Phyletism (from phyli — race, tribe) is the principle of nationalities applied in the ecclesiastical domain: in other words, the confusion between Church and nation. The term ethnophyletismos designates the idea that a local autocephalous Church should be based not on a local [ecclesial] criterion, but on an ethnophyletist, national or linguistic one. It was used at the Holy and Great ["Meizon" --"enlarged"] pan-Orthodox Synod in Constantinople on the 10th of September 1872 to qualify “phyletist (religious) nationalism,” which was condemned as a modern ecclesial heresy: the Church should not be confused with the destiny of a single nation or a single race.
After their liberation from Turkish rule, the Balkan churches freely developed both their national identities and their religious life. Theological faculties were created in Athens, Belgrade, Sofia, and Bucharest. The Romanian Church introduced the full cycle of the liturgical offices in vernacular Romanian. But these positive developments were often marred by nationalistic rivalries.
The term phyletism(from phili: race or tribe) was coined at the Holy and Great pan-Orthodox pan-Orthodox Synod that met in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) in 1872. The meeting was prompted by the creation of a separate bishopric by the Bulgarian community of Istanbul for parishes only open to Bulgarians. It was the first time in Church history that a separate diocese was established based on ethnic identity rather than principles of Orthodoxy and territory.
Here is the Synod's official condemnation of ecclesiastical racism, or “ethno-phyletism,” as well as its theological argumentation. It was issued on the 10th of August 1872.
We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which “support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”
In condemning "phyletism," the synod of Constantinople (1872) had, in fact, defined a basic problem of modern Orthodoxy.
Although the Orthodox Churches condemned phyletism in 1872, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has declared that “nationalism remains one of the central problems of the Church." Phyletism has been a threat to Orthodox unity since at least the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, and its impact on Orthodoxy in America – and in other areas of the so-called “diaspora” throughout the 20th century and to the present-day is well known.
The conditions behind modern-day phyletism are different from those surrounding the 1872 decision of the Synod of Constantinople. In the latter half of the 20th century, there has been a vigorous and sometimes contentious debate among the Orthodox concerning the problem of the Diaspora, specifically the organization of the Orthodox Church in countries to which Orthodox have emigrated, particularly since the Russian Revolution. The problem is that Orthodox dioceses (officially called "jurisdictions) in the Diaspora are superimposed on each other. The result is that there are usually several Orthodox bishops of different Orthodox churches in Diaspora cities. This situation violates the canonical principle of territoriality – that each city and province should have its own unique bishop.
In the United States, most Eastern Orthodox parishes are, for the most part, ethnocentric, that is, focused on serving an ethnic community that has immigrated from overseas (eg. the Greeks, Russians, Romanians, Finns, Serbians, Antiochians etc.) Many Orthodox Christians must travel long distances to find a local Church that is familiar to their ethnic background. All Orthodox churches make some attempt to accommodate those of other ethnic traditions with varying degrees of success.
In June 2008, Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America delivered a talk on “Episcopacy, Primacy, and the Mother Churches: A Monastic Perspective” at the Conference of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius at St. Vladimir's Theological Seminary.
...almost all national Churches have extended their jurisdictions beyond their geographic and political boundaries to the so-called diaspora. But Orthodox Christians who are faithful to the Gospel and the Fathers cannot admit of any such thing as a diaspora of Christians. Only ethnic groups can be dispersed among other ethnic groups. Yet the essential principle of geographic canonical boundaries of episcopal and synodal jurisdiction has been abrogated, and every patriarchate, every mother Church, now effectively claims universal jurisdiction to serve “its” people in “diaspora.” ...
This situation arose in reaction to the mass emigration of Orthodox from their home countries, and is continued as a means of serving the needs of these immigrant communities. It is perpetuated as a means of maintaining ethnic, cultural and political identity for those away from their home country; but also as a means of financial support for the mother churches from their children abroad.
The confusion of ethnic identity and Orthodox Christian identity, expressed by competing ecclesiastical jurisdictions, is the incarnation of phyletism. Due to this confusion of the Gospel with ethnic or political identities, multiple parallel communities, each with its own allegiance to a foreign mother church, divide the Orthodox Church in North America and elsewhere into ethnic and political denominations. This distorts the Apostolic vision, and has severely compromised the catholicity of the Orthodox Churches, in which all Christians in a given territory are called to submit to a local synod of bishops.
The problem is not so much the multiple overlapping jurisdictions, each ministering to diverse elements of the population. This could be adapted as a means of dealing with the legitimate diversity of ministries within a local or national Church. The problem is that there is no common expression of unity that supersedes ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions: there is no synod of bishops responsible for all the churches in America, and no primacy or point of accountability in the Orthodox world with the authority to correct such a situation.
Father Josiah Trenham lists the following divisions of pastoral practice among the Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States ...
- Some Orthodox jurisdictions receive persons from Latin and certain Protestant bodies into Holy Orthodoxy by baptism and chrismation, some by chrismation alone, and some merely by confession of faith.
- Some Orthodox jurisdictions receive Latin clergy converting to Holy Orthodoxy merely by vesting, while others ordain.
- Some Orthodox jurisdictions recognize all marriages performed outside Holy Orthodoxy as being real marriages (though certainly not sacramental) whether performed for an Orthodox or non-Orthodox, while others recognize no marriages performed outside Holy Orthodoxy whether performed for an Orthodox or a non-Orthodox.
- Some Orthodox jurisdictions bury suicides under certain circumstances, while others forbid the burial of suicides under all circumstances.
- Some Orthodox jurisdictions bury a person who was cremated with all funeral rites in the church temple, others permit only Trisagion Prayers of Mercy in the funeral home, some forbid any prayers anywhere for a person who was cremated.
- Some Orthodox jurisdictions recognize civil divorce as complete and sufficient for ecclesiastical purposes, while others do not recognize civil divorce at all and insist on Church Tribunals, while yet other deal with divorce in other ways.
- Some Orthodox jurisdictions penance a person when he/she is divorced (either by civil or Church court), while others penance a person only after he/she enters into a second or third marriage.
- Some Orthodox jurisdictions accept clergy suspended or even deposed by other Orthodox jurisdictions.
- Some Orthodox jurisdictions ignore bans of excommunication pronounced by hierarchs of other Orthodox jurisdictions.
Metropolitan Philip points to Paris, France as an example of phyletism. He argues
One more example of phyletism is Paris, France. There are six co-existing Orthodox bishops with overlapping ecclesiological jurisdictions. In my opinion and in the opinion of Orthodox canonists, this is phyletism.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, divisions within the Orthodox community in Estonia arose between those who wished to remain under Russian authority and those who wished to return to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with the dispute often taking place along ethnic lines, many Russians having immigrated to Estonia during the Soviet occupation. Lengthy negotiations between the two patriarchates failed to produce any agreement.
In 1993, the synod of the Orthodox Church of Estonia in Exile was re-registered as the autonomous Orthodox Church of Estonia, and on February 20, 1996, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I renewed the tomos granted to the OCE in 1923, restoring its canonical subordination to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This action brought immediate protest from the Estonian-born Patriarch Alexei II of the Moscow Patriarchate, which regarded his native Estonia as part of his canonical territory and the Patriarch of Moscow temporarily removed the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch from the diptychs.
An agreement was reached in which local congregations could choose which jurisdiction to follow. The Orthodox community in Estonia, which accounts for about 14% of the total population, remains divided, with the majority of faithful (mostly ethnic Russians) remaining under Moscow. As of a government report of November 2003, about 20,000 believers (mostly ethnic Estonians) in 60 parishes are part of the autonomous church, with 150,000 faithful in 31 parishes, along with the monastic community of Pühtitsa, paying traditional allegiance to Moscow.
- Papathomas, Grigorios (1995). Course of Canon Law — Appendix VI — canonical glossary. Paris.
- Hildo Bos and Jim Forest, ed (1999). For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism. Syndesmos.
- "Orthodox Christian Information Center: History of the Orthodox Church - The Orthodox Churches in the 19th Century". http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/general/history6.aspx. Retrieved 2009-01-27.
- Pillar Two - Orthodox Relations
- "Saint Seraphim of Sarov Russian Orthodox Mission - Freedom from Phyletism". http://www.saint-seraphim.org/section1/freedomf.html.
- "AOI - The Observer". http://www.aoiusa.org/blog/2008/11/met-jonah-episcopacy-primacy-and-the-mother-churches/comment-page-1/. Retrieved 2009-01-27.
- "Orthodox Reunion: Overcoming the Curse of Jurisdictionalism in America". http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/TrenhamUnity.php. Retrieved 2009-01-27.
- "Metropolitan Philip's Address to the 48th Archdiocesan Convention General Assembly". http://www.antiochian.org/node/17070. Retrieved 2009-01-27.
- Russian Autocephaly and Orthodoxy in America: An Appraisal with Decisions and Formal Opinions. New York: The Orthodox Observer Press, 1972.
- Trempelas, Panagiotis. The Autocephaly of the Metropolia in America. Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross School of Theology Press, 1974.