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Christianity and ethnicity

13 January 2009

“The Orthodox Church is not missionary, because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture.”

So said a parishioner of an Orthodox Church at tea after the Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox parish in Johannesburg a few years ago, and that seems to me to encapsulate the problems of “faith and ethnicity”, which is the theme of this month’s synchroblog.

I’ve headed my contribution “Christianity and ethnicity” because though many religions have ethnic links and ethnic problems, there are enough problems of ethnicity within Christianity to write several books about, without extending it to “faith” generally.

The idea that the purpose of the Orthodox Church is to preserve Greek culture is a fairly widespread one among members of the Greek diaspora, and is similar to the idea that its purpose is to preserve Serbian, Russian or Romanian culture among those of the diaspora from those countries as well. This is in part a historical thing. For many years, centuries, even, Orthodox Christianity was squeezed between Western and Islamic imperialisms into Eastern Europe and Russia. When the pressure eased somewhat, Orthodoxy spread outwards initially by people from that part of the world settling elsewhere. Most of the Orthodox churches in other parts of the world were established not by missionaries, but by ethnic communities, who saw the church as part of their ethnic identity, part of their link with “home”. So to this day, you cannot find the Orthodox Church in the Pretoria phone book. You can look under Orthodox or Church in vain. To find it, you would have to look under Hellenic Community, where the church is simply the religious aspect of the life of that community, along with the Boy Scouts, the Greek School and the soccer club. See the film My big fat Greek wedding to get the picture.

In South Africa, in Australia, in America, and in many other places outside Eastern Europe and Russia, this is how Orthodox Churches were started, and they very often retain the language of their home country. Clergy are mostly imported from overseas, and the youth, who were born locally, and do not speak the language of their home country, are often estranged from the church, because they don’t understand the language of the services, and they can’t ask the clergy questions about the faith, because the clergy rarely speak local languages.

This is not something peculiar to Orthodoxy. Something very similar happened among Anglicans in places like South America. Many British people settled in Argentina, for example, because of business interests. They were involved in the export of beef to Britain, or building the railways. They established Anglican churches which catered largely for the expatriate British community, with clergy brought over from Britain who could not speak a word of Spanish. As time passed, children of these immigrants born in Argentina married Spanish-speaking people, and their children grew up speaking Spanish and did not understand the language used in church. Some joined other churches, and eventually the Anglican Churches began having services at least partly in Spanish, or had a monthly Spanish service, or something like that. To complicate the issue, however, an Anglican missionary society sent missionaries to rural areas in northern Argentina, far from the areas of British settlement, and evangelised the local people. They used the local languages from the start, and there were thus two distinct varieties of Anglicanism, one expatriate, and the other indigenous.

The question of religion, culture and ethnicity has been around for quite a long time. For at least the last 40 years “indigenisation”, “inculturation” and “contextualisation” have been buzzwords in the vocabulary of missiologists.

In a way, these have been a principle of Orthodox mission from the start. When St Cyril and St Methodius went from Constantinople to evangelise the Slavs of Moravia in the 9th century they translated the services of the church and Christian writings into the local language, even developing a special alphabet to do so. They met with strong criticism from Rome, because the Roman Church believed that only the three languages Pilate used to write his notice on the cross should be used for Christian communication — Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

There are some interesting parallels and contrasts between Orthodox mission in North America and Protestant mission there and in Southern Africa. In North America Orthodoxy began as a mission church, and only later became a diaspora church. In both paces there was a link between mission and colonialism. Southern Africa was colonised by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Alaska by the Russian North America Company.

The first party of Russian missionaries went to Alaska in 1794, to minister both to the Russian expatriate employees of the company and the native Americans (mainly Aleuts and Eskimos). Among the latter they used mostly the local languages, and Orthodoxy rapidly became an integral part of the local culture.[1] In the 19th century, however, Russia sold Alaska to the USA, and immigrants from Eastern Europe began arriving on the east coast of the USA in large numbers. The centre of gravity of North American Orthodoxy moved from Kodiak to San Francisco, and then to New York.

Protestant missionaries, supported by the US government, then went to Alaska to Anglicise the Alaskans, and to deindigenise their culture and deOrthodoxise their Christianity. [2]

In South Africa there was a similar separation between mission and diaspora. The first Christian ministry was to employees of the Dutch East India Company, which was largely Dutch Reformed, though a Lutheran congregation was allowed in Cape Town later. Missionaries to the indigenous population later came from Moravia, and were entirely separate. This separation between “diaspora” and “mission” could have been one of the factors that led to apartheid. Indigenous Christians belonged to different denominations, whose clergy came from different places altogether. When Britain took control of the Cape Colony during the Napoleonic Wars, English-speaking denominations like Methodists and Anglicans became established, and there was somewhat less separation. Native and colonist Christians at least belonged to the same denomination, if not to the same congregations. For the high church Anglicans, too, their “catholic” ecclesiology, while it allowed the establishment of separate congregations for pragmatic reasons, such as different languages, would insist that all had to be part of one church under one bishop.

In the 20th century Donald McGavran of the “church growth” school of missiology propounded the idea that the church grew more rapidly if it was composed of “homogeneous units” with members belonging to a single ethnic group. This was a new and different slant on faith and ethnicity, because it was based on a different ecclesiology. The idea of a church as a monoethnic community became an almost ontological part of being a church.

While there might be a point in evangelising people in a homogeneous community, so that evangelism is geared to their language and culture, in a way that makes sense to them, incorporating such people into an ethnically homogeneous church is a different matter.

To many westerners, Orthodox Churches do look like such ethnically homogeneous communities. Many western Christians, on hearing that I am an Orthodox Christian, explicitly demand an ethnic epithet, “Do you mean Greek Orthodox? Or Russian Orthodox?” and they look puzzled when I reply “Orthodox Orthodox” or “Nonracial Orthodox” or “South African Orthodox.” They expect Orthodox Christianity to be defined by ethnicity, as, of course did the person who said that Orthodoxy is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture. But while I sometimes participate in services in Greek, Russian or Serbian parishes, usually on special occasions like the patronal festival of the church concerned, for the most part on Sundays I alternate between a North Sotho (Sepedi) congregation and an English one.

This ethnicity in Orthodox Churches is in part a result of inculturation in mission, and in part a result of historical circumstances, but it is not, as McGavran tried to make it, an ecclesiological principle — so much so that when some Bulgarians tried to set up a separate ethnic church in Constantinople a church council was held that declared that this was the heresy of phyletism. It was the equivalent, in the 1870s, of saying that apartheid was a heresy a century later.

There is one other things that can be said about this, though only very briefly in an a much simplified form in a blog post (for a more detailed discussion, see my article on Nationalism, violence and reconciliation). In part the link between Orthodoxy and ethnicity is because at some time or another just about every Orthodox Church has been subjected to Muslim domination, which in some cases (North Africa and the Near East) persists to this day. Russia was under the Tatars, the Balkans were under the Turks. In the Balkans especially there was a growth in secular nationalism in the 19th century that drove the struggles for national independence against the Ottoman Empire. It was this nationalism that brought in some ideas that were derived from German Romanticism, and were alien to Orthodoxy. Suddenly Greeks started calling themselves Hellenes, and their nation and culture Hellenic, for the first time in 1400 years. They had previously thought of themselves as Romans, and even under the Turks the Christian citizens of the Ottoman empire had been known as the Rum millet, the Roman nation. There are some today who say things like “Orthodoxy is Hellenism, and Hellenism is Orthodoxy”, thus identifying the Church with ethnic nationalism, but I somehow doubt that St Basil would have understood, much less approved.

The Orthodox Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, Metropolitan Seraphim, has said  that we should refer to ourselves as the Orthodox Church of South Africa, rather than the Greek or Hellenic Orthodox Church, even though the majority of parishes are Greek. We have Greek-speaking, Russian-speaking, Serb-speaking, English-speaking, Afrikaans-speaking, Sepedi-speaking, Tswana speaking and mixed parishes. But we are the Orthodox Church of South Africa, for all nations belong to Christ.


Notes and bibliography

[1] Ellanna, Linda J. & Balluta, Andrew. 1992. Nuvendaltin Quht’ana: the people of Nondalton. Washington: Smithsonian.

[2] Oswalt, Wendell H. 1990. Bashful no longer: an Alaskan Eskimo ethnohistory, 1778-1988. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press; Oleksa, Michael. 1992. Orthodox Alaska: a theology of mission. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.


This post is part of a synchroblog on the general theme of “Faith and ethnicity”. You may find links to other posts on this theme below.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Deacon Peter permalink
    13 January 2009 8:26 pm

    Hello, Deacon Stephen.

    I hope you are well … I think often of you and all of the other wonderful people I had a chance to meet on my visit with the OCMC in June of 2008.

    Several of us have been able to send donations of books and vestments to the seminary – I hope these are helping.

    While you are discussing mission in S. Africa, have you had a chance to read the article on the Church in S. Africa in the most recent OCMC publication? The file is large (almost 6 MB), but is worth downloading if you have the chance.

    Click to access Magazine_Vol24_No2.pdf

    Take care, and I hope to see you in person again soon (the OCMC is not planning a short-term trip to Joburg this year … so maybe next).

    -Dcn. Peter

  2. 13 January 2009 8:44 pm

    I think you nailed it. Honestly I think it’s good that Protestants evangelize Orthodox. Hopefully it will light a fire of zeal for the best parts of the Orthodox faith.

  3. 14 January 2009 10:44 am

    Dear Stephen,
    Hope you’ll recall our exchange mails about 2 decades ago. You were then in Australia when I informed you of my desire to lead my group into the canonical Greek Orthodox Church in Manila.
    Yes, by God’s grace, we are part of it since 1995.
    I hope to reconnect our communications

    It’s really nice to read your articles.

    fr. philemon castro

  4. 16 January 2009 6:02 am

    Hi Steve–
    Thanks for this really informative post. My knowledge of orthodoxy–of any stripe–has been in knowing a few people and going to a few services over the years–I especially have loved the Easter services in the Greek Orthodox churches.

    Truly appreciate your stance on orthodox orthodoxy…made me smile. Someday maybe I’ll write a post on my blog about a Russian Orthodox priest that I got to know named Danny. He lived for many years with AIDS, and I was helping provide services to people in our area with that disease, back in the late 1980’s. Danny taught me a lot…

    Thanks again–

  5. 16 January 2009 5:38 pm

    “…for the most part on Sundays I alternate between a North Sotho (Sepedi) congregation and an English one.” I’d like to hear more about that, about your own congregational experiences.

  6. 20 January 2009 10:43 am

    Fr Philemon,

    It’s good to hear from you again!

  7. 20 January 2009 10:51 am

    Thanks to Kevin Basil to the link to this article, which confirms and elaborates on the ethnocentric views encapsulated in the statement “The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture”?, namelt the article on “The Orthodox Church and Hellenic identity“. One paragraph gives the flavour:

    The inevitable consequence of converting Christians and non-Christians who have no Greek heritage is that the more successful the outreach, the greater the erosion of Greek identity within the Church. The only counter-argument made to this observation by many who support the conversion strategy is that, given the demographic challenges at hand, a larger, more inclusive Church is the only realistic way to preserve the Greek cultural heritage in America.

    And similar sentiments have been expressed in Orthodox communities in South Africa.

    • frbarnabas permalink
      16 August 2014 4:20 pm

      Fr. Deacon,

      Can you provide this link to the article you mention here? It doesn’t seem to work in your post. The article is The Orthodox Church and Hellenic identity.

      Thank you.

  8. 31 January 2009 11:09 pm

    Great quote. We need our churches to be more diverse… not because black people or Latino people need to be saved, but because white people need to be saved from ourselves. We need to realize that our experiences and value system don’t necessarily reflect everything that the kingdom of God has to offer… and we can only experience that in its fullness by spending time with people that are different from us (and not making the preservation of our own subculture our primary goal). And so, for me, this goes much deeper than skin color. I know people that look different on the outside and are quite similar to me on the inside. That’s probably why I know them. But there are other people that look very much like me on the outside and make me very uncomfortable, because they are, in fact, quite different from me. I want to hang out more with those types.


  1. Synchroblog Just a God of the West? – Susan Barnes
  2. Is the church ready for a multi-ethnic future? – Curious Christian

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