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On Local Orthodox Churches in the Diaspora


For several decades now Orthodox have debated the problem of the Diaspora, that is the organization of the Orthodox Church in countries to which Orthodox have emigrated, particularly since 1917. The problem is that Orthodox dioceses in the Diaspora (known for some reason by the secular term ‘jurisdictions’) are superimposed on each other. The result is that in the same Diaspora city, be it Paris, New York, London or Rio de Janeiro, there can be found several Orthodox bishops. This is despite the canonical principle of territoriality – that each city and province should have its own unique bishop.

The excuse is given that in the Diaspora, that Orthodox bishops living in the same city, copying the Roman Catholic practice of titles ‘in partibus’, have different titles - usually the names of villages in Turkey or Russia. This is absurd. The fact is that those bishops do not live in those villages and nor do their flocks; they live in the same cities as other Orthodox bishops and so do their flocks. This situation is plainly uncanonical. There should not be more than one bishop per city or territory.

Decades ago already, some Orthodox therefore called for the establishment of Local Orthodox Churches, for instance, one for Western Europe, one for North America, one for South and Central America and one for Australasia, with each of these territories having its own Local Church and a single diocesan structure under a single Metropolitan. Unfortunately, the possibility of any of this happening has been much hampered by a number of secular misunderstandings, fostered by those on the fringes of Orthodoxy over the last two to three generations. What are these misunderstandings of ecclesiastical principles?


a)Non-Interference in other Dioceses

The first misunderstanding concerns a basic principle of Church life (Canon XIV of the Holy Apostles and taken up by canons of subsequent Councils) is that any bishop must refrain from interfering in the life of another diocese. To this extent the present situation of the Diaspora is canonical, for each bishop does only care for the diocese entrusted to him. Thus, the Serbian bishop in Paris does not interfere in the diocese of the Romanian bishop in Paris, and vice versa. This is as it should be, though it does not solve the fundamental problem - that their dioceses are on the same territory.

Nevertheless, in view of the above, the new pretensions of the Patriarchate of Constantinope to the Ukraine and Estonia, territories which have been attached to the Russian Church for centuries, are quite uncanonical. Equally, the present pretensions of the Romanian Church to Moldova, the territory of which has been associated with the Russian Church for most of the last two centuries, is quite uncanonical – unless of course the Moldovan State and people decide to become part of Romania, in which case Church allegiance could then logically be transferred to the Romanian Church. But that is a political question, not an ecclesiastical one, and it is not part of the brief of a Local Church to pre-empt purely secular and political decisions. Finally, with another example from the present life of the Russian Church, the recent letter of the strangely excessive Bishop Diomid of Chukotka is uncanonical, for it is addressed to the whole Russian Church, whereas his rule is only over his own diocese. Put simply, no bishop has the right to interfere in another’s diocese. Until this basic principle is understood and practised, there can be no resolution to the problem of the Diaspora.

b)Bishops are not the Church

Another misunderstanding which we sometimes hear is that the present chaos in the Diaspora is ‘the fault of the bishops’. This is not true and shows a Non-Orthodox, clericalist, understanding of the role of the bishop in the Church. We are not Roman Catholics and bishops are not the Church. The Church is the whole people of God, clergy and people. Bishops cannot do something entirely against the wishes of the people. Leadership yes, dictatorship no. Bishops cannot set up a Church. The Church is everyone in it. And ‘everyone’ cannot set up a Local Church either. (We are not Roman Catholics, but neither are we Protestants). Only the Holy Spirit sets up Churches. And this is precisely the basis of the life of the Orthodox Church – the Holy Spirit. The Church was founded on the Day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, not on the day Layman X, Father Y or Bishop Z obtained his doctorate from some university or other.

In other words, the idea of some, for example in the ‘Fraternité Orthodoxe’ in France, that ‘we must set up a Local Church’, is secular. The Church is not a company or secular corporation. If you treat it as such, and that is the main tendency of that Fraternité, you will have an obsession with legalism, ‘the legal personalities of churches’ and their registration with secular States. This is a secular mode of thinking, which fails entirely to see the Church as She is – the Body of Christ, irradiated and governed by the Holy Spirit through bishops who are receptive to the Holy Spirit, and not some secular organization set up by French intellectuals.

c)The Meaning of ‘Local’

Diocesan bishops in some countries of the Diaspora often meet together in ‘standing committees’, in order to discuss affairs of mutual interest. There should in principle be no problem with this. However, it could in theory be taken a stage further. Diocesan bishops in the Diaspora, together with the Patriarchs and Synods of the Local Churches that they represent, could in theory meet together and establish Local Churches in the Diaspora.

However, this will not happen until there are Local Churches, in other words, until there are groups of Orthodox in, say, Great Britain and Ireland, or North America or Australasia, who want to have a Local Church. And at the moment that simply is not the case. The fact is that the vast majority of Orthodox in any of the territories of the Diaspora do not want a Local Church, rather they look back to their homelands and are happy to belong to the Church of that homeland. For them the diocese which they belong to in the Diaspora is simply an extension of their homeland and not another country. The fact is that a Local Church can only be formed, if local people want it. And the fact is that at the present time Greek, Slav, Romanian, Arab and Georgian Orthodox in the Diaspora do not for the most part consider themselves to be local, but look back to their homelands, from where they have come, either as political or else economic refugees. The fact that they live and have lived for many decades and even generations in a particular country does not necessarily make them local. And the number of truly local Orthodox, those indigenous to the country, is everywhere a tiny percentage (and I speak as one of them), despite the works of fiction claiming the contrary.

Indeed, over the last ten years or so, we have seen ever more Orthodox Dioceses opening up in Western Europe. For example, the Georgian Church has come into existence in Western Europe, the Church of Antioch has opened an ex-Anglican Deanery in the United Kingdom, and the Romanian and Russian Churches have expanded everywhere in Western Europe, with large flows of immigration. Some will say that this is ‘healthy competition’, others describe it as ‘dividing the flock’. The fact is that, good or bad, there are even more dioceses (‘jurisdictions’) in the Diaspora than a decade or so ago and, as a result, we are even further away from unity in the Diaspora than before. This fact may upset the wishful thinkers, but it is on reality and not on the misunderstandings of fantasy that we must build.

d)The Majority Jurisdiction should set up a Local Church

This is again a secular concept: Churches are founded by the Holy Spirit, not by manmade ‘jurisdictions’ Thus, in France, over twenty years ago, one Constantinople Archbishop told me that only the Patriarchate of Constantinople had the right to set up a Local Church in France, because it was in the majority. Even at that time this was dubious, for the Greek Church in France was and is very small there and the ex-Russian Rue Daru Diocese, also under Constantinople, even at that time, numbered no more than 5,000 - 10,000. (Moreover, even then it was arguable as to which ‘jurisdiction’ had the best infrastructure – the numerically largest ‘jurisdiction’ does not always have the best infrastructure).

Furthermore, the word ‘largest’ jurisdiction means very little, for there is no fixed criterion to count the number of Orthodox. Today, the ageing Rue Daru ‘jurisdiction’ is probably even smaller than twenty years ago and is largely outnumbered by Serbs and Romanians. The fact is that the ethnic majority within any country fluctuates, all the more so since the collapse of Communism and floods of economic refugees leaving Eastern Europe. And we must live in the present, not in the past. Thus, references like ‘we were the majority in the 1980s’ – or for that matter, ‘in the sixteenth or eleventh centuries’ - are totally irrelevant.

In any case, suppose the majority does not wish to set up a Local Church? This was certainly the case in France, where the Greeks had no interest whatsoever in this. As for most Russians of the Rue Daru jurisdiction, they were still hoping for the collapse of Communism and freedom for the Church in Russia. Thus, they would obtain the opportunity to give up their temporary defection to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, caused by their political unwillingness to be part of the majority Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR).

This is also the case in the USA, where the largest single Orthodox group is probably Greek. The fact is also that most (but not all) Greeks in the USA do not want to separate from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. They have little desire to set up a Local Church in the USA. The same could be said a few years ago of the then situation in the United Kingdom. Two decades ago and even less the absolute majority of Orthodox here were ethnic Greeks and belonged to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. However, hardly any of them had any desire to set up a Local Church. And today they are probably in a minority.

e)The Jurisdiction with the Greatest Interest in a Local Church should set up such a Local Church

On the face of it, this would seem logical. However, this is what was done in North America, when, during the Cold War nearly forty years ago, the controversial Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad, set up a body called the ‘Orthodox Church in America’ (OCA), together with two Parisian priests of the ‘Metropolia’. (The Metropolia was a breakaway part of the Russian Church, left aside by the political situation inside Russia, which had split from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia). Unfortunately, as a clericalist organization, they committed a number of mistakes.

Firstly, they did not consult. They did not consult with other Orthodox, which led to Greek and other Orthodox considering that the OCA then, and to this day, is uncanonical. Nor did the group of three clerics consult adequately with the masses of their own Orthodox people of the Metropolia. Most of these were of Slav origin and would not have called themselves ‘American’. Just because larger numbers of the members of that jurisdiction came from Carpatho-Russia, a region that has never existed as an independent country, and were considered as being from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which disappeared in 1918, did not mean that they wished to cut themselves off from their ethnic and cultural heritage. Indeed, many of them, though not all, were opposed to the OCA set-up.

Secondly, as regards the liturgical language used, sadly English was sometimes used as a sort of weapon to Americanize the faithful. In reality, liturgical language is not a weapon, merely a tool or channel for the grace of God. That is why we use a liturgical language in Church, and not the everyday jargon that we speak in the street or the kitchen. A channel for the grace of God should be a fitting and worthy vehicle for that grace. This is also why we use whatever language is the most appropriate to bring people to prayer and repentance, to God, regardless of whatever some intellectual somewhere else might think. If we are using a language which does not bring people to God, or else we are using a language in such a way that it does not bring people to God, then we had better change our ideas.

Thirdly, in order to make out that they were more American than the Americans and therefore worthy to have their own Local Church, some there began to ‘modernize’, that is protestantize, their new-born OCA. This de facto American phyletism and Protestant ‘missionaryism’ created even more hostility among many ordinary faithful. Genuine missionary work goes with quality, not quantity. In other words, it must remain faithful to the Orthodox Tradition, refusing to make compromises in order to bring in numbers. Missionary work should be fitting, and not some sort of vulgar Protestant proselytism. The only sort of missionary work that is fitting is that which will maintain the converted in the Church, so that, in the words of the Gospel, they will be ‘patient to the end’ and so ‘save their souls’. Becoming Orthodox is not necessarily significant – remaining Orthodox is.

Thus, in this perspective, the gradual imposition of the Roman Catholic calendar on the faithful of the Metropolia scandalized many of them. They were told that they could leave the ‘OCA’ if they did not like it, but they could not take their churches, which their forebears had built and worshipped in, with them. This demonstrated a lack of love for Church people and the putting of real estate over human souls –pure secularism. The bitterness from all this has still not been lived out to the end in parts of North America. Many there who did remain, because ‘otherwise our bishops would steal our churches’ (their words, not mine), have told me that they do not in their minds and hearts belong to the OCA, but to the Metropolia – an organization that ceased to exist nearly forty years ago. In other words, these people have had their spiritual home taken from them, all in the name of some ideology of ‘the Local Church’.


It is a worthy hope that one day there will be Local Orthodox Churches in the Diaspora. However, the fact is that there will never be any Local Orthodox Churches in the Diaspora, until there are large numbers of local Orthodox (and not a few fantasist and secular-minded intellectuals). Local Orthodox are those who, whatever their origins, consider themselves to be local. Local means not only serving, but above all praying, in the local liturgical language (and a liturgical language, a worthy vessel for the grace of God, is the only acceptable one). Local also means venerating the local saints, but in faithfulness to the Orthodox Tradition, and not to some ecumenical and secular, bourgeois mish-mash of political compromise.

Here it must be said that, in the Americas, in Australasia and in Western Europe, the numbers of local Orthodox , that is those who are indigenous by blood to the country in which they live, is tiny. Moreover, the number of second and third generation indigenous Orthodox (the children and grandchildren of those who converted in the past) is even fewer. And most second and third generation immigrant Orthodox generally refuse to call themselves, for instance, ‘American’ or ‘Australian’, but rather ‘Greek-American’ or ‘Russian-Australian’. This is because the vast majority of Orthodox in the Western world settled there not as missionaries, but as refugees. Apart from the exceptional figure of St John of Shanghai/Western Europe/San Francisco, it is virtually impossible to think of any authentically Orthodox (as opposed to semi-Orthodox or simply charlatan) missionary from Eastern Europe to the Western world.

In history, new Local Churches have always been born from the missionary efforts of monastics, made fruitful by the Holy Spirit. In sixth-century England this was the case with Sts Gregory and Augustine, in ninth-century Moravia this was the case with Sts Cyril and Methodius, in nineteenth-century Alaska and Japan, this was the case with St Herman of Alaska and St Nicholas of Tokyo. Thus, who will set up new Local Churches? Those who have 'primacy', that is to say those who put the faith first and invoke not secularist nationalism, ‘phyletism’, ‘Americanization’, for example, but the Holy Spirit. They will know that the Holy Spirit leads us, and not second-generation rebels against the Tradition, brought to their country of refuge by their parents. That latter immature rebellion, now thank God dying out, is born of psychology, but not of theology. And the Church is built on mature Theology, that is to say, on the Word of God, ‘through Whom all things were made’.

Priest Andrew Phillips,
East Anglia

20 November/3 December
Forefeast of the Entry into the Temple
St Edmund, King and Martyr

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