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Phyletism or ethnophyletism (from Greek ἔθνος ethnos "nation" and φυλετισμός phyletismos "tribalism") is the principle of nationalities applied in the ecclesiastical domain: in other words, the conflation between church and nation. The term ethnophyletismos designates the idea that a local autocephalous church should be based not on a local (ecclesial) criterion, but on an ethnophyletist, national or linguistic one. It was used at the Holy and Great (Μείζων Meizon "enlarged") pan-Orthodox Synod in Constantinople on 10 September 1872 to qualify "phyletist (religious) nationalism", which was condemned as a modern ecclesial heresy: the church should not be confused with the destiny of a single nation or a single race.[1]


After their emancipation from Ottoman rule, the Balkan churches freely developed both their national identities and their religious life. Theological faculties were created in Athens, Belgrade, Sofia, and Bucharest. The Romanian Orthodox Church introduced the full cycle of the liturgical offices in vernacular Romanian. However, these liberal developments were often marked by nationalistic rivalries.

The term phyletism was coined at the Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod that met in Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1872. The meeting was prompted by the struggle of the Bulgarian Orthodox against the domination of the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople in the 1850s and 1860s. Discontent with the supremacy of the Greek clergy in Bulgaria had started to flare up in several Bulgarian dioceses as early as the 1820s. It was not, however, until 1850 that the Bulgarians initiated a purposeful struggle against the Greek clerics in a number of bishoprics demanding their replacement with Bulgarian ones as well as other changes such as the use of Bulgarian language in liturgy and fixed salaries for bishops. By that time, most Bulgarian religious leaders had realised that any further struggle for the rights of the Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire could not succeed unless they managed to obtain at least some degree of autonomy from the Patriarchate of Constantinople.[2]

On 10 August 1872 the Synod issued an official condemnation of ecclesiastical racism, or "ethno-phyletism", as well as its theological argumentation. In condemning phyletism, the Synod in Constantinople had, in fact, defined a basic problem of modern Orthodoxy.[3]

Both the Bulgarians and Greeks have been accused of phyletism during this period, the Greek clerics in particular for trying to impose the Greek language on non-Greek ethnic groups, such as the Slavic population of Macedonia and Thrace, and for spreading nationalistic ideas of a Greater Greece. Konstantin Leontiev, a prominent writer on the subject, notes that both sides were equally responsible for the schism, but differentiates the two:

“Both you [Greeks] and the Bulgarians can equally be accused of phyletism, that is, of introducing ethnic interests into Church questions, and in the use of religion as a political weapon; but the difference lies in the fact that Bulgarian phyletism is defensive, while yours is offensive. Their phyletism seeks only to mark out the boundaries of their tribe; yours seeks to cross the boundaries of Hellenism...[4]

21st century[edit]

Although the Eastern Orthodox Churches condemned phyletism in 1872, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has declared that "nationalism remains one of the central problems of the Church." Phyletism has been a threat to Orthodox unity since at least the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, and its impact on Orthodoxy in America—and in other areas of ethnic diaspora communities—throughout the 20th century and to the present-day is well known.[5]

The conditions behind modern-day phyletism are different from those surrounding the 1872 decision of the Synod in Constantinople. In the latter half of the 20th century, there has been a vigorous and sometimes contentious debate among the Orthodox concerning the problem of the Diaspora, specifically the organization of the Orthodox Church in countries to which Orthodox have emigrated, particularly since the Russian Revolution. The problem is that Orthodox dioceses (officially called "jurisdictions") in the Diaspora are superimposed on each other. The result is that there are usually several Orthodox bishops of different Orthodox churches in Diaspora cities. This situation violates the canonical principle of territoriality – that each city and province should have its own unique bishop.

United States[edit]

In the United States, most Eastern Orthodox parishes are ethnocentric, that is, focused on serving an ethnic community that has immigrated from overseas (e.g., the Greeks, Russians, Romanians, Finns, Serbs, Arabs, etc.) Many Orthodox Christians must travel long distances to find a local Church that is familiar to their ethnic background. All Orthodox churches make some attempt to accommodate those of other ethnic traditions with varying degrees of success.[6]

In June 2008, Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America delivered a talk on “Episcopacy, Primacy, and the Mother Churches: A Monastic Perspective” at the Conference of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary.

The problem is not so much the multiple overlapping jurisdictions, each ministering to diverse elements of the population. This could be adapted as a means of dealing with the legitimate diversity of ministries within a local or national Church. The problem is that there is no common expression of unity that supersedes ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions: there is no synod of bishops responsible for all the churches in America, and no primacy or point of accountability in the Orthodox world with the authority to correct such a situation.[7]

Josiah Trenham noted nine divisions of pastoral practice among the Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States.[8]


Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America points to Paris, France as an example of phyletism. He argues:

One more example of phyletism is Paris, France. There are six co-existing Orthodox bishops with overlapping ecclesiological jurisdictions. In my opinion and in the opinion of Orthodox canonists, this is phyletism.[9]

However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate claims that it is the only legitimate canonical authority for all Orthodox living in Western Europe, both having regard to canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, and also because since the 11th century the Patriarch and Pope of Rome has no longer been able to offer pastoral care for Orthodox in the West and the See of Constantinople is the nearest Patriarchate, geographically, which is able to offer such care.


Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, divisions within the Orthodox community in Estonia arose between those who wished to remain under Russian authority and those who wished to return to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with the dispute often taking place along ethnic lines, many Russians having immigrated to Estonia during the Soviet occupation. Lengthy negotiations between the two patriarchates failed to produce any agreement.

In 1993, the synod of the Orthodox Church of Estonia in Exile was re-registered as the autonomous Orthodox Church of Estonia, and on February 20, 1996, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I renewed the tomos granted to the OCE in 1923, restoring its canonical subordination to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This action brought immediate protest from the Estonian-born Patriarch Alexei II of the Moscow Patriarchate, which regarded his native Estonia as part of his canonical territory and the Patriarch of Moscow temporarily removed the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch from the diptychs.

An agreement was reached in which local congregations could choose which jurisdiction to follow. The Orthodox community in Estonia, which accounts for about 14% of the total population, remains divided, with the majority of faithful (mostly ethnic Russians) remaining under Moscow. As of a U.S. Department of State report from November 2003, about 20,000 believers (mostly ethnic Estonians) in 60 parishes are part of the autonomous church, with 150,000 faithful in 31 parishes, along with the monastic community of Pühtitsa, paying traditional allegiance to Moscow.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Papathomas, Grigorios (1995). Course of Canon Law — Appendix VI — canonical glossary. Paris.
  2. ^ Hildo Bos; Jim Forest, eds. (1999). For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism. Syndesmos.
  3. ^ "Orthodox Christian Information Center: History of the Orthodox Church - The Orthodox Churches in the 19th Century". Retrieved 2009-01-27.
  4. ^ Leontiev, Konstantin “The Fruits of the National Movements”, op. cit., p. 559
  5. ^ Pillar Two - Orthodox Relations
  6. ^ "Saint Seraphim of Sarov Russian Orthodox Mission - Freedom from Phyletism". Archived from the original on 2008-06-29.
  7. ^ "AOI - The Observer". Archived from the original on 2011-08-10. Retrieved 2009-01-27.
  8. ^ "Orthodox Reunion: Overcoming the Curse of Jurisdictionalism in America". Retrieved 2009-01-27.
  9. ^ "Metropolitan Philip's Address to the 48th Archdiocesan Convention General Assembly". Retrieved 2009-01-27.
  10. ^ International Religious Freedom Report 2003

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