The Orthodox Council and the Orthodox Diaspora

Any hope that the Holy and Great Orthodox Council, scheduled to meet this June on Crete, will somehow decisively solve the many issues that burden the Orthodox Diaspora should be put to rest.

The subject is on the Council’s agenda, of course. But conditions in the Diaspora are such, that its transition to a strict canonical order is impossible, at least not at the present time. Conditions must mature noticeably before this goal can be achieved.

Most of us are familiar with the nature of the Diaspora problem. Its existence and diversity is evident in our daily lives, during our contacts with Orthodox Christians who are “non-Greek,” or when visiting Orthodox churches of “other” Orthodox jurisdictions. It is all the result of the mass migrations of the past two centuries that brought large numbers of Orthodox faithful to America from Russia, East Europe, and the Middle East.

In my own home town of Potomac, MD, for instance, there are six Orthodox churches within a radius of five miles, with a seventh scheduled to be built soon. Each church belongs to a different ethnic group and is administered by a Bishop, Orthodox of course, who reports – not to a common authority – but to one of the fourteen Mother Churches in the Orthodox East.

An argument can be made that there are benefits to the existing multiple jurisdictions, for they allow each Patriarchate or Orthodox Autocephalous Church to take care of its own flock in the Diaspora, while also provide its members with continued access to the language, customs and cultural heritage of the land they left behind.

But, the present administration of the Orthodox churches in the Diaspora impacts adversely on Orthodox unity and order, and is also extremely wasteful of resources, as evidenced by redundant church construction and other overlapping aspects of church operations. The existing condition also violates two important Church canons: (a) the provision that there can only be one bishop in every city or province (for the record, there are in the United States alone, 55 Orthodox Bishops) and (b) the canon that grants responsibility for the administration of all communities in the Diaspora to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Among the faithful, especially fourth- and fifth-generation Orthodox Americans who no longer maintain ties to the lands of their forefathers, the current structure of the Diaspora is a matter of increasing concern. It is, similarly, to the thousands of converts to Orthodoxy (many of whom are members of the clergy) who find it difficult to identify with a European or Middle Eastern ethnic group with which they have no interaction.

Clearly the Orthodox Diaspora is in need of renewal, and not surprisingly various initiatives have been tried through the years in an effort to resolve its anomalies. In the United States, the most prominent was the establishment in 1960 of the Standing Conference of Canonical Bishops in America (SCOBA). Designed to serve as a forum for inter-Orthodox collaboration, but lacking the authorization from the Mother Churches, SCOBA turned out to be a weak institution. It was replaced in 2010 by thirteen Episcopal Assemblies worldwide that are currently entrusted with enhancing Orthodox unity and developing a final solution to the Diaspora issue.

For its part, the US Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops (one of the thirteen Episcopal Assemblies above) has been unable to come up as yet with a plan for organizing the Orthodox of the United States on a canonical basis. Many reasons account for its failure. At the Assembly’s meeting in 2013 for instance, the Bulgarian delegates suddenly voiced opposition to the entire process. A year later, the Russian delegates expressed a similar view, with the suggestion that it would be better for the Orthodox Diaspora to remain as is rather than change.

Why these views? Perhaps, fear that any adopted plan would result in the transfer of the Diaspora churches, properties and other financial resources to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Or, concern on the part of some Bishops that should the one city – one Bishop rule made to apply, they may be personally affected. The requirement that decisions of the American Assembly be by consensus, rather than majority vote, further complicates its ability to move on with the task at hand.

Clearly, a lot more time and maturity is necessary to bring about unity to the Orthodox faithful in the Diaspora and to free it from the historical circumstances that burden it. What precise form unity will eventually take has yet to be determined. There are those who favor the establishment of an Autocephalous American Orthodox Church, or perhaps even a larger organizational entity that embraces additional parts of the Diaspora. Others, see the solution in a mechanism of smaller but more powerful regional Episcopal Assemblies, with authority to administer the Churches of the Diaspora in coordination with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

There is urgency for replacing the current system of administering the Orthodox Diaspora with a single system of administration and for giving it a unified voice. The need is obvious. A fragmented Orthodox Church in the Diaspora complicates the continuation of the all essential dialogue with Rome that began in Jerusalem in 1964 by the late Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, and the other priorities of the Church.