumenical Council promulgated eight canons, all of which deal with the Nestorian heresy. Furthermore, we find among the literature of the Council the Twelve Anathemas of Saint Cyril against Nestorius. The Council gave formal approval to the term Theotokos ('Godbearer') as a title of the Holy Virgin Mary.

The Canons of the Synods

Ancyra (314). The first nine canons of the synod held at Ancyra in Galatia deal with the disciplinary measures to be taken against Christians who had lapsed during the persecutions. The remaining canons (10-25) form the basis of the penitential system to be followed for other offenses.

Neocaesarea (probably early fourth century, before 352). The fifteen canons of the synod held at Neocaesarea in Pontus contain disciplinary measures dealing with the clergy and the penance to be imposed for polygamy, especially for digamists and trigamists. These canons permitted pregnant women to be baptized and prohibited a priest from being ordained before thirty years of age.

Gangra (c.345). The twenty canons of the synod held at Gangra in Paphlagonia were directed against the false asceticism of Eustathius, which condemned marriage, the eating of meat, etc. These canons reaffirm that presbyters may be married before ordination and state that those who hesitate to receive communion from a married priest are condemned. Those who live in virginity should not be boastful and arrogant. If a woman under pretense of asceticism should change her apparel and, instead of a woman's customary clothing, should put on that of a man, then let her be anathema. Those who forsake their children and do not nurture them under the pretense of asceticism are likewise anathematized. Finally, women should not shave off their hair, pretending to do so out of reverence for God. The epilogue, often called Canon Twenty-One, explains the true nature of asceticism.

Antioch (341). The synod held at Antioch in Encaeniis was attended by ninety-seven bishops, as well as the emperor Constantius. The twenty-five canons of this assembly deal with ecclesiastical discipline, such as the obedience of all clergy to the canons of the council; that bishops and presbyters are not to go to the emperor without notifying their respective metropolitans; that bishops should ordain only within their diocese; and that bishops are to be judged by a council of bishops.

Laodicea (between 343 and 381). For the synod held at Laodicea in Phrygia Pacatiana we have no exact date. The forty canons of this synod are also of a disciplinary nature, dealing with matters such as the prohibition of usury by priests and the use of holy places by heretics. Furthermore, it is stated that digamists shall be held blameless; that no one should marry heretics; that the lessons in the service shall be interspersed with psalms; that the clergy should not enter taverns; and that beds should not be set up in churches. Other statements include a prohibition to bathe with women or to have love feasts in church buildings. The blessings of heretics are regarded as a curse, and priests ought not to engage in magic. The last canons deal with matters concerning Lent and prohibit the celebration of marriage during this season.

Sardica (343 or 344). The twenty canons of the Synod of Sardica (modern Sofia) are a reaffirmation of previous disciplinary canons, chief among which are the provisions that allow the bishop of Rome to act as a court of appeal for accused bishops in certain circumstances. It also forbids the translation of a bishop to another see. Candidates for the office of bishop must have received all the holy orders of the church. The last canons deal with disciplinary matters in regard to communion with heretics.

Carthage (419). The 137 canons of the synod held at Carthage reaffirm the canons of the Council of Nicea. Thus we read that usury by priests and laymen is condemned; that those who communicate with those who are excommunicated, are excommunicated by their act; that three bishops are required for the consecration of a bishop; that heretics should not be helped by the clergy; that only canonical scripture should be read in the churches; and that the Eucharist should be administered only to those who are fasting. The last canons prohibit the practice of rebaptism and reordination. There are to be no theatrical representations on the Lord's Day, and all remains of idolatry are to be abolished. The canons close with statements concerning the relationship with the Donatists.

The Coptic Church: History, Traditions, Theology, Structure 49 The Canons of the Doctors of the Church


The 107 canons attributed to Athanasius (295-373) contain regulations for the higher and lower clergy, matters concerning the Liturgy, the administration of the church treasury, extra-ecclesiastical functions of the clergy, and a discipline for monks and laymen, especially for virgins. The canons may belong to the fourth century.


Two series of canons are attributed to Basil (330-79). The first series of thirteen canons includes penalties for immoral priests and deacons as well as prohibitions for the burning of relics. The second series of 106 canons deals with matters concerning the conjugal life, penance, prayer, and fasting, and the ascetic life in general. Warnings are given against all kinds of superstitions. Other canons include the duties of widows, orphans, and virgins, as well as the duties of the clergy, and the celebration of the Eucharist and the sacrament of baptism.


The thirty-eight canons attributed to Hippolytus (c.325) are dependent on the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus as well as on the Apostolic Constitutions. The canons may belong to the beginning of the sixth century.

Gregory of Nyssa

The four canons attributed to Gregory of Nyssa (330-95) are, in fact, moral pronouncements of unknown origin. Another series of canons attributed to Gregory of Nyssa, dealing with the clergy's attitude to the altar, is used by Michael of Damietta.


The twelve anathemas of Cyril (d.444) are a defense of the Orthodox faith against the Nestorian heresy.

John Chrysostom

The twelve canons of John Chrysostom (347-407) are excerpts from the treatise On the Priesthood, II, III. These canons are included by al-Safi ibn al-'Assal in his collection of canons.

Peter of Alexandria

The fourteen penitential canons of Peter (302-10), seventeenth patriarch of Alexandria, pertain to Christian discipline at the time of persecution by the state.

Timothy of Alexandria

The seventeen Responsa Canonica of Timothy (d.477) contain matters relating to marital problems, sexual abstinence before the reception of the Sacrament, and other matters.

The Canons of the Middle Ages


The thirty-one canons of Christodoulus (1047-77), sixty-sixth patriarch of Alexandria, deal with liturgical observances, the feasts of the year, the behavior of the congregation while at church, and the conduct of the clergy toward their superiors. Furthermore, it is stated that male and female infants shall not be baptized in the same baptismal water and that no one shall talk or converse at the time of prayer and during the Divine Liturgy. The canons list numerous feasts to be observed by the faithful and state that fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays is obligatory throughout the year, except during Paschaltide. The canons are used by al-Safi ibn al-'Assal.

Cyril II

The thirty-four canons are the result of conferences between Cyril II (1078-92), sixty-seventh patriarch of Alexandria, and the bishops, at which the vizier assisted. The canons prohibit simony and declare that anathemas should be pronounced only for necessary reasons. Bishops ought to visit their churches and monasteries and be attentive to their cleanliness. Further, the bishops should examine the Divine Liturgies and thus ascertain that they are not abridged. Those in attendance to the bishop should be honest and clean-living persons. There should be neither selling nor buying on Sundays. In case of disputes, priests and laity should not resort to the government authorities, but turn to their bishop. Those desiring their children to be circumcised should have this performed before baptism. Christian women should not dye the underparts of their hands and feet with henna. Christians should not sell their slaves to dissidents.

Gabriel II

The first series of thirty-two canons of Gabriel II (1131-45), seventieth patriarch of Alexandria, deals with matters of conduct, the duties of bishops and priests, and such matters as circumcision, marriage, and burials. Those who practice simony shall be anathematized. Priests and monks shall not indulge in drinking. None shall marry during the forty days of the Holy Fast, or at Easter, or on the Eve of Pentecost. Families, children, and servants should not use the churches as dwelling places. Monks shall not leave their monasteries except with special permission. Only the Liturgies of Saint Basil, Saint Gregory, and Saint Cyril shall be used. Bishops and monks shall not have female servants in their service. The second series of ten canons is mainly concerned with regulating the duties of the various ranks of the clergy and with their conduct in civil life. Priests shall not be present at banquets and wedding feasts where there are jestings and amusements.

The Laws of Inheritance are a part of the Canons of Gabriel and are based on the Scriptures, the Canons of the Kings, the Didascalia, and the Ecclesiastical Canons.

Cyril III

These canons furnish us with a complete record of the canon law of the Coptic Church. They relate to betrothals, marriages, wills, inheritance, and the precedence of clergy. The canons open with a profession of the Coptic faith, the election and consecration of bishops, the ordination of priests, fasting, the suspension of the clergy, and the rights and privileges of the hegumen. The canons are divided into five chapters: On Baptism, On Marriage, On Wills, On Inheritance, and On the Priesthood.

A second series of canons of Cyril III (1235—43), seventy-fifth patriarch of Alexandria, dates from 1240. These canons are arranged in eighteen sections and are an attempt to restrict even further the power of the patriarch. The canons state that a bishop shall be consecrated for the See of Cairo, and that the patriarch has no right to solicit anything whatsoever from the bishops, priests, monks, and laity. Among the bishops there shall be equality in rights and responsibilities, and the bishops shall assemble once every year to hold a synod. In addition to these canons, Cyril III laid down six conditions under which pious foundations (awqaf) might be made. The last part of this series is concerned with ten questions propounded by Christodoulus, bishop of Damietta, and answered by Cyril III. These answers, which are accepted as canon law, pertain to legal matters.

Use of Coptic Canon Law Today In theory, all the canons set forth in the preceding chapter are accepted and applied, except those prescribing ecclesiastical penalties, which under the circumstances cannot be enforced. In practice, however, there are discrepancies as to the application of the various canons. Again, we must admit that it is difficult to find a consensus of opinion among the theologians of the Coptic Church with regard to the applicability of the canons of the church.

Among the pre-Nicene canons, the Didascalia is widely used in the Arabic rccension. With regard to the canons of the councils and synods, their application and use depends largely on their availability in Arabic. Thus, for example, the Twelve Canons of Nicea are accepted, although they are not very well known. The Eighty-Four

Canons of Nicea, on the other hand, are rejected by some Coptic theologians. The Canons of Constantinople and Ephesus are accepted, although they are not very well known. Concerning the canons of the synods, those of Ancyra, Neocaesarea, and Laodicea are in use, while those of Gangra, Sardica, and Carthage are not applied. The same rather arbitrary selection with regard to their application pertains to the canons of the doctors of the church. The canons attributed to Athanasius, Hippolytus, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril, Peter of Alexandria, and Timothy of Alexandria are rarely applied, whereas the canons of Basil are used. About the canons of the Middle Ages, there exists a general feeling that they were written in response to particular historical circumstances and, therefore, that they are not applicable for all times. An exception are the Canons of Cyril III, which form the foundation for the personal status law.

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