Here is part of a paper presented at the Orthodox Theological Research Forum recently held in Oxford, England. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware recommended it for publication, so I thought to share it here.
The sense of ethnic identity is part of self-identity. Each man has a personal character and he also reflects family, tribal, and regional or national identities or characteristics. In Christ these are placed below the unity of Christ, in that each man takes his primary identity from Christ but his human identities are not destroyed and so a man retains his personal, family and national characteristics. Thus, in the age to come there are people of all nations as all nations and yet one nation in Christ. The diverse human characteristics are united in Christ and do not divide as they do in themselves apart from Christ. Diversity is retained in the unity of Christ, except where that diversity is contrary to Christ. This unity requires that there are Church practices that are uniform to incarnate the mystery of Christ in all people and nations because that which is required to tangibly present Christ in human terms needs to be one in material/practical form since the unity of Christ includes unity in matter as well as in spirit. However, in the same manner that divinity does not consume humanity in Christ, neither does the humanity of Christ consume our humanity and so human diversity remains.
The unity of Christ is such that the Church cannot be defined along national or ethnic categories. Local and regional churches can only be defined in terms of geographical limits, within which there can only be one church, that is a synod in the form either of the bishop with his presbyters, the local diocese, or of a metropolitan with his bishops, a regional episcopal synod. However, these territorial limits can be taken from the territorial boundaries of a nation as well as those administrative boundaries within empires or states. Thus, in regional terms the synod of bishops can be defined in as those living in a particular national territory, as long as the definition is territorial rather than by any other category. Thus, if members of the Church from other regions/nations enter a territory they attend the services of the churches of that territory/nation within which they have entered rather than establishing their own churches. An exception to this is to allow parishes of different languages within the same territory to enable understanding of the services for those from other language groups. We have historical examples of this in Constantinople with Latin and Gothic parishes. Such exceptions will tend to reflect national differences but these latter differences should not be the reason for the exception but only language to enable understanding, following the teaching of St Paul.
The present situation in the UK and the US, as well as other places outside the established regions of Orthodox Churches, is rather complicated. The long established local religious communities in these places are heterodox and as such are not in unity with the Catholic Church, that is the Orthodox Churches in communion the Patriarch of Constantinople. Thus, the Orthodox emigrants to the UK or to the US did not have preexisting places of worship nor local hierarchy to establish such places. These had to be provided from their home regions. Sadly, due to lack of coordination between Orthodox Patriarchs, we have the situation of a number of hierarchs establishing churches for immigrants in the UK and the US. This situation has led to a neglect of the territorial definition of churches and to definition along national/ethnic categories, which is contrary to the teaching of Christ. We need to repent of this. It is suggested that the only way forward is to appoint and recognise a local territorially defined hierarchal structure for the UK or US with its own synod, although overseen by one of the present Patriarchs. Also, this hierarchy must attempt to convert the heterodox back to Orthodoxy and allow the local peoples to take ownership of the church within their own territory.
The use of vestments could be helpful to distinguish the hierarchy of the UK or the US from the hierarchies elsewhere. This is not in order to separate them but to highlight that the churches in the UK and the US are not part of other national churches, although most members within the churches in the UK and the US may be descended from these other nations. The churches in the UK and US should be seen as local churches in their own right. A distinction of vestments helps to provide visual recognition of this local hierarchy and to break it from being considered part of a nationally defined group. Yet, in terms of being orthodox, the vestments need to be consistent with the traditional form of vestments used through the history of the Church.
To enable the choice of vestments, even though most religious groups in the UK and the US are heterodox, some of their heritage comes from an orthodox background and maintains orthodox standards manifested in the cultural context of the UK and the US. It would be wise for the orthodox hierarchy not to impose an exterior manner of dress upon the UK and the US but rather to take what is already within that region consistent with Orthodox Tradition and establish it for use of orthodox Christians in that region. This would allow the local peoples to have greater identity and ownership of the church in their territory, rather than the church arriving as a foreign institution imposing its own national cultures as well as bringing orthodox Tradition. While it is important that each region or nation is established in the international community and participates in customs that are required for relationships across this international community, otherwise the local community becomes isolated and estranged, at the same time each region or nation should participate without losing the diversity of its own customs, where these do not go contrary to the international community. In orthodox terms the common customs of the international community are given in Holy Tradition, which is the common way of life in Christ as Christ that unites us with Christ, yet the regional customs are maintained that of self-rule in synergy with Christ as maintaining God’s image as man with the ability to govern. This governance is expressed in the diversity of customs within Tradition. For one national church to impose in entirety of its customs on another nation is to undermine and deny the self-rule of that nation thus denying the image of God in its people and the synergy of the relationship of God and man in deification.
For those wishing to look further into this here is a link to the paper of Metropolitan Kallistos on the same topic: ‘Neither Jew Nor Greek’: Catholicity And Ethnicity