Canon (religious)

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The noun canon means, in general, 'a rule', or 'a list'. (Do not confuse it with cannon.) This has several uses, or meanings, of more relevance to religious matters. For meanings other than the religious ones, see Cannon - canon.

  • From the time of King Alfred, canon has meant 'a rule of the [Roman Catholic] Church'. This was used collectively ( the canon) in the sense of 'a list' to mean the body of church law. Nowadays this branch of law is usually called canon law, "ecclesiastical law, as laid down in decrees of the pope and statutes of councils" (OED).
    • A particular rule that was established fairly early was that laying down which religious 'Books' were authentic, and should be included in the Bible. The Canon nowadays is not used for Canon Law but this list of Books of the Bible is the official list of the 'right' books to be included in the Bible. (Different Christian sects have slightly different canons.) See Books of the Bible for a list. In this sense, the appropriate adjective is canonical. (When 'canonical' is used as a noun, it is usually connected with the following.)
      • Some priests in some Christian sects are known as canons, because, at least historically, they lived under the rules governing societies of priests. (See also college.) Such priests may wear 'canonical dress', or a particular form of clothes that identifies them as canons.
        • OED contains the following note (canon n.2): "1. Eccl. Hist. A clergyman (including clerks in minor orders) living with others in a clergy-house ..., or ... in one of the houses within the precinct ... of a cathedral or collegiate church, and ordering his life according to the canons or rules of the church. This practice of the canonica vita or canonical life began to prevail in the 8th c.; in the 11th c. it was, in some churches, reformed by the adoption of a rule (based upon a practice mentioned by St. Augustine) that clergymen so living together should renounce private property: those who embraced this rule were known as Augustinian (Austin) or regular, the others were secular canons.
        • From the 'regular' canons, came in the 12th c. those who followed the still stricter rule of Norbert of Premontr, thence called Premonstratensian Canons. These two groups of "'canons regular' were popularly distinguished by the colour of their habits as Black Canons and White Canons. As these vied, in strictness of living, with the monastic orders, the difference between a canon regular and a monk, became in the later Middle Ages (as now in the R.C. Ch.) so slight that the one is frequently confounded with the other."
  • One list that continues to be added to is "The list of saints acknowledged and canonized by the Church" (Chambers, Ephraim (1727-1751) Cyclopædia). Only God makes saints: the Church recognizes some deceased people as being acknowledged Saints, in the process called canonization (from the verb 'to canonize', with its participle canonized). There is a preliminary stage, beatification ("declaring people 'Blessed'"): some people never exceed this stage, such as the Popes Benedict XI and Eugene III, while, for example, Oliver Plunkett, a Catholic martyr often named The Blessed Oliver Plunkett in 20th century fiction, who was beatified in 1920, is now Saint Oliver Plunkett, having been canonized in 1975.