Patriarch Bartholomew and Ethnophyletism

On Thursday, September 12, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in conjunction with the University of Thessaloniki, held a conference at Chalki with the title “The Problem of Ethnophyletism in the Orthodox Church: From the Bulgarian Schism to Today.” In his keynote address at the event, Patriarch Bartholomew said:

Ethnophyletism has led to the weakening of the consciousness of the Church’s eucharistic realization. In the name of nationalistic expediencies, the priority of the Church’s eschatological identity and eucharistic Ecclesiology has been sacrificed. The instrumentalization of the Holy Eucharist and its alteration into a means of exercising ecclesiastical politics and pressure—as is happening today in the case of Ukrainian Autocephaly from the Church of Moscow—demonstrates the continued presence of ethnophyletist criteria in the ecclesiastical life of Orthodoxy and the need for resistance to such trends and  a return to the principles of eucharistic composition and conciliar function of the Orthodox Church.

[…] The Great Church of Christ has never been a servant to nationalism, that estrangement from consciousness of the Church’s catholicity and abolition of the principle of synodality within her.

[…] In the life of the Church, ethnophyletism constitutes a practical “reversal of values”. Instead of the nation serving Christian truth, it values and judges the Church by the criterion of her usefulness and service to the state. As the blessed Metropolitan Panteleimon of Tiroloë and Serention said, ethnophyletism constitutes “not only a deviation from healthy love for the nation and the state, but a real obstacle to the cooperation of the local Orthodox Churches in the world and the greatest enemy of the Church’s unity.”

[…] We all know that after this condemnation, ethnophyletism continued to negatively affect the identity and unity of the Orthodox Church and has remained the “permanent thorn” in relations between the Orthodox Churches. The frozen relations between the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, the intractable problems of the ecclesiastical organization of the Orthodox Diaspora, the developments following the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, and especially the crisis in the Former Yugoslavia have led to the consolidation of the view in the rest of the Christian world that Orthodoxy is per se ethnocentric and nationalist, that it is identical to “orthodoxism” […]

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, despite the fact that it was located amidst the  “storm of nationalisms” of the 19th and early 20th centuries, did not give in to the temptation of ethnophyletism. With absolute fidelity to canonical tradition and ecclesiological criteria, it criticized the nationalist tendencies that everywhere brought about the toppling of canonicity in the life of the Church, remaining supra-national and truly ecumenical, everywhere striving to preserve Orthodoxy from being reduced to a protestant sort of “confederation” of autocephalous state Churches. […]

[Quoting Metropolitan John Zizioulas:] “The greatest danger to the unity of the Orthodox Church today is ethnophyletism. In the modern-day reality, most of the autocephalous Churches have been shaped historically on the basis of the principles of the nation-state and the Protestant principle of “cuius regio eius religio”, the ideas of the European Enlightenment about religion. Eucharistic ecclesiology is not suitable for such views. The basis for the Church’s unity is not the nation, but rather geographical area: all those who live in a specific place, regardless of their ethnicity, belong ecclesiastically to the one Bishop of the place and the existence of a nation-state does not necessarily lead to a new and independent Church.”

[…] The supra-national character [of the Ecumenical Patriarchate] in no way diminishes the importance of the specificities of the Orthodox peoples for the life of the Church. The condemnation of ethnophyletism does not mean the disparagement or rejection of the cultural elements that belong to the identities of the peoples and provide the basis and possibility of communication and mutual enrichment. Simply, this diversity, which is a pastorally necessary element for the development of the Orthodox Diaspora, must operate on the basis of the sacred canons and ecclesiastical order and not become the axis and highest criterion for the organization of ecclesiastical life […]

In the tradition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the proper appraisal of the specificity of nations coexists with the ecumenical spirit, openness and striving for peace. The identification of Orthodoxy with orthodoxism constitutes a reversal of real historical facts. Indeed, it is absurd for Orthodoxy, which respected the particular culture of the peoples who were Christianized and promotes the catholicity of the local ecclesiastical community  regardless of its racial, linguistic and social composition, to be characterized as nationalistic. […]

The authentic Orthodox faith and tradition cannot constitute a source of nationalist tendencies.  Whenever ethnocentricism has appeared or appears within the framework of Orthodoxy, It had and has foreign roots. The blessed head of your Department, Nikolaios Matsoukas, saw ecumenicity and cosmopolitanism as “the essential characteristics” of Orthodoxy.

Patriarch Bartholomew and Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) are correct in diagnosing ethnophyletism as “the greatest danger to the unity of the Orthodox Church today.” It should be obvious to all that this malady infects the life of all the Orthodox churches. Unfortunately, however, Patriarch Bartholomew makes it clear in this speech how far the Ecumenical Patriarchate is as an institution from the self-criticism necessary for authentic Christian leadership. As he describes it, ethnophyletism has plagued the “autocephalous Churches” over the past two centuries, while Constantinople sits above it all, immune to the siren song of nationalism and ethnic chauvinism.

Once more, it must be stressed that the current ecclesiological crisis in Orthodoxy is also a conflict between incompatible collective memories. In the collective memory of the Phanar, to seek ecclesiastical independence from ethnic Greek control is ethnophyletism, but Constantinople’s imposition of Greek clergy, customs and language throughout the churches of the Ottoman Empire (and even today, in the case of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem) is not. But if we are to be historically objective, can we really imagine the former developing as it did without the latter? How can an institution whose leadership has always identified itself with a single ethnicity dare to claim to be “supra-national”?

It takes no time with a search engine to discover just how much Patriarch Bartholomew identifies the Patriarchate of Constantinople—and its primacy—with the Greek people. In his widely-reported comments last October, where he stated that “Our Slav brothers can’t stand the precedence that our Ecumenical Patriarchate has, nor, consequently, our race [το γένος μας] in worldwide Orthodoxy,” he also spoke of the Ecumenical Patriarchate being “the womb of our race [του γένους μας]” and went on to laud “the particular ideals that we have as a race [φυλή] and as a people [γένος].”

It is difficult to see how Patriarch Bartholomew sees the Ecumenical Patriarchate as having not “giv[en] in to the temptation of ethnophyletism … amist the ‘storm of nationalisms’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries” when he can also say last October to a group of visitors from the Greek region of Macedonia, “You Macedonians know what this martyric Church of Constantinople has offered you, in your place, so that it may remain Greek. From here [i.e., Constantinople] were sent to you … the heroic hierarchs who led the way in the Macedonian struggle and supported, putting their chests forward, our Race [το Γένος μας] and our Faith.”

Patriarch Bartholomew’s readiness to use the very language of ethnophyletism is well-illustrated by his remarks on another occasion in 2012, where, when discussing prospects for the reopening of certain monasteries in Turkey, he did not speak of it in terms of Christian witness or worship, but rather as a possibility “for us to operate and to reconnect with the glorious past of our race [της φυλής μας].”

That same year, speaking to a Greek official, he expressed his hope that  “once again the pious and most dear Greek people [λαός] will be led along the path of the destiny of our race [της φυλής μας], which is its calling, to enlighten the inhabited world…” There is no use in further multiplying such examples, as they are abundant for anyone with access to the internet and knowledge of Greek.

That said, Patriarch Bartholomew is probably not being self-consciously hypocritical, even as he consistently employs ethnophyletistic language and patterns of thought for which he rebukes other church leaders. Rather, he is guilty of the same category mistake that he makes in his understanding of the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s primacy: a confusion between the particular and the universal.

This is evident in the way that the Ecumenical Patriarch speaks of other churches. They are “the local churches” or “the autocephalous churches”. That is, particular churches of defined places, implicitly in contrast to the supposed boundary-transcending, supra-national universality of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Thus, in his view, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is “the common Mother and caretaker of all” and “the Mother and mistress among the Churches” because he sees it as fundamentally unlike the other churches. But should we not understand the protos– even grammatically as an ordinal number– as the first in a series of analogues, as we see in the diptychs, not something unique and sine paribus?

Of course, the Patriarchate of Constantinople is not an abstract universal. It is a real church with a real, defined territory. Which is to say, it is a local church. The fact that historical contingencies have caused the numbers of its parishes and believers to be microscopic now compared to any past era does not change this fact. This does, however, illustrate one serious danger of the lamentable custom of titular bishoprics: when a synod is largely comprised of bishops whose dioceses have no concrete existence, there is a great temptation to interpret this canonical fiction as meaning that such a synod is free from concrete limitations and is thus universal.

In the same way, Greek culture or language cannot be a universal culture precisely because it is a real culture of real people. It is embodied, not an ideal or an abstraction, let alone a mission civilizatrice. Claims of the universality of Hellenism, rooted merely in the fact that it was the prestige culture of the Eastern Mediterranean from Alexander to Muhammad, are just as absurd as 19th and 20th century claims by French, Russian and American imperialists about the universality of their cultures.

In the end, only Christ’s Gospel is universal. The early Christians’ acute awareness of this fact is demonstrated by their insistence on the possibility of translating scripture and liturgy into any language, on the fact that Christ’s universal message can be fully available to all in any language– a claim that is all the more remarkable when compared with attitudes toward translation in Judaism and Islam. The second century author of the Epistle to Diognetus perfectly expressed how the universality of the Gospel is expressed in the particularity of individual Christians across all cultures:

Inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.

Awareness and acceptance our own particularity while embodying Christian universality is a necessary condition for being able to accept and embrace the other. If we seek to be universal, to transcend the constraints of concrete particularity and so place ourselves above all others, we have given in to a desire which, as Pope Saint Gregory the Great reminds us, springs from pride not unlike that of the Antichrist.

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