Friday, September 21, 2012

Nationalism vs. Ecumenism - With special reference to the Orthodox Church


By Dimitris Salapatas

(This paper was given during the O.T.R.F. Conference in St. Edmund College, Oxford, on the 13th September 2012) 

The Orthodox Church has been criticised by the other Churches who are in the Ecumenical Movement for its nationalistic identity, being seen as one negative factor by, for example the Anglican Communion, which would need to alter if union was to be realised between the two. For non-Orthodox, Orthodoxy does not seem united as it wants to believe, it  appears “divided along ethnic-jurisdictional lines even where the ethnic groups are all found in a common land speaking a common language”[1] ( for example here in the United Kingdom). “The Anglicans perceive Orthodoxy as an ethnic labyrinth in which no foreigner can long survive...To them, Orthodoxy is a strange, forbidding mystery, a world which no westerner can hope to understand” [2]. This is a very important topic, especially within the context of the current Ecumenical Movement and the numerous Official Dialogues presently taking place. However, it is interesting to identify that this is not only an Orthodox issue; we can also see this in some Churches within the Anglican Communion, which are in many respects very English and hence ethnic, such as the Church of England. Nevertheless, Ecumenism preaches the Unity of the Church and not division, so I am not going to take sides here.
It is important to understand that ethnic and nationalistic differences which “have come to be equated or identified closely with religious or confessional differences; and religious affiliation seems more often to furnish a convenient and effective rallying point for those who would stir up hatred and violence than to serve as a motivation for peace making and reconciliation”[3].
When being part of an Ecumenical Dialogue the Churches should put forward the subjects that unite them and also discuss the issues that divide them, in order to go forward and foresee a positive result, without of course altering the true faith. However, it is easily identified that in our modern, globalised and secular world “religious identity tends to be swallowed up within ethnic identity”[4]. Nevertheless, we have various paradigms were “Christianity has been able to resist and survive the threats of global secular ideologies, precisely because of its alliance with rooted identities and traditional affiliations”[5], such was the case with Russia and the Balkan region. Fr. Bulgakov gives a valid definition of the Orthodox Church, explaining that it is “a system of national, autocephalous Churches, allied one with another”[6]. This means that despite having jurisdictional and national differences, its theology and its doctrines are the factors which unify Orthodoxy, since they are common elements within the whole of Eastern Christianity.


If we are to truly attain what is stated in the Creed, as a belief that we as Christians believe ‘In One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ then we need to find a viable way of achieving it. Despite the fact that the various traditions within Orthodoxy enrich it, pointing out the diversity of humanity on a social, cultural, historical and philosophical level, we do understand that this can create problems when in dialogue with non-Orthodox. Nationalism does not go well with Ecumenism. Especially in the Diaspora we need a great cooperation between all the jurisdictions in order to have a common front when speaking to other Churches. Maybe a change will be evident in the future due to the increase of the converts, who do not come from the East, but from the West and hence have a different mentality and understanding in regards to ethnicity. Practises of the past need to be set aside, where for example “national ambition was disguised as the will of God”[7]; however, this is not an issue that concerns the Orthodox Church alone, as stated before with the Church of England paradigm. Hence the goal of the Ecumenical Movement should be a post-nationalistic church in order to achieve union. Is this viable? Can this happen in both the East and the West? It is difficult to know now. But the fact that we are continuing in the Ecumenical Dialogue, persisting to find a solution, whatever that may be, is a positive aspect.
Is this topic an important one? It is if you are a believer in the Ecumenical Movement. However, if you are not, then this theme can easily be dismissed. On the other hand, it is significant to point out the fact that most Churches are part of it; hence they all have a hope in a future union. Whether this would be realised or not is another story. What we need to take into account is that the unity of the Church is divinely given, but it is a gift which must never be taken for granted; this being the “connecting thread in the history of the Ecumenical Movement – a recognition of that essential unity of all Christ’s people, which though often obscured is never wholly lost”[8].
In order to increase the possibilities of a future union, a solution should be found on the various divisions within the Churches. This cannot easily be applied in Anglicanism, which has countless differences within its Communion; however, it could be applied to the Orthodox Church, if the political and nationalistic factor was set aside. Despite being a difficult goal, which will probably never be solved, it is one that we need to consider, if Orthodoxy wishes to continue in the current dialogue and see her goals being achieved. In no way am I implying that this should be the case when the Orthodox Churches have inter-Orthodox dialogue and relations. The traditional and cultural differences exist and prevail due to the diverse historical, political, social and economic paths that each nation, people and Churches took.  However, when in dialogue with non-Orthodox a common front should be formed, where accepted issues are discussed and pointed out. As Fr. George Florovsky revealed, when speaking in relation to the Orthodox participation in the Ecumenical Movement, that there exists “the great danger of ‘provincialism’ when nationalist sentiments were combined with the autocephalous freedom of local Churches”[9]. Nevertheless, this could be the first step in actually dealing with and resolving disputed matters within the Orthodox World, such as the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, or whether his Ecumenicity is accepted by everyone, or the role of the Moscow Patriarchate. It is inevitable that nationalistic and historical pride dictates that these issues will most likely never be solved, but in spite of this we need to obtain and illustrate a mutual projection towards the non-Orthodox when taking part in the Ecumenical Movement. Possibly this important matter could be solved in a future Pan-Orthodox Synod, if it ever takes place.


            It is imperative to stress that Orthodoxy does not have differences within its body in doctrine or theology, accepting all the Ecumenical Councils and the decisions taken by Local Synods. On the theological field the Orthodox Churches are united, unlike the Anglican Communion where differences in theology and practice are evident. However, power politics, dictated by certain Patriarchal or other centres and even by the nations where the Churches reside, emphasise a predicament in inter-Orthodox relations. Due to these political differences and interests we can easily identify numerous dubious policies and relations.
            A change is, however, evident, due to the existence and prevalence of the Church in the Diaspora, where new equilibrium are formed and even new centres, where Orthodoxy is becoming more Westernised, leaving behind its strict Eastern form; and by this I mean that the Liturgical language and even the music is altering, which has been the case during the last decades, where for example “the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius began special English Liturgies”[10] as explained by Metropolitan Kallistos on the Ancient Faith Radio, leaving thus behind the preconception of many that we should only celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the respected languages of the Eastern Orthodox who resided in the United Kingdom. Orthodoxy is truly becoming more universal, geographically speaking. Hence this will result in its abstraction from the nationalistic environment that it had existed up to now. Nevertheless, it could also result in the formation of new nationalistic identities, where we may have for example a future British Orthodox Archdiocese. This could be the case, since it is evident that many British convert to Orthodoxy, hence they do not have the links that the immigrants do with the East or a certain Eastern nationalism. It is noteworthy to indicate a thought that has been shared by many in Britain today, i.e. the actual creation of a British Orthodox Archdiocese, with a British Archbishop, where all the Bishops of the Orthodox jurisdictions will be under his authority and each one would head his own people, who of course have different traditions and liturgical language. When and if this ever happens is unknown, but it seems to be a logical conclusion to what has been stated here. What is important is that the future will form new balances and power politics within and outside the Church, which will shape the outlook of the Ecumenical Movement.
This interesting theme of our conference reminded me of a quote, found in the book ‘Why Angels Fall’, written by Victoria Clark whereby she explains, “The short answer to the question why angels fall, why Eastern Orthodoxy is able to reach for the angelic heights then plunge to hellish depths, is Phyletism”[11]. The weakness of the human element of Orthodoxy has always been her phyletism, its exaggerated nationalism; despite the fact that “the principle of identifying Orthodoxy with an ethnic group was condemned as a heresy in 1872”[12], in Constantinople, currently we observe a complicated situation of countless jurisdictions in most countries in the West, where Orthodox from different origins tend to be claimed by their mother churches according to their ethnicity. Many Orthodox Churches live in watertight compartments, making it important for them to come in contact with each other. If this is difficult to achieve in the respected Orthodox states, then surely this could be realised on neutral ground in the West, or the Diaspora in general. A start has been evident here in the United Kingdom with the setting up in 2010 of the Pan-Orthodox Assembly, where all the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in Britain, from all the jurisdictions, meet and decide on certain important matters, concerning not only one Church, but Orthodoxy as a whole. If this Assembly truly functions and achieves its goals then the positive fruits of this effort will be immensely important for the future of Orthodoxy in this country.
The ultimate objective of the Ecumenical Movement is not to point out our differences, which are promoted more through the various political and social disciplines of life; but to advance and achieve a future union. That is why we see that the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association (A.E.C.A.) has the following aim: “To advance the Christian religion, particularly by teaching the members of the Anglican and Orthodox Churches about each other, in order to prepare the way for an ultimate union between them, in accordance with our Lord’s prayer that ‘all may be one’. All its members are urged to work and pray constantly to this end”[13]. On the other hand, one of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergiu’s aims, stated at the beginning of its existence in the 1920’s, proclaimed a need and a will for a future union between the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion; however, this has altered due to the major differences which exist between the two Christian Families, bringing it thus to the current aim of “mutual understanding and co-operation between the separated Christians of East and West”[14]. It is remarkable to identify that the attitude of the Orthodox Church to all other Christians, although this is not currently professed in such a manner, due to diplomatic kindness, is that they belong to her. “The Church does not call them back to her human side (‘Byzantine’, or ‘Eastern’, or ‘Slav’ or whatever it is), not to her ‘jurisdiction’, but to the divine tree of life, which is her Orthodoxy”[15].  Fr Sergius Bulgakov explains how “Orthodoxy is present at such conferences (i.e. within the Ecumenical Dialogue) to testify to the truth...Christian love demands that the faith be testified to”[16].
In conclusion, what can be said with certainty is that nationalism within the Orthodox Church will prevail and continue its existence, as it does in so many other churches. “Social and political tradition”[17] will keep on being present, due to the attachment which each one of us has towards both our Church and our nation and due to the “psychological make-up of the members of each Church”[18]. The problem, nevertheless, occurs when power politics intervene between Bishops or Autocephalous Churches and Patriarchates, destroying thus the true image of the Church. Abolishing the various traditions and national identities will be wrong; however, within the Ecumenical Movement a united front should be formed. Many will argue that this approach is incorrect and dishonest; we should show the non-Orthodox our true selves, our nationalistic differences and traditions. We practically do this when asked in which Church we are members. Our reply emphasises the nationalistic side of our understanding of religion, explaining that we are Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox and so on. However, this is not the case. The problem of Orthodoxy within the Ecumenical Dialogue does not lie in the cultural differences but in the political side of the relations which are wrongly emphasised, hence we can identify that “such an exterior reunion presupposes, of course, a corresponding interior movement”[19] and that is why we need to move towards it, meaning that we should achieve a true common front when speaking to other denominations.  
Whoever is involved within the Ecumenical Movement can understand what Fr. George Florovsky claimed, that “the highest and most promising ‘ecumenical virtue’ is patience”[20]. By exercising patience and praying fervently for divine inspiration we will hopefully be able to achieve a future union of the Church.



[1] Grass Tim (ed.), Evangelicalism and the Orthodox Church, (London, Evangelical Alliance, 2001), p. 87
[2] Billerbeck, Franklin, “Orthodoxy and Ethnicity”, Anglican/Orthodox Pilgrim Newsletter, Vol.2, No.1, Winter 1993
[3] Vanelderen, Marlin, Introduction to the Papers on “Ethnicity and Nationalism: A Challenge to the Churches”, Ecumenical Review, Vol 47, Issue 2, April 1995, p. 189
[4] Christie, Clive, “Unity and Diversity, A Critique of Religion and Ethnicity in Europe, Ecumenical Review, Vol 47, Issue 1, January 1995, p. 16
[5] Ibid, p. 18
[6] Bulgakov, Sergius, The Orthodox Church, (New York, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), p. 187    
[7] Addleshaw, G.W.O., Administrative Difficulties, Sobornost, September 1937, No. 11 (New series), p. 30
[8] Rodzianko, Vladimir, Archpriest, The Orthodox Church, Bevan, R.J.W. (ed.), The Churches and the Christian Unity, (London, Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 91
[9] Ford, Joan, The Fellowship At Eastbourne August 4th-2th, 1948,Sobornost, Winter 1948, Series 3, No.4, p. 152
[11] Clark, Victoria, Why Angels Fall, A Journey Through Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo, (London, Macmillan, 2000), p. 42
[13] A.E.C.A, http://www.aeca.org.uk/, accessed 03/09/2012, 19.47
[14] Zernov Nicolas, Militza Zernov, Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius – A Historical Memoir, (Oxford, The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, 1979), p. 33
[15] Rodzianko, Vladimir, Archpriest, The Orthodox Church, Bevan, R.J.W. (ed.), The Churches and the Christian Unity, (London, Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 94
[16] Bulgakov, Sergius, The Orthodox Church, (New York, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), p. 191
[17] Leeming, Bernard, S.J., General Problems of Ecumenism, R.J.W. Bevan (ed.), The churches and Christian Unity, (London, Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 29
[18] Istavridis, V.T., Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, (London, S.P.C.K., 1966), p. 140
[19] Bulgakov, Sergius, The Orthodox Church, (New York, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), p. 188
[20] Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church, (London, Penguin Books, 1997), p. 307

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