Diaspora and American Orthodoxy

By Paul L. Gavrilyuk

(This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on Autocephaly and Diaspora.)

I would like to begin with three questions, for which I would ask for a show of hands:

  1. How many of you do NOT consider yourselves a part of any Diaspora? [About a third of all people in the audience raised their hands].
  2. How many of you consider yourselves to be primarily the members of a larger American society and only to lesser extent the members of a specific Diaspora? [The rest of the people in the audience raised their hands].
  3. How many of you consider yourselves exclusively Diaspora members and do not feel that you are a part of a larger American society? [Nobody raised a hand].

Your answers reflect an important social reality. Some of you belong to one club and it’s the American society. Others hold membership in two clubs, but the American society membership is more important to you. None of you holds an exclusive membership in a club called “Diaspora.” This is one of the reasons why Diaspora talk emanating from Moscow or Constantinople sounds so artificial to us. We are asked to hold an exclusive membership in a club, whose benefits are far from obvious to us this side of the Atlantic. There are other reasons for us to be alienated from the Diaspora language, such as Russian chauvinism, Hellenocentrism, and other utopian forms of cultural imperialism masquerading as universalism.

What we call Diaspora is not a static, but a dynamic phenomenon, driven by two main factors: emigration and assimilation. A Diaspora is impossible without emigration, without the flow of people from the home countries. Assimilation refers to the process whereby immigrants and their prodigy gradually shift their identities by enriching what they used to be with what they are becoming. The change could be gradual or drastic, it could be conscious or unconscious, it could be forced or have an element of choice in it. Diaspora is not an isolated enclave, but a subculture connected to a larger cultural whole.

In light of these preliminary sociological observations, let me marshal the following claims for discussion:

  1. American Orthodoxy has its historical roots in missions established by Rusins or Ukrainians, Greeks, Russians, and so on. We should remember, of course, that a similar dynamic is in play with all mainline churches in the United States, including Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians and so on. Now, it would be a foolish anachronism to refer to the present day Catholic and mainline Protestant communities as “Diaspora” churches. I submit to you that it is equally foolish to do so for American Orthodoxy. We lose our youth and we alienate converts if instead of Jesus and the gospel we have only “ethnic dinners” to offer. We need to wake up: about half of our leadership are converts who were born in this country and have nothing to do with the Diaspora.
  2. American Orthodoxy has been around for at least three centuries in this country. Over this period it has acquired a distinct character and a sense of mission in America. Mission, evangelization, enchurching of culture is what the gospel demands of us. Everything else needs to be subordinated to the task of mission, as far as the church is concerned.
  3. It is beneficial for a missionary church to be institutionally united. I say “beneficial,” but not absolutely necessary. I do not know what the least dysfunctional episcopate looks like any more; church unity for me is a lesser good which is to be desired for the sake of the greater good of the Great Commission.

Paul Gavrilyuk is Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy, Theology Department, University of St. Thomas.