We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ. – Article I of the Decree of the 1872 Council of Constantinople.
With those words, the pan-Orthodox council of bishops assembled in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) in 1872 condemned racial segregation in the Orthodox Church.
The trouble came about a few years earlier. At the time, the Ottoman Empire encompassed a vast territory that included modern-day Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Orthodox Christians in the Empire were under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (that is, the Church of Constantinople). The Bulgarians, unhappy with the Ecumenical Patriarchate (for pretty justifiable reasons, I might add) successfully lobbied the Ottoman government to create an independent Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
This, by itself, was not necessarily a problem – new Orthodox Churches had been carved out of the territory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate before (most notably the Churches of Russia and Greece). But the Bulgarians went further than that: they convinced the Ottomans that, if two-thirds of a given diocese was ethnically Bulgarian, the diocese would be transferred from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Bulgarian Church. This was a revolutionary, and disturbing, new development.
And there was more: the Bulgarian Church had a parish in the city of Constantinople, which was clearly within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Bulgarian bishops exercised jurisdiction over this parish because it was ethnically Bulgarian, despite the fact that it was not in their territory.
Bottom line, then, the Bulgarian Church was pushing for ethnic (or racial) segregation in the Church. As you might expect, the Ecumenical Patriarchate would have none of this and called a pan-Orthodox council in 1872. This council issued a decree that condemned “the difference of races and national diversity” in the Church. Underlying that decree is the principle that we are all one in Christ – that there is neither Bulgarian nor Greek nor Russian, but all are united as members of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The division of the Church based on ethnicity or race is tantamount to heresy because it divides the Body of Christ.
To this day, the Orthodox Church struggles with the notion of ethnicity. This is particularly true in America, where multiple Orthodox jurisdictions, divided mostly along ethnic lines, overlap in the same territory. But the 1872 Council of Constantinople articulated a principle that goes back to the earliest days of Christianity – that the Church embraces all people and cannot be divided along racial or ethnic lines.