At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him… Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. (Acts 8:1-2, 4)
I have read that the document on the so-called “diaspora” has been approved by the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church now in session in Crete (a council from which my own Church of Antioch is notably absent, along with other churches). The “diaspora” (henceforth, without the scare quotes) is all those places where there are Orthodox Christians living in what is not canonically defined territory belonging to a single autocephalous (self-headed) Orthodox church, i.e., the entire Western Hemisphere, Western Europe, Oceania and most of East Asia.
It’s possible that there may be changes, but the document as it currently stands is essentially just the establishment of the various regional assemblies of bishops, whose task is “the swift healing of every canonical anomaly that has arisen from historical circumstances and pastoral requirements, such as in the so-called Orthodox Diaspora, with a view to overcoming every possible influence that is foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology.” If the document as currently written is not significantly altered, what this means is that the completion of the assemblies’ task is still somewhere in the future, not, as it has been widely hoped, during this present council.
What has concerned me especially lately about this topic is not only the numerous pastoral problems that arise because of our administrative disunity out here in the diaspora—priests able to jump jurisdictions to escape bad reputations, uneven application of pastoral principles, estrangement of neighboring Orthodox Christians, bishops with dioceses too large to be cared for well (the list could go on).
I’ve also been concerned about what the Orthodox leadership’s vision for the diaspora actually means. What I’ve heard so far from some quarters is disappointing. For instance, when a bishop is given the title including the word of (which traditionally means he’s really the local hierarch in charge, e.g., “Metropolitan of Buenos Aires”) rather than in (suggesting he’s just some kind of visitor, e.g., “Metropolitan in Buenos Aires”), some people get furious, may refuse to use the title, etc.
What this piece of ecclesiastical politicking reveals, frankly, is a concern more for thrones than for kingdoms. The situation on the ground is diverse, fractured and often without adequate pastoral care, yet what draws the ire is someone’s title. Perhaps I am being too “American” about this, but… really? I’d be more incredulous if I’d not seen this kind of thing far too often.
Titles do of course mean important things, but their meaning is ultimately found in something real—a bond between the bishop and his people. And here in the diaspora, where a local people may have bonds with multiple bishops (here in my valley, we have nine Orthodox parishes with six bishops exercising authority), it doesn’t much matter who happens to have the title when the community itself has not actually been established as one Orthodox church community. Territory is of course a very important concept in ecclesiastical law, but if the pastoral reality that that territory is meant to preserve is in utter disarray, the priority should be to heal the people first rather than first to fight over what the local pastors happen to call themselves:
The absence of a pastoral aspect from most of the current approaches reveals the extent of the danger in this matter. The pain and suffering of earlier and subsequent emigrants is not taken into account. If only we were disagreeing over the best way to provide them with pastoral care, rather than over dividing up the earth and populations!!! This, unfortunately is an expression of the extent to which pastoral service is ignored and its weakness in general, even in the mother churches.
There remains hope that the Church’s deliberations about any of the issues on the table at the Great and Holy Council will take into account the salvation, support, and ideal pastoral care of the people of God, with an upright mindset, faith and comportment. Otherwise, the least we can say of the path we are on is that it is not straight (i.e., Orthodox).
—Metropolitan Saba (Esber) of Bosra and Hauran, “On the Issue of the Orthodox ‘Diaspora'”
There is a much deeper issue here, though, and that is the question of Orthodox unity. By unity I do not mean only administrative unity, which honestly I do not think can be healed by making our programme for the diaspora about title wrangling. There is a unity which administrative unity is meant to support and to manifest, and that is the unity of the bond of love. It is true that we are united in faith, sacramentally, etc., but if there is anything that these past months have revealed in the lead-up to the council, it is that we as a worldwide Church have a very long ways to go in the unity of the bond of love.
How exactly can we manifest to the nations that this is indeed the true Church of Jesus Christ if we do not have love for one another, which is what Jesus Christ Himself said would be the sign of His disciples (John 13:35)?
Of course, I believe that the Orthodox Church is uniquely the Church even if we are so terrible at loving one another. But we’re working pretty hard to hide the truth of who we are.
This brings me to the epigram that I chose for this piece of commentary, which describes the first Christian diaspora, which was in response to the stoning of the Protomartyr Stephen and the persecution that followed. I would especially like to focus in on Acts 8:4:
Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.
This is the true meaning of the diaspora. God has not allowed the scattering of Orthodox Christians throughout the world as an occasion to argue over thrones and titles, however important such things are to ecclesiastical order. Nor has He allowed it so that we might create isolated ecclesiastical colonies, disconnected from the places where they are. God has allowed the diaspora so that those who are “scattered” might be “everywhere preaching the word.”
Mind you, when they scattered, I’m sure that evangelism wasn’t the first thing on the minds of those early Christians. They were probably mostly fleeing the persecution. They had seen Stephen killed, and James the Brother of God was not far behind. Likewise, those who emigrated in the modern Orthodox Christian diaspora didn’t have evangelism on their minds, either, but rather political freedom and economic opportunity. And from what we’ve seen in the council, it is sometimes hard to believe that evangelism is on the minds of those who have set and are executing its agenda. There is, nevertheless, even in the midst of the crises of the Orthodox Church which are now on display for the world to see, another agenda at work here:
Is what is happening today part of the agenda of the Holy Spirit, who enters into us like a fireball, corrects the course, and brings us out of competing policies between the churches to mutually complimentary policies among the Orthodox churches? The council is not a goal in itself. Unity is the goal. Not a simulated unity, but actual unity in the image of the Trinity: unity and diversity. Let us pray to the Lord!
—Carol Saba, “The Orthodox Churches’ Accelerating Crises: The Fractiousness of the Orthodox Churches and the Agenda of the Holy Spirit” (Mr. Saba is a Lebanese lawyer in Paris who often speaks on behalf the Antiochian patriarchate)
But what does unity have to do with the evangelism of the diaspora, which I will gladly dare to identify as “the agenda of the Holy Spirit”? Unity and evangelism are deeply intertwined in the bond of love. It is no less than love which dares to call all human persons into the communion of the Church, and it is that same love that brings unity to divided brethren.
With the diaspora, the Orthodox Church has the same opportunity given with the stoning of Stephen—to turn her scattered children into missionaries for Jesus Christ. If that missionary spirit can be imparted through the power of Pentecost that we are even now still celebrating, then the zeal in love that comes of having a common sense of purpose can unite the Orthodox world together by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The mother churches can be vivified as they vivify us, imparting to us the spirit of knowledge and wisdom to bring all the world’s peoples into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. They can be refreshed by seeing their children fully grown and bringing all into the one unity of Christ, working together with us according to the agenda of the Holy Spirit, which has one end only: the salvation of the human race.
We are indeed in the midst of a crisis, the crisis of how we speak to the time and place we are in:
The crisis of the Orthodox churches today is not a crisis of faith or a crisis of unity or a crisis of dogma. Rather, it is a crisis of modernity and of how to deal with the modernity of today’s world. It is in form and essence a crisis of fractiousness that is increasingly keeping the Orthodox world away from the engines of true witness to Christ and from the engines of evangelism in today’s world. (Ibid.)
The mission of Orthodoxy in today’s world is how to communicate the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ in language that can be understood at the time and place where we are. At the highest levels in most of the churches, this question does not seem to be being asked very often:
The transformations in today’s world, which the Orthodox world has not yet analyzed sufficiently, are a lightning-bolt that is exploding the internal situations in all the Orthodox churches inclined toward traditionalism that are living in history more than in geography and reality and are therefore completely estranged from the geography, psychology and sociology of today’s world. (Ibid.)
The ways in which church governance and communication are often lived out are not serving this mission. As historian Jaroslav Pelikan memorably put it, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” And the tradition of Orthodoxy is nothing less than mission.
A couple weekends back, I was attending the Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference, where various content producers, mostly (though not all) associated with Ancient Faith Ministries were gathering to share insights and fellowship with each other. Most of the conferences and retreats I go to are largely useful yet exhausting. This one was different, however, in that most of the presentations and conversations I was privy to were precisely about this mission of communicating Jesus Christ in the place where we are. I was refreshed by those gathered, by their love for Jesus Christ and the extension of that love to other people. I came away convinced more than ever that not only were the AF staff people I wanted to keep working with, but so were their extended network of creative people.
There is a lot to be cynical about these days concerning Orthodoxy and its witness to the world. But there is also a lot to be hopeful for. There are people out here in the diaspora who are “scattered” and yet “everywhere preaching the word.” This is our task. I pray that the plenitude of our holy hierarchs will lead us there and see the diaspora as the opportunity for a united purpose in evangelism that enlivens unity.
But even if that moment is not yet come, we do have leaders (including some bishops) who already see this opportunity and are making what seems like a great catastrophe—a loss of homeland, of security, of cohesion, of holistic Orthodox culture—into a spark that can light the world on fire once again with the same Holy Spirit that went out from Jerusalem as they buried the body of the great Protomartyr Stephen.