On the Issue of the Orthodox “Diaspora”
It seems, during the course of work on the Great Orthodox Council, that the issue of the “diaspora” will be the most important, in the sense that there is no issue more important than it. Due to serious disagreements that currently exist between the Orthodox Churches, mostly due to historical factors, the other working papers, most of which have been agreed upon, were formulated according to the lowest common denominator of agreement and not at the level hoped for by the people of God. The issue of the “diaspora,” however, has remained urgent because it is thorny, multi-dimensional and has an inherent relationship to the Mother Churches. In addition to the theological and ecclesiological problematique, there is the proposal advocated by the Church of Constantinople, which is rejected by the majority of churches not under Constantinople’s influence.
A Historical Outline
The term “diaspora” is applied to those Orthodox who have emigrated from their home countries belonging to one of the recognized autocephalous local churches to countries that do not fall within the borders of the historical Church, either due to the absence of a previous Orthodox presence or due to their not yet appearing on the map when the canons setting the boundaries of the churches were issued.
The Christian Churches first emerged in the Mediterranean Basin within the framework of the Roman Empire. Thus, with time, the five ancient patriarchates were established around the chief cities. According to the traditional honorific taxis, they are: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Over the first millennium of Christianity and then some, they remained the chief centers of the Christian world. From them evangelical missions were dispatched to the world lying outside the bounds of the Roman Empire which was, in Church literature, known as “the inhabited world” (ἡοἰκουμένη).
After the Great Schism of 1054, the Orthodox world was limited to the four patriarchates that came after Rome. However, with the growth and spread of Orthodoxy, this world started to witness the birth of new patriarchates such as those of Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, etc. Until now, this has led to the existence of fourteen autocephalous Orthodox churches in the world.
The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church has preserved the concept of the local church and has not known a globally centralized ecclesiastical structure as came to exist in Rome after the schism, especially in the past two centuries. Those Orthodox living in countries that lie outside the boundaries of the autocephalous local churches have been considered a diaspora. Over time, however, they have grown in numbers and have become rooted in their new countries, even as they continue until now to stream into them in great numbers, causing their churches there to multiply and grow.
Very quickly, their mother churches contacted them– or they contacted their mother churches– in order to provide them with spiritual service. In the case of Antioch, at least, the emigrants sent for priests that they knew or the priest of their village in order to perform the Holy Mysteries for them. Over time, they gained churches and parishes which remain tied to their mother churches.
It is worth mentioning that the Antiochians who emigrated to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were, before the Bolshevik Revolution, under the pastoral care of the Russian Orthodox Church which requested from their mother church an Antiochian bishop to shepherd them under the omphorion of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America. This took place and their bishop then was Saint Raphael Hawaweeny.
The current situation of the Orthodox Church in the “diaspora,” which started out as a matter of “economy” but has now become an established, permanent presence, is not in keeping with the canonical Orthodox ecclesiological concept. This dogma states, for example, that there should be one bishop for one city, while today there are many bishops in some cities. There is an Antiochian bishop for the Antiochians, a Greek for the Greeks, a Russian for the Russians, etc.
Over the years, the generation that emigrated started to engage with their new societies and have become Americans, Brazilians, Argentines… Moreover, some of the active churches started to attract not insignificant numbers of inhabitants of their new countries who were not of an Orthodox background. That is, they started to practice their apostolic mission in a manner demonstrating a real maturity within them.
The issue of organizing the Orthodox presence in what was in the past known as countries of emigration and is known today as countries of diaspora has been posed for some time and there are numerous opinions about it. It is a thorny issue, especially with renewed waves of emigration after the collapse of the Communist regimes that ruled in many Orthodox countries. Greek and Antiochian emigration has also renewed in recent years as a result of the Lebanese and Syrian wars and the Greek economic collapse.
The Issue at Hand
There is a serious debate among the churches about the theory adopted by the Church of Constantinople based on a particular interpretation of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which regards the inhabited world (ἡ οἰκουμένη) as restricted to the Roman Empire and those outside of it as backwards. This view was predominant in the fifth century, when the concept of the “inhabited world” was limited to the Roman Empire because it was regarded as the center of civilization.
Following this interpretation, “Constantinople” considers itself to have sole responsibility for providing pastoral care to all those outside the bounds of the autocephalous local churches. This is rejected by the other churches, apart from those who, due to particular considerations, are unable to contradict the Patriarchate of Constantinople on this matter. It should be noted that the Church of “Constantinople” currently shepherds all the Greek-speaking Orthodox outside the countries of Greece and Cyprus.
The Orthodox Church is a universal Church, as the Creed states, and her fathers who gathered in Constantinople in nineteenth century rejected the principle known as “ethnophylitism.” That is, the submission of the Church to racism or nationalisms.
Orthodox ecclesiology advocates the local church, while many may not believe that all the churches of the “diaspora” have reached the maturity that would permit them to become autocephalous local churches, especially after renewed waves of immigration or the phenomenon of mobility from one country to another in the past two decades.
What should we do in the face of the existing contradictory ecclesiological situation? And what should we do in the face of the position of one or more churches that is based on a concept of worldly influence that is sought in word and deed, causing controversy and confusion and, moreover, impeding the communication and communion sought by all the churches? The return of churches that had been under Communist regimes to activity, growth and influence has likewise added a new dimension to the problem, insofar as this new situation has contributed to reviving the struggle between Greeks and Russians in the Orthodox world.
Some Observations on Current Approaches
So the issue of the diaspora is now under the microscope. What appears to be the manner of addressing it allows us to draw certain conclusions:
- Most views that have been proposed treat the issue from a purely canonical angleand attempt to adapt the canons to fit the perspective of the church making the proposal. Everyone searches through ancient commentaries, twists the facts of the modern situation, and relies on texts composed in bygone eras that differ drastically from our own times.
- Through the above, the observer gets the feeling about this matter, through studies or teachings or practice, of a hidden ecclesiastical power struggle and the fear of losing flocks in the diaspora. This is what must be respected in light of present circumstances in the countries of the mother churches, in terms of wars and economic and social collapse.
- There is a growing conviction among many that the mother churches are not prepared to let go of their churches in the diaspora, just as most of the churches of the diaspora still reject such a severing of bonds, especially if the solution entails dependence on one of the autocephalous churches. These positions affirm approaches to this thorny issue that are not based on a theological perspective so much as they are based on providing proofs for the veracity of what they want with regard to this issue
- Focusing on the canonical dimension in treating this issue reveals the extent to which pastoral care is absent, the great disappointment resulting from the failure to adopt a clear plan for salvifically serving the people, and the profound abyss that exists between the ecclesiastical leaderships and the people in the majority of churches.
- This matter has been dealt with in a worldly manner that ensures for the churches a worldly influence that is far removed from the presence of Christ at the heart of His Church, such that He becomes a stranger to it.
- There is a feeling that a papal orientation is on the rise on numerous levels, internally and externally, in one or another of the churches, appearing in positions, dialogues, and various debates. This orientation reveals the extent of Orthodox theology’s need for canonical theological frameworks that embody its ecclesiology in history. Effectively, it defines the theory and practice of primacy of honor, the primacy of the head of the local church and the bishop and the manner of expressing synodality between the patriarch and the bishops and the bishops among themselves and also between the clergy and the laity.
- 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 is no avoiding the ideal solution based on Orthodox ecclesiology. This solution is embodied in the appearance of new autocephalous churches when the state of the faithful and parishes in those countries reaches the maturity that allows for recognizing their having one church and the necessary conditions for recognizing it.
- According to the words of Patriarch Ignatius IV during the preparations for the Fourth Preliminary Orthodox Conference, the diaspora “is called not merely to stay alive, as was the case in the past, but to transform into a dynamic and creative element in the place where it exists. Orthodox unity, in the various countries of the Orthodox diaspora, has become a necessity for the preservation of the purity of the Church and the witness of the Orthodox Church.”
- Here we must raise the question of whether there exist sincere intentions to arrive at the ideal ecclesiastical solution! It appears that the consequences of history and the difficult and bitter situation of the Orthodox peoples on the one hand and a worldly mentality that bends theology to its vision on the other hand, are having an impact on the adoption of the solution based on an authentic ecclesiology.
- Therefore, there is an urgent need for serious preparation leading to the desired solution, which will not fall from the sky all at once. Rather, it will be a goal and an ideal whose realization requires an agreed upon vision of the future and diligent and clear joint work according to a plan of action that takes into account the reality of providing people with the best pastoral care and developing a palpable sense of Orthodox catholicity. In this context, the proposal of the Antiochian delegate to those same gatherings, Albert Lahham, remains live and realistic: “Let us take small steps together in order to move together towards unity because the people must experience this unity first.”
- This plan is purely based on an effective and upright theological vision that precludes any concept of influence, dominance or interests that have no part in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Likewise, this is with full consciousness of the suffering experienced by the Orthodox people that continues to force them to emigrate, situations of extreme hardship or persecution, whether economic or in terms of security. The emigration of Orthodox has not occurred only due to seeking employment and education. People have been unjustly forced to seek refuge against their will. This means that we as churches must take into account with all due respect the feelings that these believers have toward their land, their countries, their languages, their customs, and their cultural Orthodoxy. This requires a long-term plan that manages the temporal dimension in order to prepare circumstances, mentalities and souls to accept the realization of the desired goal.
- The vision is based on the creation of a new ecclesiological reality that takes into account the specificity of these churches of various origins having a relationship with their mother churches. How should we designate this relationship? What are the specificities that distinguish them? How can they exist without affecting the catholicity of the Church? These are the questions that must be raised.
- These new local churches appear when the Orthodox of the diaspora, who are still pouring into new countries, become conscious of the culture of the new land where they live, interact with it and assimilate to it on the basis of their Orthodox faith. Reaching this consciousness requires a transitional phase with a purposeful pedagogical trajectory that takes into serious account that culture which differs in its centers from the culture that has historically existed in Orthodox countries. This is fundamental work whose time has come to commence on a pan-Orthodox level.
- The episcopal conferences, which were declared in 2007, initiated successful work towards unity, even if it has remained on a formal, superficial level and has not transcended, except on symbolic occasions, the bounds of ecclesiastical jurisdictions. However, before this work is cancelled or renewed, it is in pressing need of appraisal. The Orthodox have agreed on its principle, but its practice has been beset, here and there, with numerous errors that have aroused fears among many of the churches and has evinced an effort towards limiting the Orthodox representation in certain countries of the “diaspora” to one particular church.
- Knowledge of the history of the emergence of the ancient patriarchates takes on great importance in helping to elucidate the boundaries of the churches that are maturing towards autocephaly. The tie between the autocephaly of churches to nationalism, which appeared two centuries ago, constitutes a danger to the churches. While the emergence of the five historical churches took place in circumstances different from our own circumstances, the experience of having recourse to them is useful for building up the catholicity of the Church today.
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).