This is a topic that his been covered by many academics far more enlightened than am I. But as a personal blog, I’d like to share a few thoughts with more questions than answers.
When the topic of religion comes up and I tell a person that I am Orthodox, I am usually met with a blank stare. Sometimes that will be followed with “like Greek Orthodox” or sometimes “Do you mean Russian Orthodox?” Even the general public who know little or nothing about the Eastern Church identify it as a nationalistic entity.
A couple years ago while serving on the board of our parish council, a member asked why we didn’t have the American Flag in the Church. He told me how proud he was to be an American and also informed me that the “Greek Church” had a Greek Flag in their church. I was taken back. My response to him was that we take part only in the Kingdom of God and not any earthly kingdom (nation). He didn’t care for my refusal, but had no response to my point. Now I see flags on most Greek Churches. I even saw flags recently at a Greek Orthodox Monastery known for its strictness: Byzantine, Greek, and American.
My parish is Antiochian. I can tell you that the those of Arab background are quite proud of their heritage, as they should be. New immigrants come to the church as a way of meeting other Syrian and Lebanese nationals. As a group, they are not our best attenders. One priest described the group as ‘tribal’. Many often ask for services to be held in Arabic. Their attendance soars when we are able to do this. I can understand wanting to pray in one’s national tongue. Didn’t this occur during Pentecost?
When I was younger and attending a Greek parish by myself, I was asked by a Greek woman why I was going to that church since I was not Greek. It reminds me of the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when after the fiancee was baptized, his future father-in-law told him, “Now you’re Greek,” as if he was grafted into a national identity instead of the Body of Christ. This is quite dangerous, blasphemous even.
The other thing that is concerning to me is competing for jurisdiction. Our local priest told a couple that they could no longer commune because they were actively supporting the missionary work of a newer Russian parish. When my uncle did the same with a Serbian mission in Texas, his priest referenced him “leaving” the church or somehow rescinding his “membership” in the parish. I think that many hoped that the OCA (Orthodox Church in America), which was allowed autocephalous status by the mother church in Russia, would be the catalyst for a united episcopal body in the United States. It turned out not to be the case. And over the past forty years or so, the OCA membership has fallen by nearly two thirds. The Greek Archdiocese has actually grown over this time. They are under the jurisdictional care of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In fact, the ‘diaspora’ makes up the majority of the Patriarchates membership. There are few Orthodox Christians left in ‘Constantinople.’ They quote Canon 182 of Chalcedon for their right to claim jurisdiction over those in the ‘diaspora.’
The positive attributes of a national identity seem to be a sense that immigrants identify Orthodoxy to their ethnicity. This helps them stick together and stay in the Church. They come together and they stick together–at least the first generation does. There is a sense of pride in that. Byzantium certainly was an Orthodox State. The Emperors were very much involved in ecclesiastic decisions. God did confuse the tongues. He did establish a “nation” of Israel. At Pentecost, there was no official language; the people understood in their own native tongues. So there is this sense that a national identity is acceptable to God while on earth.
So I seem to generate more questions than answers. But I do think that there is a flaw in the Western world with multiple ‘jurisdictions’ within our countries. We do not have the same presence here in the United States as we would if all of the Orthodox bodies spoke with one voice. SCOBA is helpful, but Episcopal Assemblies with many bishops serving different parishes within a single city are not what the Canons have outlined for our leadership.
I for one do not feel comfortable with a national flag inside the Church. A couple of Biblical passages come to mind:
“Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”” (Mark 12:17)
“Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scyth′ian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
Meanwhile, I hope we will remember that we are all united in ONE Eucharistic cup.