As we approach the date of the planned Great and Holy Council of Orthodox Churches, it is significant that the first item on the agenda concerns the so-called "Orthodox Diaspora," a phrase that still upsets some people as somehow demeaning or disrespectful to Orthodox Christians living outside of traditionally Orthodox lands--or, more precisely, outside the physical boundaries of the autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches.
There is no doubt that the word "diaspora" is used in the New Testament, in the opening verse of the First Letter of Peter ("dispersion" in translation). It is hard to argue that Saint Peter was using an insulting epithet to name those Christians to whom he was writing. Rather, he was writing to Christians who had moved beyond Jerusalem, the center of the Church at the time. Of course, this is not exactly the reason why the word is used by the leaders of the autocephalous churches today, but it is also related.
When I was at seminary, during a dogmatics course, a certain Melkite Christian (a Church in the Middle East using the Byzantine liturgical rite in union with Rome) objected to the professor upon the latter's use of the word "uniate" to describe the student's church. The word "uniate," he explained, simply refers to churches using the Byzantine rite (common to all Eastern Orthodox Churches) who are in union with the Pope of Rome. He replied: "The Pope calls you uniates. The Orthodox call you uniates. So therefore, I do not call you uniates to be offensive; I call you uniates because you are uniates." The point is that the label itself is not offensive in and of itself. The student was offended, apparently, because of her insistence that she belonged to an Orthodox church in communion with Rome. Yet her idiosyncratic definition contrasted that of almost everyone else in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions which are not in communion.
For Orthodox Christians born, raised and residing outside traditionally Orthodox lands, or outside the boundaries of the autocephalous churches, we are not conscious of being part of any "dispersion." Yet it is safe to say that the reality of the Orthodox Church outside traditionally Orthodox lands and outside the boundaries of the autocephalous churches definitely is due to a dispersion of Orthodox peoples migrating to various lands, including Western Europe, the Americas, Australia and elsewhere. From the perspective of persons living within the geographic boundaries of the autocephalous churches, the word "diaspora" simply indicates no more, and no less, than the Orthodox beyond those boundaries. There is nothing demeaning about that; it is simply a matter of perspective.
"Diaspora" is not used to imply any moral defect among Christians, nor is it implied that Orthodox living in the so-called "diaspora" are intent on "returning" anywhere. Indeed, the fact that the autocephalous churches have included the ecclesiological and canonical issue of Orthodox living in the "diaspora" (with overlapping "jurisdictions" contrary to the spirit--and often letter--of the Holy Canons of the Church) is a clear indication that there is a desire to address the anomalous canonical issue that many Orthodox Christians living in the cultural West (and elsewhere) have sought to correct for at least a generation, if not more.
The use of the word "diaspora" is, in this light, an effective and useful term. The Church--as in ancient times--requires organization and order. Following the dispersion of Orthodox Christians from the Christian East, it is time for the Church in all lands to be ordered according to the ecclesiological principles of our tradition. Yet this task is not easy or simple. Certainly it is not as simplistic as many self-styled "reformers" among Orthodox in the United States would suggest.
Indeed, for many years, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and by extension the Ecumenical Patriarchate, were criticized from within and without for being the most obstinate perpetuator of a "diaspora" mentality. Yet now, as we approach the Holy and Great Council, we find that in actuality, the loudest critics have often wavered. The Patriarchate of Antioch, whose Metropolitan in the United States was among the most vociferous proponents of an independent Orthodox Church in this nation, has balked on an proposal to work toward canonical regularity and the departure from "ethnic" jurisdictions. The Bulgarians, Russian Synod Abroad, Romanians, have all also suggested the time was not appropriate to order the Church in the United States (and elsewhere) based on the canonical principle of "one city, one bishop." Each has suggested a need to continue with the status quo and the perpetuation of their jurisdictions due to the needs of their adherents' ethno-cultural needs. Even the Moscow Patriarchate, which granted the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) autocephaly in 1970, has violated the principle in maintaining two (!) subordinate jurisdictions in the Americas.
Of course, the "ethnic" problem which is at the root of our canonical irregularity is, in fact, directly related to the rather modern (19th century) understanding of "autocephaly" in the first place. As the planning of the Great and Holy Council illustrates, it is this issue that is the fundamental problem facing all Orthodox, for it permits--due to its ambiguity and foundation in nationalistic principles, itself a more "modern" phenomenon. (It is often overlooked that the ancient order of churches, what may be called "autocephalies," generally resided within one political entity, the [Eastern] Roman or "Byzantine" Empire.)
Ironically, many of those who protest the label "diaspora" are adamant that the Orthodox in this nation be organized as an autocephalous Church precisely because the USA is an independent nation. At least from an ecclesiological and historical perspective, such arguments are weak. There may be good reasons for the Church here to be ordered in an autonomous or autocephalous manner, but not simply because the Church resides in a political entity designed by men, or because it is larger, in geographic size and in population, than some of the autocephalous churches that exist today.
The whole point and mission of the Church is to disperse: to spread everywhere throughout the world, going to "all nations" (peoples). Indeed, the Church, being in the world but not of it, is on a sacred pilgrimage, and this also implies some sense of dispersion. We do plan to return to our first and only permanent "residence," which is the Kingdom of God.
"Diaspora" can be perceived in a negative manner, but only with effort. Easier it is to accept the label as a badge of honor, for those Orthodox living in the dispersion have a greater opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission of our Savior.