Orthodox Christians often find themselves answering the following question: why is Orthodoxy divided along ethnic lines into different churches?
At least officially, the answer to that question has been quite clear: we are not divided; we are one Church, united in faith and worship, with an administrative structure that organizes itself along local lines, in accordance with the ancient traditions and canon law of the first millennium of Christian history.
In recent years, however, there’s been a problem: while the answer given above is true in theory, it’s often not implemented in practice.
Starting in the late 19th century, and in increasing numbers after the World Wars, millions of Orthodox Christians began to emigrate from their ancestral homelands to Western Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Instead of organizing churches in these new lands in accordance with the canonical and theological principle that there be only one bishop in each locale, a web of overlapping Orthodox “jurisdictions” developed. As a result, parish churches in some of the larger American cities are under the authority of eight or more different bishops: the Greek parishes under a Greek bishop; the Serbians under a Serb; the Russians under a Russian, etc.
Some were happy with this arrangement, some saw it as a necessary pastoral accommodation to the realities of an unprecedented emigration, and some were dissatisfied for theological and practical reasons. But everyone agreed that the situation was a temporary aberration, a departure from apostolic church order, and at odds with the Orthodox theological tradition.
Starting in the early 60s, as immigrants became more assimilated, a number of prominent bishops and theologians began to speak and write with passion about the need to conform our modern-day polity to our traditional theology. A relatively broad sense of enthusiasm for “Pan-Orthodox” cooperation and unity emerged. Various institutions and organizations appeared, working across jurisdictional lines on local, regional, national, and even international levels. A series of Pan-Orthodox Conferences took place in Rhodes, where bishops and other official representatives of canonical Orthodox churches from around the world met to discuss common concerns.
By 1968, a plan to hold a “Great and Holy Council” had emerged, and, by 1976, an agenda of ten items had crystallized, including the question of how to organize the administration of the Church in the “diaspora.” Meetings and preparations for a worldwide council of bishops continued with relative enthusiasm through the late 80s.
Then, in 1989, the Iron Curtain fell and another massive emigration began. In the last 26 years, millions of Eastern Europeans have left their homelands for economic opportunities elsewhere. From Bulgaria alone — a country whose total population is only 7 million — an estimated 3 million people have emigrated to Western Europe and beyond. The emigration of Orthodox Christians from their traditional homelands shows little sign of ending soon. In fact, it’s spreading, as a solid minority of the refugees and migrants who are currently leaving the Middle East are Orthodox.
Despite these demographic shifts and an emerging impasse in the attempt to find a common vision for Orthodox polity, plans to hold a “Great and Holy Council” never dissipated entirely. Some progress occurred in the early 90s, and, more recently, a flurry of activity has taken place since 2008.
Within the context of these preparatory deliberations, every Orthodox Church around the world formulated an official position on various topics, including the governance of the Church in places like America and Australia.
In the course of these deliberations, a stark theological division has emerged. Years ago, almost everyone agreed that the status quo of overlapping jurisdictions in the diaspora was a clear violation of Orthodox canon law and a departure from the apostolic tradition of church order. In recent years, however, some of the largest Orthodox churches have started to argue that the status quo accords with the Orthodox understanding of the Church. A change of this magnitude has required these Orthodox churches to re-think the way in which they explain the governance of the Church and, in some cases, modify theological principles.
The emerging majority opinion is not merely that administrative division in the diaspora allows for the maintenance of distinctive liturgical, theological, and spiritual traditions (and is therefore a pastoral benefit to the Church), but that the division itself is either (1) not actually a departure from apostolic church order and canon law, or (2) only a violation in a technical sense, and not a serious concern, as various present-day sources of authority (e.g. statutes passed by a national church’s synod of bishops) are of equal or greater authority to the canons promulgated by the Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium of Christian history.
In February 2011, for example, the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church promulgated an “Appeal to Romanian Dignity,” which spoke of a need for “ethnic Orthodox solidarity” and called on all Orthodox people of Romanian heritage throughout the world to submit to the jurisdictional authority of the Romanian Church. The call to do so, the document stressed, accords with the Romanian Church’s modern-day statutes, which state that it “is the Church of the Romanian people and encompasses all Orthodox Christians in Romania and the Romanian Orthodox Christians abroad.”
The Romanian Synod promulgated this appeal for specific reasons, but more important than its motive is the document’s theological reasoning and its conception of the Church. Two aspects of the appeal merit consideration. First, the guiding principle and most important point of reference in its ecclesiological vision is the present-day definition of the Romanian Church found in official synodal documents. Second, according to this line of thinking, the pastoral ministry and authority of an autocephalous Orthodox church is not limited to a specific place. On the contrary, the church exists to serve a particular people throughout the world.
Since 2011, an increasing number of Orthodox churches have expressed aspects of this same “new ecclesiology” in a variety of official and unofficial settings. Most significant among these is the Russian Orthodox Church, given its size and importance in inter-Orthodox relations. In December 2013, the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow promulgated an official position paper on the issue of primacy in the Universal Church. Several months later, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) gave a speech in which he explained the official document’s key points and theological rationale. At the time, Orthodox commentators focused on the obvious implications for Catholic-Orthodox dialogue (and rivalries between Moscow and Constantinople). A closer reading of the official position paper and Metropolitan Hilarion’s explanation also reveals elements of the “new ecclesiology.”
In his speech, Metropolitan Hilarion explains that one of Moscow’s core objections to the most recent agreed statement of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is that it “does not fully correspond to the principles of church order as accepted in the modern-day Orthodox Church,” specifically because “the contemporary Orthodox Church is structured differently” than it was in the first millennium. According to the modern Orthodox conception, within each autocephalous Church “there is the canonical territory of the autocephalous Local Church … and the Diaspora, where there are parishes and dioceses located in the jurisdiction of the autocephalous Local Churches.”
The Metropolitan’s argument exhibits a familiar pattern. First, the apostolic order of governance called for in the canons was normative for the ancient Church, and still applies today to some degree, but we cannot forget that the Church has changed, growing beyond the conceptions of the first millennium. In fact, “the contemporary Orthodox Church is structured differently.” Furthermore, the current administrative structure of the Church is not an accident of history that calls for repentance and change, but a reality that informs and inspires theological reflection and teaching. As a result, a truly Orthodox theology of the Church requires a federation of autocephalous Local Churches, whose pastoral authority includes a given territory and the worldwide diaspora of people who emigrate from that territory, as well as those they convert. Thus, the status quo is normative.
Other Orthodox churches have expressed similar conclusions for some of the same reasons. At last week’s meeting of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America, the churches of Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Moscow, ROCOR, and Antioch — all representing the official position of their Mother Church — made it clear that the status quo of overlapping jurisdictions throughout the world should be maintained. Each church has justified its decision in slightly different ways. For Antioch, in particular, it’s not clear to what degree the announcement represents a temporary tactical move or a long-term transformation. Nevertheless, the real development is not that the majority of Orthodox churches are taking unity of governance in the diaspora off of the table, but rather their justifications for doing so — and the degree to which these justifications correspond to the portrayal of Orthodox ecclesiology in a growing number of official documents and synodal decisions.
Many Orthodox people are quite happy that there will be no imminent change in governance, either because they value ethnic solidarity; or fear a reorganization would lead to changes in liturgy and church discipline; or prefer the particular ethos and network of relationships they have developed; or are loathe to cede control over the financial and institutional resources within their own orbits of influence — or some combination of all of these reasons, plus others. Yet these are not the reasons one finds in statements from official sources. No doubt, practical and ethnic and spiritual and political motivations lurk behind the scenes, but the official justifications are canonical and theological. And therein lies the problem. Practical or pastoral objections can be temporary, but the justifications we are seeing carry the potential weight of permanence. In stating that there is no canonical or theological reason to seek unity in governance — in fact, that unity means preserving the status quo — we are beginning to re-define our ecclesiological self-understanding.
Do the ends justify the means? Quite obviously, for some they do. There is a certain comfort in the knowledge that outside of the old country, Orthodoxy is like a Baskin-Robbins: which flavor do you like best? Division allows people to choose the kind of purity they prefer. Yet the (unintended) theological and spiritual implications of the “new ecclesiology” are profound. Justifying division in the diaspora on canonical and theological grounds introduces a new hermeneutics, which inverts the traditional Orthodox preference for patristic modes of life and prioritizes history over dogmatics. There are pastoral implications as well. Just as form follows function, the governmental structure of the Church influences its sense of calling and purpose. Prescriptively dividing the Church into camps reduces ministry to chaplaincy and mistakes catholicity for preservation. Even if such a Church provides a temporary firewall against the scourges of modernity, it will eventually collapse under the weight of its own inward focus.