The Heresy of Racism

Want to add a useful word to your vocabulary? The term phyletism from phili: race or tribe was coined at the Holy and Great pan-Orthodox pan-Orthodox Synod that met in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) in 1872. The meeting was prompted by the creation of a separate bishopric by the Bulgarian community of Istanbul for parishes only open to Bulgarians. It was the first time in Church history that a separate diocese was established based on ethnic identity rather than principles of Orthodoxy and territory. Here is the Synod’s official condemnation of ecclesiastical racism, or “ethno-phyletism,” as well as its theological argumentation. It was issued on the 10th of August 1872.

We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which “support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”

A section of the report drawn up by the special commission of the pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople in 1872 reviewed the general principles which guided the Synod in its condemnation.

The question of what basis racism that is discriminating on the basis of different racial origins and language and the claiming or exercising of exclusive rights by persons or groups of persons exclusively of one country or group can have in secular states lies beyond the scope of our inquiry. But in the Christian Church, which is a spiritual communion, predestined by its Leader and Founder to contain all nations in one brotherhood in Christ, racism is alien and quite unthinkable. Indeed, if it is taken to mean the formation of special racial churches, each accepting all the members of its particular race, excluding all aliens and governed exclusively by pastors of its own race, as its adherents demand, racism is unheard of and unprecedented.

All the Christian churches founded in the early years of the faith were local and contained the Christians of a specific town or a specific locality, without racial distinction. They were thus usually named after the town or the country, not after the ethnic origin of their people.

The Jerusalem Church consisted of Jews and proselytes from various nations. The Churches of Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Rome and all the others were composed of Jews but mainly of gentiles. Each of these churches formed within itself an integral and indivisible whole. Each recognized as its Apostles the Apostles of Christ, who were all Jews. Each had a bishop installed by these Apostles without any racial discrimination: this is evident in the account of the founding of the first Churches of God….

The same system of establishing churches by locality prevails even after the Apostolic period, in the provincial or diocesan churches which were marked out on the basis of the political organization then prevailing, or of other historical reasons. The congregation of the faithful of each of these churches consisted of Christians of every race and tongue….

Paradoxically, the Church of Greece, Russia, Serbia, Moldavia and so on, or less properly the Russian Church, Greek Church, etc., mean autocephalous or semi-independent churches within autonomous or semi-independent dominions, with fixed boundaries identical with those of the secular dominions, outside which they have no ecclesiastical jurisdiction. They were composed not on ethnic grounds, but because of a particular situation, and do not consist entirely of one race or tongue. The Orthodox Church has never known racially-based churches… to coexist within the same parish, town or country…

If we examine those canons on which the Church’s government is constructed, we find nowhere in them any trace of racism. … Similarly, the canons of the local churches, when considering the formation, union or division of ecclesiastical groupings, put forward political reasons or ecclesiastical needs, never racial claims…. From all this, it is quite clear that racism finds no recognition in the government and sacred legislation of the Church.

But the racial principle also undermines the sacred governmental system of the Church…

In a racially organized church, the church of the local diocese has no area proper to itself, but the ethnic jurisdictions of the supreme ecclesiastical authorities are extended or restricted depending on the ebb and flow of peoples constantly being moved or migrating in groups or individually… If the racial principal is followed, no diocesan or patriarchal church, no provincial or metropolitan church, no episcopal church, not even a simple parish, whether it be the church of a village, small town or a suburb, can exist with its own proper place or area, containing within it all those of one faith. Is not Christ thus divided, as He was once among the Corinthians, by those who say: “I am for Paul, I am for Apollo, I am for Cephas” (1 Cor. 1:12)? …

No Ecumenical Council would find it right or in the interests of Christianity as a whole to admit an ecclesiastical reform [whose membership was based on ethnic identity] to serve the ephemeral idiosyncrasies of human passions and base concerns, because, apart from overthrowing the legislative achievements of so many senior Ecumenical Councils, it implies other destructive results, both manifest and potential:

First of all, it introduces a Judaic exclusiveness, whereby the idea of the race is seen a sine qua non of a Christian, particularly in the hierarchical structure. Every non-Greek, for instance, will thus be legally excluded from what will be called the Greek Church and hierarchy, every non-Bulgarian from the Bulgarian Church, and so on. As a Jew, St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, could only have been a pastor in one nation, the Jewish. Similarly, Saints Cyril and Methodius, being of Greek origin, would not have been accepted among the Slavs. What a loss this would have entailed for the Church! …

Thus the sacred and divine are rendered entirely human, secular interest is placed above spiritual and religious concerns, with each of the racial churches looking after its own. The doctrine of faith in “one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” receives a mortal blow. If all this occurs, as indeed it has, racism is in open dispute and contradiction with the spirit and teaching of Christ.

Reprinted from For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism, edited by Hildo Bos and Jim Forest (Syndesmos, 1999).