Orthodoxy Down Under

by Doru Costache

To talk about Orthodoxy in Oceania is as difficult as on the worldwide scale. Various churches claim this name, but they do not seem to acknowledge each other as such. Overall, there are three major Orthodox families, walking their separate ways since the fifth century. To outside observers, what keeps them apart is a matter of theological semantics. That is, they represent Jesus Christ in different, not contradictory, ways.

Specifically, the Eastern (or Byzantine) Orthodox churches, adherent to the Council of Chalcedon (451), speak of Christ as ‘one in two natures’, divine and human, without the natures being either mingled or separated. These churches share with the Oriental Orthodox churches – which reject Chalcedon – the conviction that Jesus’s mother, Mary, is theotokos, ‘She who gave birth to God.’ The Oriental Orthodox churches, in turn, speak of Christ as ‘one nature’, by which they refer to the divine Logos become a human being, but, again, without divinity and humanity being either mingled or separated. Furthermore, the Assyrian Church of the East, which journeys by itself since the Council of Ephesus (431), speaks of the two natures of Christ who is one person; this church does not refer to Mary as theotokos, preferring to call her ‘the Mother of Christ, who is both God and man’. Observers are bewildered by the reasons that prevent these churches from attaining fellowship, even from interacting in a constructive way, but nevertheless theirs is the longest-lasting division in Christian history.

However, in Oceania as elsewhere, there is more to their story. Within each ecclesial family can be found further differences, which have their origins in other factors not of a theological nature. Across these churches, furthermore, one discovers both shared values and an enriching diversity.

The Oriental Orthodox

Sometimes, what causes a parting of the ways are merely national borders or ethnic distinctiveness. Case in point, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church are one church become two after Eritrea won independence in 1991. Both are increasingly present in Australia and New Zealand, making their mark in the region. As members of the Oriental Orthodox family, both are historically and theologically related to the Coptic Orthodox Church, with which they have ecclesial fellowship. And while they operate as independent entities, some cooperation seems to occur at the parish level, especially in regard to youth education and activities. The same goes for the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Indian Orthodox Church, present in small numbers in the region, primarily in Australia and New Zealand. While they all share in the Oriental Orthodox heritage, cultural distinctiveness causes them to walk differently. The same happens in the churches of Byzantine tradition, which will be discussed further below.

The Oriental Orthodox churches develop an intense activity, catechetical and educational, aimed at preserving their ethnic and cultural identity. Most of their members are recent migrants. However, the Armenian and the Coptic communities have been present in the region for several generations and are therefore better integrated. All develop programmes of youth ministry. Given the ethnic and cultural focus of the Oriental churches in Oceania, their main form of cooperation is through the ecumenical movement. The Assyrian Church of the East is no different in this regard. It caters to its membership, refugees from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria whose activities unfold around several parishes in Australia and New Zealand. It, too, is very ecumenically involved.

Some of these churches, such as the Assyrian and Coptic ones, have established networks of primary and secondary schools. These are open both to their own members and to the broader community. Also, both churches have founded theological colleges, which offer tertiary degrees. In Australia, the Coptic Church trains future clergy, teachers and youth ministers at St Athanasius College (University of Divinity, Melbourne) and at St Cyril’s College (Sydney College of Divinity). The Assyrian Church recently established Nisibis College (currently on its way to receiving tertiary accreditation through the Sydney College of Divinity). All three theological colleges welcome staff and students from their own constituencies and from the wider community.

Before turning to the churches of Byzantine tradition, it is noteworthy that offshoots of several Oriental and Eastern churches – or indeed whole churches – encountered in Australia and New Zealand are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Such is the case of the Maronite and the Melkite churches (largely of Lebanese background), the Syrian and the Syro-Malabar churches (of Syrian and Indian background), the Chaldean Church (of Assyrian ethnicity) and pockets of Armenian, Coptic, Romanian and Ukrainian believers. As the Assyrian Church of the East is also in the process of union with Rome, sacramental fellowship and pastoral cooperation with the Chaldean Catholic Church is now possible. All the churches of this group maintain their traditional faith and liturgical particularities but cooperate within the framework of the Catholic family. In turn, the relation between them and other Orthodox churches is overall cold, sometimes tense.

The Eastern Orthodox

By and large, the Eastern Orthodox churches of Byzantine tradition that are present in Oceania mirror the situation of the Oriental family. They are organised independently, according to ethnic and cultural particularities. As none of them owns autocephalous status – namely, they are not self-ruled – these churches obey foreign headquarters, with their jurisdictional interests and national agendas. For example, most clergy and certain lay employees of the Romanian Orthodox Church receive wages from the Romanian government for contributing to the cultural consciousness of ethnic Romanians living in the region. To reciprocate, together with maintaining a website in its mother tongue only, the Romanian Orthodox Diocese of Australia and New Zealand organises annual collections for the benefit of the Romanian Patriarchate’s ‘national’ building undertakings in Bucharest. In like manner, the two regional outposts of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople – the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of New Zealand – support with funding the Patriarchate’s headquarters in Istanbul, as well as various ecclesiastical organisations in Greece. As with the Romanian example, the Greek Orthodox churches in the region also develop cultural and ethnic activities of no ecclesial significance. In the same vein, other Eastern Orthodox churches with dioceses in Oceania – such as the Antiochian, Macedonian and Serbian – follow overseas directives, working hard at maintaining their ethnic distinctiveness. The same goes for the small pockets of other ethnic Orthodox, that is, Bulgarian, Russian (Moscow Patriarchate) and Ukrainian. In turn, small dioceses and parishes of mixed ethnic background tend to migrate between the larger jurisdictions, seemingly not aligning to foreign nationalist policies.

A special case is the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), which, while dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate, has a very dynamic diocese in Australia and New Zealand. Its parishes and monasteries, of Russian liturgical tradition, appear to be less ethnocentric than other Eastern churches. Most of these parishes develop a robust mission in the region, welcoming Orthodox and potential converts regardless of their ethnic, cultural or linguistic background. The main language of many of these parishes is English, which facilitates communication within their congregations as well as with the society at large. It is beyond any doubt that the use of English explains ROCOR’s missional success and progress toward Antipodean contextualisation, including its organising the first Orthodox parish for Australia’s First Nations.

Other Eastern Orthodox parishes that use English include Antiochian, Greek, Romanian and Serbian. However, only a very few are English-only. Of these, the majority are Antiochian, especially parishes whose clergymen are converts to Orthodoxy; this also is the case of one Serbian parish in Ballarat, Australia. In only two other parishes – one Romanian and one Serbian, both in Sydney’s suburbs – do ethnic clergy minister in English for missional and pastoral purposes, welcoming faithful regardless of their cultural background. In turn, most parishes that combine English and other idioms are not free of the ethnocentric agendas of their foreign headquarters. Ethnocentrism prevents most of these churches both from developing missions in the region and from cooperation. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that only two of them – the Antiochian Archdiocese of Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines, and the Greek Archdiocese of New Zealand – operate in the broader Oceania. Further problems, of pastoral nature, are caused by the feuds between the overseas headquarters of some of these churches, whose faithful are no longer welcomed across the jurisdictional borders.

The overseas centres are largely responsible for another development. Specifically, several Eastern Orthodox churches have recently withdrawn from the ecumenical movement in Australia, either nationally or at the state level. Currently, three churches – the Antiochian, Greek and Romanian – have membership with the National Council of Churches in Australia. Two – the Antiochian and Greek – are members of the New South Wales Ecumenical Council, four – the Antiochian, Bulgarian, Greek and Romanian – are members of the Victorian Council of Churches, and two – the Greek and Romanian – are members of the Council of Churches of Western Australia as well as of Queensland Churches Together. This isolationist trend corresponds to the current rise of Orthodox fundamentalism, in Australia and abroad. And while the Eastern Orthodox churches are out of sync with each other because of nationalism and the calendric schism (half of them adopted the new calendar in the 1920s, while the other half follows the calendric rhythms of late antiquity), fundamentalism keeps them apart from other Christians and from regional societies. True, the official churches mentioned above are not openly fundamentalist. However, many of their offshoots whose canonical status is uncertain – usually self-styled ‘true orthodox’ – outrightly oppose everything that falls outside their narrow scope. Either way, the combined impact of ethnocentrism and fundamentalism is detrimental to the well-being of these churches and to their regional destiny.

But the outlook is not entirely bleak. Recently, the Greek, Romanian and Serbian churches managed to reconcile with some of their ‘true orthodox’ and other political offshoots in the region. Most churches of the Eastern Orthodox family are active, within Australia, in the areas of education and healthcare. From this viewpoint, some of them, such as the Antiochian and Greek churches, make a positive impact beyond their constituencies. Under the leadership of a genuine holy man, Father Nektarios Zorbalas, the Greek parish and community of Newtown, Australia, feeds hundreds of homeless and other disadvantaged people daily. The youth of several Antiochian parishes in the greater Sydney area do the same on a weekly basis, ministering to the homeless in the Central Business District.

In turn, the monasteries promote Orthodox spirituality beyond their immediate ecclesial perimeter. Pantanassa Monastery (Mangrove Mountain, New South Wales, Australia) has an iconographical workshop in which the monks, guided by Father Arsenios Pantanassiotis, experiment with indigenous painting techniques. The Greek Church’s St Andrew’s College (Sydney College of Divinity) and ROCOR’s Sts Cyril and Methodius Institute (Adelaide College of Divinity) tentatively have begun to educate their students in ways relevant to the Oceanic context. It is hoped that both will seek cooperation with one another and with their Coptic and Assyrian counterparts. Alongside these tertiary institutions, the Australian Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (Sydney), an independent organisation, provides publications and free-access tools for the exploration of the Orthodox tradition within the Antipodean context. Much more must be done, however, by all involved, in order to achieve a genuine rapprochement and indigenisation of the various forms of Orthodoxy in Oceania.

Acknowledgment This essay reproduces (without the bibliographical list) the author’s contribution to vol. Christianity in Oceania, ed. Kenneth R. Ross, Katalina Tahaafe-Williams, and Todd M. Johnson, Edinburgh Companions to Global Christianity (Edinburgh University Press, 2021), 171-176, initially published under the title “Orthodox.” The published version, including pagination, can be read for free here.

20 April 2024 © AIOCS

Please support our not-for-profit ministry (ABN 76649025141)

For donations, please go to https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/aiocsnet or contact us at info@aiocs.net