In light of the Holy Council taking place in June, this short article will discuss ways in which the Orthodox Church can move towards greater unity, and local inclusivity within the diaspora, and in particular the United Kingdom, in our efforts to strive for canonical exactness.
Living in a country which has been without an ingrained local Orthodox tradition for centuries, leaves us with a dilemma. In our efforts to share the faith of the Church, do we try rediscovering ‘British Orthodoxy,’ its Liturgical traditions and practices, or do we base ourselves within the local parishes founded by ‘Ethnic’ communities?
Some may argue that for converts in particular, ethnic parishes do not provide sufficient cultural self-identification, and perhaps involve an unknown language. However, in reality, these are, and will remain the parishes with the most experience of Orthodoxy in this country, having peacefully and respectfully integrated into British society. Within our Archdiocese of Thyateira for example, we have witnessed positive changes take place recently, with most parishes having a priest who has grown up into the community, ethnically diverse congregations, and all publications, weekly sermons, offered to the people in English. Thus, rather than converts constructing their own communities, distancing themselves from the already-established parishes, perhaps it is through their integration that we are able to build truly diverse, local, Orthodox churches in the diaspora, and then look at ways in which these communities can share a more united, communicative, synergetic relationship, as ‘one body in Christ.. individually members one of another.’ (Rom 12:5)
In this way, converts and ‘cradle Orthodox’ learn from one another, can share experiences and grow together. This distances ourselves from the sinful heresy of Εθνοφυλετισμός, Ethno-phyletism, denounced in Constantinople in 1872, when the city's Bulgarian community tried establishing their own separate diocese, based solely upon their ethnic identity. Simultaneously we must not confuse this with Φιλοπατρία, patriotism, as the latter simply implies loyalty and appreciation to one's nation. So, for example, some of the largest parishes across the country are Greek, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, proudly serving the needs of the local Greek, Cypriot population, encouraging the use of the Ancient language of the Gospel, celebrating national holidays, and hosting cultural events. Such events, as well as other cultural, social events and traditions practiced by members of the local, diverse community should only be supported by the Church, so long as they involve integration and do not distance the parish from its primary, spiritual, intentions. It is in fact through festivals, open-days, fairs, and such events that the Orthodox Church is often known to locals, and is the first contact they have with us, in many cases leading to a a desire to know and experience more.
Within the Diaspora it is however more difficult than one might expect to draw the line between these two opposing terms; Ethno-phyletism and healthy patriotism. Should matters of ethnicity interfere with the life of our Orthodox Churches within this country? Should we have separate Bishops depending on whether we attend a Greek, Russian, Romanian, Antiochian, or Exarchate parish? The answer, I would hope, is simple. Absolutely not. As we read in Saint Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek.. for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3:28) This fundamental Christian truth, that we are are united in Christ regardless of ethnicity, gender or ‘social group,’ is also reflected upon in our Church canons. The model of Church organisation that was formed during the first three centuries of Christianity, as Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev notes, was based on the principle of "one city-one bishop-one Church", which foresaw the assignment of a certain ecclesiastical territory to one concrete bishop. Therefore the Canons highlight the importance of one Bishop assigned to a geographical territory, as opposed to the current uncanonical state in the diaspora, where we find numerous Bishops in one area.
Many of us were, perhaps unrealistically, expecting a more positive outcome regarding the topic of the diaspora at this years Holy and Great Synod. As it is well known, the issue of jurisdictions and Bishops is one of the major challenges for the Orthodox Church today, in the diaspora. The phenomenon is against the canonical tradition of the Church, as has been noted, but here in the United Kingdom we have Greek, Russian, Romanian and Antiochian Bishops, all responsible for their respective dioceses. The document released by the Synod affirms the importance of Episcopal Assemblies, (consisting of canonically recognised Bishops in each region) set up in order to work, through this 'transitional period,' towards greater unity, and cooperation until 'the appropriate time arrives when all the conditions exist in order to apply the canonical exactness.'
In other words, with time, this fundamental issue will be resolved. However, as with all aspects of the Christian life, this ideal solution will only become reality with our own contributions and prayerful efforts, along with the work of the Episcopal Assemblies. Both the Clergy and Laity within the United Kingdom have a great responsibility and role to play, in striving for more practical cooperation, and a greater sense of unity, so that our 'one God and Father of us all' (Eph 4:6) may grant us one voice and one heart, glorifying His all-honourable and majestic Name. Without this unified voice and active cooperation in working towards this ideal canonical exactness, Orthodoxy will seem limiting and impractical to those who may feel called to the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ.
There are many ways we are able to practically work together as One Church. There should be cooperation on three central levels; 1) Liturgical & Pastoral 2) Education & Youth 3) Events.
Liturgically, parishes are able to work together by sharing service schedules (ensuring each city has frequent Liturgies shared between each of the communities) , priests (with the blessing of the relevant Bishop) should visit each others churches, sharing pastoral responsibilities when necessary, and conducting Pan-Orthodox Vespers at the appropriate time of the year. Essentially, there should be an Orthodox youth society, group or organisation set up in cities ( often through the local university) allowing the young members of our parishes to mix, organise talks, discussions and pilgrimages. Finally, joint events, such as choir concerts, talks, social nights, catechetical classes and Church music lessons should also be ways in which we grow as Orthodox Christians in this country towards our aims and hopes.
Finally, Saint Arsenios of Cappadocia (1840-1924), the spiritual father of Saint Paisios, notes that ‘the Church in the British isles will only begin to truly grow again when it begins to venerate its own saints.’ The veneration of the British Saints, especially recently, has indeed brought our communities together, with Pilgrimages to St’s Winefride and Cybi in Wales, Lindisfarne, Saint Bertram in Llam, Iona, and other holy sites taking place, throughout the United Kingdom.
To conclude, let us Orthodox Christians, both clergy and laity, respond to our Lord’s call for unity, in times of confusion, unsettledness, and discrimination; in times where many seek Christ, His Church’ salvific mysteries, and unified presence. The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church here in Britain, and across the Orthodox Diaspora, has this responsibility, in our efforts towards canonical exactness.
- Alfeyev, Hilarion "The canonical territories of the local Orthodox churches – part I". (2006) Retrieved from : orthodoxytoday.org.
- Official Documents of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, ‘The Orthodox Diaspora,’ accessed through https://www.holycouncil.org/-/diaspora.
- The Orthodox Diaspora,’ accessed through https://www.holycouncil.org/-/diaspora.
- Article within the 'Orthodox Outlook' Issue 122 (October/November) within the 'Letters to the Editor' Section.