The role of ethnicity as a principle of canonical jurisdiction within the Orthodox communion has largely been neglected. The geographical location is very often taken as the principle for determining the jurisdictional boundaries. Increasingly, ethnicity is becoming synonymous with the heresy of ethnophyletism. Naturally, this climate engendered an increase in calls for abolition of ethnic bishops in North America, based on the overemphasis of the geographic principle at the expense of the ethnic principle.
In this brief work, I argue that throughout history of the Orthodox Church the ethnic principle for determining canonical jurisdiction played an important role in the missionary work of the Church. Moreover, it still has a role to play in the greater and deeper evangelization by promoting preservation of customs and traditions, which can help the evangelized person to receive and adopt Church’s message to a greater extent and more intimately
The identification of ethincity with ethnophyletism ought to be avoided as misguided. Ethnophyletism, in the ecclesiological parlance, is nothing else but ecclesiastical racism, i. e., the extremist sentiment that one’s ecclesiastical tradition and customs are only correct and only worth preserving. Naturally, this must not be confused with a balanced and moderate adherence to one’s own ecclesiastical tradition and respect of other Orthodox customs and traditions.
The existence of ethnic bishops in North America is not contrary to the principles of the Orthodox Canon Law. The critics argue that presence of more than one bishop in the same city, although they belong to different canonical jurisdictions, goes against the Canon 8 of the Council of Nicaea AD 325. This opinion, however, does not take into account the fact that the purpose of the canon was to prevent overlap of canonical jurisdiction. But, in the present jurisdictional order in North America the overlap is avoided, since each bishop has his flock which is self– defined (but not exclusively!) according to each person’s ethnic extraction. The presence of ethnic bishops helps enculturation of the Gospel message and its better adoption by the flock. Finally, the Eucharistic unity of the many ethnic bishops in America clearly demonstrates that the ecclesial unity ought not be sought in the uniformity on the level of ethnicity, but in the doctrinal and sacramental nature of the Church.