Cyril Hovorun: Ethnophyletism, Phyletism, and the Pan-orthodox Council

The Pan-orthodox Council held on the island of Crete in June 2016 established its succession to the Council held in Constantinople in 1872. Both Councils dealt with the topic of nationalism, which the majority of scholars agree is a modern phenomenon: nationalism, and even national identity, constitute an intrinsic feature of modernity. The two Councils, however, addressed this phenomenon each in their own way.

The Council of Constantinople gathered specifically to cope with the issue of nationalism, at the time of the Bulgarian “national awakening.” The Council of Crete, in contrast, met without a particular issue to solve. Its purpose was to meet for the sake of meeting and demonstrating the ability of the Orthodox Churches to come together. Without such a council, the idea of “conciliarity” as the core of modern Orthodox identity would not stand. Crete dealt with the issue of nationalism on the margins.

Despite this, I would argue that Crete handled the issue of nationalism in a more comprehensive way than Constantinople. First, the two Councils tackled two different kinds of nationalism. One is “ethnic” nationalism, and the other is “imperial” or “civilizational” nationalism. The former helps shape an “imagined community” (to use the famous phrase of Benedict Anderson), sharing the same language, culture, and ethnic origin. The latter also shapes an imagined community; however, this community can include several languages and cultures, as well as peoples with different ethnic backgrounds, because they more highly value their belonging to a common political milieu—in other words, an empire. When there is no acknowledged empire, people instead tend to think that they belong to a common “civilization.” This imperial/civilizational identity may lead to imperial/civilizational nationalism—a feeling of superiority over other civilizations.

Imperial/civilizational nationalism is larger and less particularistic than ethnic nationalism. Nevertheless, it is not large enough for Christianity. Neither type of nationalism is compatible with Christianity, which is opposed to the idea of superiority on the basis of any criterion, including ethnic and civilizational criteria. Furthermore, these two types of nationalism are incompatible with each other either. Although their nature is similar (nationalistic), they are enemies. The bloodiest battle in human history was between extreme examples of these two nationalisms: Nazism was a monster grown from ethnic nationalism, and its rival in the World War II, Soviet Communism, was another monster, but one which grew from a class-based quasi-imperial nationalism. The initial friendship between Stalin and Hitler—founded on their opposition to the free democratic world—and their subsequent deadly clash, together reveal the homogeneity of the two nationalisms on the one hand and the existential incompatibility of their purposes on the other.

It is particularly tragic when a nation is affected by both sorts of nationalism. This is the case with the Greek people. Since the beginning of the struggle for the independence of a Hellenic state in the early nineteenth century, proponents of Greek ethnic nationalism were confronted by advocates of Greek imperial nationalism, such as Phanariots. Later, these bearers of imperial nationalism were succeeded by adherents to the idea of “Greek civilization,” in the form of either the Megali Idea or the Romeosyne. The two groups still wrestle with each other in modern Greek political discourse. For instance, the famous philosopher and publicist Christos Yannaras, who leads the group of “civilizational” nationalists, tirelessly attacks what he calls the “Neo-hellenic” or “Helladitic” myopia of modern Greek culture and politics.

We can interpret the 1872 Council as one of the battlefields between ethnic and civilizational nationalisms. Ethnic particularism was condemned there under the name of “ethnophyletism.” However, it appears that it was condemned from the perspective of its rival, imperial/civilizational nationalism. The latter was supported by the High Porte, which pursued its imperialist interests, and by the Phanariots, who also had in mind the interests of the Ottoman Empire—as far as they coincided with the interests of what Arnold Toynbee would later call “the civilization of Hellenism.” It is remarkable that the Council of Constantinople was not attended or endorsed by the other Churches which pursued ethnic agendas, or represented an alternative imperial/civilizational nationalism, such as the Russian Church, which promoted Pan-slavism. Instead, these Churches perceived the Council as an attack by the Hellenic world against Slavic ethnic particularism.

The 2016 Council dealt with a different sort of nationalism and did so from a different perspective. I would argue that the Pan-orthodox Council in Crete tackled not only ethnic, but also—and primarily—civilizational nationalism. On the one hand, Crete reaffirmed the condemnation of ethnic nationalism, by endorsing the Council of Constantinople of 1872. On the other hand, the Crete tackled a particular instance of imperial/civilizational nationalism, which we now know as “Russkiy Mir [the Russian World].”

Before proceeding to the analysis of the “Russkiy Mir” and its implied condemnation by the Pan-orthodox Council, I must address the matter of whether the condemnation of imperial/civilizational nationalism at Crete came from its rival ethnic nationalism or from an alternative “Greek World.” I think the Council of Crete stood above all these forms of nationalism, and its condemnation of nationalism was not inspired by any other sort of nationalism, but rather by a universal vision of Christian mission in the modern world. The 2016 Council of Crete, unlike that of Constantinople in 1872, was attended not only by Greek-speaking Churches. Also, unlike the Council of 1872, the 2016 Pan-orthodox Council did not pursue the political agenda of any particular state. These and other factors made the 2016 Council correspond more closely to the nature and purpose of Orthodox councils than even the Council of 1872.

Concerning “Russkiy Mir” and the suggestion that it was condemned by the Pan-orthodox Council: of course, the Council neither mentioned the concept of “the Russian World” nor condemned it explicitly. Nevertheless, it dealt with the issue of four absent churches: Antioch, Moscow, Georgia, and Bulgaria. It has become more or less common wisdom to assume that the activity of the Russian Church was behind the absence of the other three. The strategy of the Russian Church in pressing other Churches not to come to Crete is similar to the hybrid war that the Russian Federation leads in Ukraine. The Russians pretend they are not there, even though they send their money, weapons, and troops (without military insignia). Russian propaganda presents the separatist groups in eastern Ukraine as acting on their own. But there is no doubt that the separatists would survive not even weeks without constant backing from Russia. The same can be said concerning the Churches which did not go to Crete. Moscow pretends it has nothing to do with their decision to boycott the Council,  but there can be little doubt that these Churches would have attended the Council if they did not have all sorts of competing motivation stemming from allegiance to Moscow.

With this apparently in mind, Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Cyprus stated in his opening address: “In my opinion, the inter-Orthodox rivalries on account of ethnophyletism were the first reason why the preparations for the Council took so long. Ethnophyletism is what blocked the question of autocephaly and of the diptychs from coming to the Council, and is also the cause behind the less than canonical solution given to the issue of the diaspora.” In this and other speeches at the Council, there was a severe criticism of the motivation of those Church who did not attend. Russian imperial/civilizational “phyletism” was the main reason for the absences. It was kept in mind by the fathers of the council, when they urged the condemnation of phyletism: Russian civilizational phyletism threatened the rationale of the council per se—to meet for the sake of meeting and demonstrating Pan-orthodox unity.

The condemnation of nationalism by Crete in 2016 was not only broader than at Constantinople in 1872—it was also more harsh. Constantinople chose a rather cautious language for its official statements, which the Bulgarian Church that had separated from the Ecumenical Patriarchate was calling an “illegal gathering” (παρασυναγωγή). Constantinople condemned “national differences” (φυλετικαὶ διακρίσεις) and controversies on “ethnic grounds” (ἐθνικὴ ἔρις). It was only the official periodical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Ekklesiastiki Alithia (issue 52, 1908), which applied stronger language, calling nationalism a “Bulgarian heresy” (βουλγαρικὴ κακοδοξία and ἑτεροδοξία) and an “antichristian doctrine” (ἀντιχριστιανικὴ διδασκαλία). Crete, in its official documents, called phyletism “an ecclesiological heresy” (Encyclical §3)—a much stronger definition.

The words “ethnophyletism” and “phyletism” are usually used interchangeably. However, I would distinguish between them for the sake of clarity. I would prefer to use “phyletism” to refer to the imperial/civilizational sort of nationalism and would reserve “ethnophyletism” for the ethnic kind of nationalism. In these terms, we can say that the Council of Constantinople in 1872 condemned ethnophyletism, while the Pan-orthodox Council of Crete in 2016 condemned both ethnophyletism and phyletism. A specific target of the latter Council was, in my opinion, the ideology of “Russkiy Mir.”

Just as ethnic nationalism was the main enemy of the Council of 1872, so the civilizational nationalism of the Russian World appears to be the main target of the 2016 Council. More than a year after the council, a feud continues between the ideology of the council and that of “Russkiy Mir”. At this stage of the reception of the Pan-orthodox Council, the Russian world continues to undermine it. Thus, a group of supporters of “Russkiy Mir” in Ukraine, headed by Bishop Longin Zhar, has anathematized the Council and want to convene an “anti-council.” They are strangely allied with a group in Greece which is also opposed to the Council. This group combines its anti-Crete sentiment with ethnic nationalism, of the sort which was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 1872. Thus, some ethnic nationalists from Greece and other countries have formed an unholy alliance with the civilizational nationalists from Russia and other countries, in a joint effort to undermine—and indeed, overthrow—the 2016 Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church.

Both Councils, of 1872 and 2016, took place within and are thereby confined by the context of Modernity. Those who oppose them, however, are even more deeply anchored in the Modernity than the Councils they criticize. These zealots curse Modernity in their rhetoric, but they remain fundamentally Modern, because they are motivated by the nationalistic phenomena which are characteristic of Modernity.

The Pan-orthodox Council of 2016 was more successful (and more irritating for its opponents) than the Council of 1872 in dealing with the issues of Modernity. Crete filled a lacuna left by Constantinople, in condemning imperial/civilizational nationalism in addition to ethnic nationalism. Without making this step, the Orthodox Church would not be able to leave the era of Modernity. Now it can, and should, go beyond it.

To conclude my reflection on the two types of nationalism pertinent to most Orthodox Churches, I would like to discuss another, new form of “nationalism,” known as “civil” nationalism. It builds not on the idea of ethnicity or civilization, but on the idea of citizenry and its virtues upheld by the civil society. Justice, solidarity, and political transparency are more valuable in this sort of “nationalism” than language or DNA. This nationalism is not much appreciated in the Orthodox world. However, it is not completely absent either. I believe that the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity (2013–14) indicated that civil awareness is possible even in an Orthodox context. The majority of the protesters who came to the central square of Kyiv—the Maidan—pursued its agenda. Remarkably, most Ukrainian churches embraced this agenda as well. Only a minority of protesters came to the Maidan with slogans in support of ethnic nationalism.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine, which followed the victory of the Maidan, was a reaction against the rise of the civil society. It can be interpreted as a conflict between different sorts of nationalism. But what exact sorts of nationalism? Russian propaganda justified the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine as an attempt to “protect” the Russian World from Ukrainian nationalists. If we believe this propaganda, we may assume that, in Ukraine, there is a classic clash between civilizational and ethnic nationalisms. However, we should not believe the Russian propaganda, because the civilizational nationalism of the Russian World attacked not Ukrainian nationalism, but Ukrainian civil society, which began emerging at that time. It was not Ukrainian ethnic nationalism but rather the Ukrainian civil meritocracy of the Maidan which became an existential threat to the Russian kleptocracy.

We can conclude from this that imperial/civilizational nationalism is incompatible with both ethnic nationalism and civil awareness. It is still an open question for me whether civil and ethnic awarenesses are compatible with each other. They coexisted in the Maidan, but began separating from each other thereafter, and even clash from time to time in the post-Maidan Ukraine. What I am sure about is that the next Pan-orthodox Council should add to the condemnation of the historic forms of Orthodox nationalism and endorsement of the civil awareness of Orthodox Christians.


This essay is based on a presentation given at a meeting of the European Academy of Religion in Bologna, June 18-22, 2017.


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Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun is a postdoctoral research fellow at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. He is currently on academic leave from Sankt Ignatius Theological Academy, Sweden and the Stockholm School of Theology, where he is a Senior lecturer. His main fields of expertise are early Christian traditions, ecclesiology, and public theology.