George Hackney looks at how the Orthodox are gradually beginning to catch up with their Western counterparts in this country

In many towns and cities today the Orthodox Church in England is divided into racial, national or ethnic jurisdictions, although the actual congregations are increasingly multi-ethnic. There is at present no unified leadership of the Orthodox Church in the British Isles. There are no less than eleven parallel and overlapping episcopal jurisdictions. Some Orthodox bishops are resident in Britain. Others are ‘flying bishops’, residing in European cities and crossing the Channel from time to time to visit parishes over here.

Most Orthodox parishes here were founded by European immigrants. Ethnic jurisdictions among the Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Antiochian, etc.) have come about not by deliberate planning but by historical accident.

Unorthodox orthodoxy

During the twentieth century, more and more Greek and Russian people fled to England as refugees. Naturally they brought their Orthodox Christian Faith with them. The initial motive in borrowing, renting or building premises for Orthodox worship was to provide chaplaincy ministry to temporary immigrants from the Greek lands and Eastern Europe. It resulted in the appearance of parallel episcopal jurisdictions organized on ethnic lines.

According to Orthodox belief and Canon Law, there should be only one Orthodox bishop in any city. All the Orthodox Christians in that city should be under the care of the one bishop and the priests who assist him. However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that didn’t happen in Britain. Greek bishops created churches for Greeks, where Liturgy was sung only in Greek. Russian bishops created churches for Russians, where Liturgy was sung in Slavonic. Other bishops created churches for other ethnic groups.

However, in Orthodox theology and Canon Law, it is heresy to base ecclesiastical organization on ethnicity. Phyletism was declared a modern heresy by an Orthodox Synod in 1872. The name comes from phyli meaning ‘tribe’. The heresy is essentially that of basing church organization on race rather than place. Even the idea of a ‘national church’ is a heretical one.

As time went by, there was a steady growth of Orthodox parishes in England. Most of the Greek and Russian immigrants did not go home. They settled down here and raised their families here. Their children now have English as their first language, often their only language.

An unexpected turn of events

During the twentieth century, a steadily growing flow of Englishmen and women discovered the Orthodox Church in their midst, found the Orthodox Faith answered their needs and sought to join the Orthodox Church. Today there are many native English priests and the Liturgy is served in English in more and more parishes every year.

With a steady flow of native English people into the Orthodox Church and into the Orthodox priesthood, and also the increasingly mixed ethnic composition of the parishes, it has become impossible to ignore the uncanonical situation in which Orthodox in Britain find themselves.

The parishes in England are changing. Many parishes are ceasing to regard themselves as ethnic chaplaincies and are transforming themselves into local missionary communities. Increasingly the Orthodox are becoming aware that they have an evangelical duty to share the treasures of Orthodoxy with those who have not yet discovered them. Until now the various Orthodox bishops who have oversight of parishes in this country have never met together as one body.

The first Assembly

At the Ecumenical Patriarchate Centre in Chambesy near Geneva in June last year, the Patriarchs and Archbishops of all the canonical Orthodox Churches throughout the world declared that the present situation cannot be allowed to continue. They made a decision to take action to normalize the situation in Great Britain and Ireland, and create one Local Orthodox Church for the British Isles. The plan falls into two parts.

First of all, there is to be a new Regional Episcopal Assembly of all the Orthodox bishops who currently serve the various jurisdictions in Britain and Ireland. They must meet together, share resources and co-ordinate the work of the various existing jurisdictions within this region. The first meeting of this new Episcopal Assembly is to be held in London in June this year.

But that is only a halfway house. The Regional Episcopal Assembly is to be a transitional body. It has been charged by the Patriarchs to produce a plan for the conversion of the various ethnic jurisdictions here into one unified Local Orthodox Church of Great Britain and Ireland. This Local Orthodox Church of the future will be based, not on race or ethnicity, but, as the Orthodox Faith demands, on geographical territory.

The Local Church which will emerge from this process will not be an ‘English’ or ‘British’ Orthodox Church. Rather it will be ‘The Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland’. The Orthodox Church wishes to make clear that it is a Church for every race in every place – not ethnic, but truly Catholic. ND