Phyletism: The Problem of Bigotry in the Orthodox Church
In our contemporary era the Orthodox Christian world is, sadly, once again grappling with violent conflicts involving ethnic, religious and political identities in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, as the Orthodox churches in the United States, Canada, and Australia engage in heated jurisdictional disputes regarding the role that ethnolinguistic identity ought to play in ecclesial life as they struggle to find a path towards unity and come to terms with their place within North American and Australasian societies as well as their relations with their mother churches abroad. As a result, the opening keynote address of the 2023 conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association that took place in Volos, Greece this past January was dedicated to the theme of ameliorating phyletism, or tribalistic bigotry, in the Church. This is a topic that the speaker, Metropolitan Ambrosios, had not even initially intended to discuss yet which, with Russia still waging a war on Ukraine and intra-Orthodox conflicts being globally pervasive, was unavoidable in the current circumstances. The bishop called upon Orthodox Christians to find solutions to the root causes of these issues. So, in response I offer the following as a suggestion as to how the Orthodox ecumene might overcome phyletism without eschewing the cultural traditions and ethnolinguistic heritages that have historically come to embody the Orthodox faith.
Yet, what precisely is phyletism? In short, it is a form of church-based tribalistic bigotry. The term came into the Orthodox theological lexicon in the late 19th century when in 1872 “phyletism” was declared a sin by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in response to the rise of violent ethno-nationalism taking place amongst Orthodox communities in the Balkans at the time. Initially, phyletism referred to a group’s attempt to acquire either autonomy or autocephaly as a separate ecclesial community based solely on the grounds of ethnic identity, yet is now also being used by some to condemn the preservation of ethnocultural and linguistic traditions by diasporic Orthodox Christian communities in the Americas and Australasia. So, what do we mean by these terms? And, if it is not preserving cultural heritage itself that is guilty of this sin, what might be the root cause of phyletism?
The Latin term natio referred to a place of birth and hence, originally implied a people-hood rooted in ancestral place, and the Greek term ethnos referred to a group of people accustomed to living together, and thus, both terms initially held a sense of cultural heritage. However, in modernity our understandings of “nation” and “ethnicity” were transformed so that “nationality” became politicized, while “ethnicity” became biologically “racialized.” Unlike our contemporary notion of “culture,” “nationalisms” (such as ethno-nationalism, civic-nationalism, religio-nationalism, and ideological nationalism) now carry with them politicized identity narratives and hence, produce a teleology in which any distinct collective’s aim must be to create a nation-state for themselves in order for their community to fulfill its purpose within history. This gave rise to the sacralization of ethno-national groupings as “political sovereignty” began to operate as a secularized concept of salvation.
I believe that part of what spawned the emergence of phyletism within the structures of the Church in the first place was that various ethnic groups felt that their unique cultural and linguistic identities were not being given due recognition by the other ethnic groups in the Church, be it those whom held positions of power and authority within the episcopate or fellow Christians seeking to ethnically differentiate themselves from others. To this end, a major lesson we learn from this history is that an ecclesial telos of homogeneity does nothing but create fertile ground for phyletism in that it fails to comprehend the plural nature of human sociality and fails to recognize that another’s language and cultural heritage are as valuable to that person as one’s own language and cultural customs are to oneself. One way we may begin to go about overcoming phyletism in ecclesial structures is to actively develop a multicultural paradigm for the Orthodox Christian Church as a global institution. Although Orthodox Christianity is unquestionably multicultural in a descriptive sense, neither the Church nor its prominent theologians have developed an explicitly multicultural ecclesiology nor engaged with the plethora of academic scholarship on the subject.
An Orthodox Christian Multiculturalism?
Three features are common to most forms of multicultural political thinking, which are:
- Rejection of the idea that the State belongs to a single ethno-cultural group
- Rejection of assimilationist policies and exclusionary practices
- Acknowledgment of historic injustices that have been perpetrated against ethno-cultural minorities and an attempt to prevent such injustices in the future.
If applied to the ecclesiastic affairs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, these three features could be reformulated as:
- The rejection of the notion that the Orthodox Church as a whole belongs to any single ethno-cultural group; the Church’s catholicity implies that all members are equally Orthodox regardless of their cultural heritage.
- The rejection of assimilationist and exclusionary attitudes and practices that seek to coercively ensure that any and all members of the Church community are culturally homogenous and an attempt to cultivate a sense of unity despite cultural diversity.
- The acknowledgment that local Orthodox Christian communities have historically perpetuated culturally assimilationist injustices against one another and must now attempt to prevent such injustices from occurring in the present and future by giving due recognition to the cultural pluralism characteristic of the historical Church.
Phyletism may be overcome by recognizing the value in another’s culture and by acknowledging the other’s need for cultural recognition and by de-sacralizing the nation-state. Orthodox communities must be able to effectively de-couple their identity narratives from politicized ethno-nationalistic aims while still retaining the ethno-cultural traditions and languages that imbue them with a deep sense of kinship and identity. This will entail alternative ways of envisioning social solidarity as we come to terms with cultural pluralism as an unavoidable social reality and persistent feature of human existence, as well as sustained efforts to enact a continual forum for inter-cultural dialogue amongst the hierarchs, clergy and laity of the various Orthodox Christian churches.
Instead of reifying exclusivist ethnic identities through cultural enclosure to other Orthodox communities, ethno-religiosity has the potential to be an avenue through which members of such communities can come to recognize one another as fellow carriers of historical ethno-linguistic cultures as well as adherents to a common faith tradition. Members of the Orthodox communities are capable of identifying with the ways in which another relates to his or her faith through an ethno-lingua-cultural tradition – even when the ethno-linguistic culture is not shared. Such circumstances are a fertile ground for the cultivation of a type of intercultural sentiment in which an affection and affinity for one’s own particular ethnic and or linguistic culture is not antithetical to an authentic sense of fellowship with others.
These intercultural Orthodox dialogues must not collapse into shallow formalities or empty platitudes but must seriously engage in open and truthful discussions of historical injustices as well as attempts to work toward reconciliation through genuine forgiveness and mutual acceptance. This last point will not be easy yet, it is crucial if Orthodox Christianity is to resolve its long-standing internal tensions over the role that cultural identity ought to play within the Church and attempt to forge anything even remotely resembling authentic unity amongst the global Orthodox Christian ecumene.
This essay expresses ideas that herein appear in a highly abbreviated and amended version of those expressed in a Durante’s recent publication entitled “The Sin of Phyletism: A Multicultural Perspective on Ethnic Bigotry in the Orthodox Church,” found in the book Politics, Society and Culture in Orthodox Theology in a Global Age. (BRILL 2023: Eastern Church Identities Book Series Vol. II)
 Kemal H. Karpat. Studies on Ottoman social and political history: Selected articles and essays, (Boston: Brill. 2002), 729.
 Kymlicka, Will. Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007): 65-66.
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