From the blog Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, the below excerpt from a post entitled "A new ecclesiology for the Orthodox Church?" by Seraphim Danckaert. I'd call this essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand how ethnicity is still king in many parts of the Orthodox world.
Orthodox Christians often find themselves answering the following question: why is Orthodoxy divided along ethnic lines into different churches?Complete article here.
At least officially, the answer to that question has been quite clear: we are not divided; we are one Church, united in faith and worship, with an administrative structure that organizes itself along local lines, in accordance with the ancient traditions and canon law of the first millennium of Christian history.
In recent years, however, there’s been a problem: while the answer given above is true in theory, it’s often not implemented in practice.
Starting in the late 19th century, and in increasing numbers after the World Wars, millions of Orthodox Christians began to emigrate from their ancestral homelands to Western Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Instead of organizing churches in these new lands in accordance with the canonical and theological principle that there be only one bishop in each locale, a web of overlapping Orthodox “jurisdictions” developed. As a result, parish churches in some of the larger American cities are under the authority of eight or more different bishops: the Greek parishes under a Greek bishop; the Serbians under a Serb; the Russians under a Russian, etc.
Some were happy with this arrangement, some saw it as a necessary pastoral accommodation to the realities of an unprecedented emigration, and some were dissatisfied for theological and practical reasons. But everyone agreed that the situation was a temporary aberration, a departure from apostolic church order, and at odds with the Orthodox theological tradition.
Starting in the early 60s, as immigrants became more assimilated, a number of prominent bishops and theologians began to speak and write with passion about the need to conform our modern-day polity to our traditional theology. A relatively broad sense of enthusiasm for “Pan-Orthodox” cooperation and unity emerged. Various institutions and organizations appeared, working across jurisdictional lines on local, regional, national, and even international levels. A series of Pan-Orthodox Conferences took place in Rhodes, where bishops and other official representatives of canonical Orthodox churches from around the world met to discuss common concerns.
By 1968, a plan to hold a “Great and Holy Council” had emerged, and, by 1976, an agenda of ten items had crystallized, including the question of how to organize the administration of the Church in the “diaspora.” Meetings and preparations for a worldwide council of bishops continued with relative enthusiasm through the late 80s.
Then, in 1989, the Iron Curtain fell and another massive emigration began. In the last 26 years, millions of Eastern Europeans have left their homelands for economic opportunities elsewhere. From Bulgaria alone — a country whose total population is only 7 million — an estimated 3 million people have emigrated to Western Europe and beyond. The emigration of Orthodox Christians from their traditional homelands shows little sign of ending soon. In fact, it’s spreading, as a solid minority of the refugees and migrants who are currently leaving the Middle East are Orthodox.
Despite these demographic shifts and an emerging impasse in the attempt to find a common vision for Orthodox polity, plans to hold a “Great and Holy Council” never dissipated entirely. Some progress occurred in the early 90s, and, more recently, a flurry of activity has taken place since 2008.
Within the context of these preparatory deliberations, every Orthodox Church around the world formulated an official position on various topics, including the governance of the Church in places like America and Australia.
In the course of these deliberations, a stark theological division has emerged. Years ago, almost everyone agreed that the status quo of overlapping jurisdictions in the diaspora was a clear violation of Orthodox canon law and a departure from the apostolic tradition of church order. In recent years, however, some of the largest Orthodox churches have started to argue that the status quo accords with the Orthodox understanding of the Church. A change of this magnitude has required these Orthodox churches to re-think the way in which they explain the governance of the Church and, in some cases, modify theological principles.
The emerging majority opinion is not merely that administrative division in the diaspora allows for the maintenance of distinctive liturgical, theological, and spiritual traditions (and is therefore a pastoral benefit to the Church), but that the division itself is either (1) not actually a departure from apostolic church order and canon law, or (2) only a violation in a technical sense, and not a serious concern, as various present-day sources of authority (e.g. statutes passed by a national church’s synod of bishops) are of equal or greater authority to the canons promulgated by the Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium of Christian history...