Is Orthodoxism Dying?
But with the arrival of St. Nicholas Day – observed on Dec. 6 in Western Christian nations but on different December days elsewhere – also come questions about the future place Orthodoxy will occupy in the larger Christian world, say analysts.
Orthodox Christians exist in greater numbers today than in the past, yet represent a diminished share of Christians worldwide. Confined primarily to an aging Europe and strongly tethered to tradition, Orthodox Christianity may need to change its ways to remain relevant, say some practitioners.
"People are sending out a signal that they don't identify with structures of the past anymore and look for new forms of spirituality," says the Rev. Cosmin Antonescu from the Saint Andrew Romanian Orthodox Church in Potomac, Maryland.
Around 260 million people in the world today identify themselves as Christian Orthodox, double the number registered a century ago, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Russia alone has more than 100 million followers, while more than 95 percent of people in predominantly Orthodox countries such as Moldova, Georgia, Romania and Greece report keeping icons at home.
Yet, as popular as Orthodoxy is in Eastern Europe, this branch or Christianity seems to be losing ground in the overall Christian population. Today, Orthodox Christians represent only 4 percent of the world’s population. Additionally, Orthodox followers account for 12 percent of Christians worldwide, down 8 percentage points from the levels in 1910, according to the Pew report.
The reasons for this decline are many, and experts say they have to do with history and a more rigid administrative structure of the overall Orthodox community.
After the East-West Schism of 1054 between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, Orthodoxism was left isolated in a declining Byzantine Empire. As countries broke away from the empire, Orthodoxism developed in a more decentralized way. “All nations identifying themselves as Orthodox have their own independent ruling,” Antonescu says.
While the Orthodox and the Catholic churches share many rituals and religious beliefs, experts say Orthodoxism seems to have done a better job at keeping its original traditions. When Catholics tried adapting the church to respond to new social needs, the Orthodox Christians focused on preserving their customs.
“We were the most constant church in Christianity, but failing to respond to people’s ever-changing needs made us lose ground in society,” Antonescu says.
Today, Orthodoxism remains concentrated in Europe, where 77 percent of Orthodox Christians still live, while Roman Catholicism expanded around the world.
“In the beginning we were the Byzantine Empire," Antonescu says. "Catholicism, the Western culture expanded in the world and brought Christianity to many places, while, after the rise of Islam, the Byzantine Empire focused on mainly defending against Islamic attacks until the fall of Constantinople. We weren’t given the same space as the Catholics were.”
Catholics have also arguably benefited from a stronger public presence by being represented by a singular leader, the pope, who has often been a well-known contemporary figure.
“Pope John Paul I became a significant global figure in his relatively short time; John Paul II was clearly a very visible figure globally, as well as Pope Francis is today,” says the Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Church of Our Lady of Kazan, a Russian Orthodox Church in Sea Cliff, New York. “This all stems from the specifics of the Catholic Church with a figure in the bishop of Rome. This focus is very real and has been there all along but in the age of media popularity it has become very effective.”
According to the Pew report, a decline in Orthodoxism might also stem from declining demographic trends, with a lower fertility rate in Europe, where populations are growing older.
“Europe’s population has long been shrinking as a share of the world’s total population, and, in coming decades, it is projected to decline in absolute numbers as well,” the report shows.
In order to preserve not only its traditions but also its existence, experts say the Orthodox Church will need to look beyond Europe. That will be a challenging task, since the Orthodox Church is competing with more active religions that seem to be able to expand faster.
“Christianity is growing primarily in Africa and Asia and the Orthodox are not strong enough in those parts of the world to keep up with the demographic challenge of growth,” Kishkovsky says. “There is also a huge growth of Christians in China for instance. But the Chinese social and political situation is such that the primary growth – millions of adherents to Christianity – comes to the Protestants because their missions can be very informal and they move quickly among parts of the populations.”
Whether Orthodox traditions will stand the test of time is unknown. Priests say it's not uncommon for religions to transform and mold into something new, a development that shouldn't worry Orthodox followers.
"Theology evolves as well as the process of knowing God," Antonescu says. "Some spiritualities never die but turn into something else that respond to the same human needs but maybe in a different way."
Contrary to the hypothesis of this article, the very thing that makes Orthodoxy relevant is that it does not change its ways to remain relevant. If it were yet another liberalizing group of so-called Christians that was dwindling in numbers, this article wouldn't have been written.
This is funny: "Whether Orthodox traditions will stand the test of time is unknown." Right.
Orthodoxy has and will continue to stand the test of time. It is timeless. Might it consider different ways to evangelize outside of its traditional territories? It can and it should for to be successful in territories where other churches are enjoying growth, it needs to demonstrate that it is not just the solution for those who might share a similar background with those of a particular territorial church. To do this, perhaps a more Pan-Orthodox/Universal view is necessary. Example: A given territory or region should have one bishop. Therefore, the Russian Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Antioch making inroads into the same territory within Africa is duplicative and won’t likely serve Orthodoxy as a whole well in the long-run. The article highlights the historical reasons for these regional divisions but, perhaps it is time to start looking beyond this.
The above aside, Orthodoxy, to me, portrays itself well and uses modern media well. The Russian Patriarchate, for example, beautifully videos liturgies so that the viewer 1) is in awe of what is taking place, 2) when shown, is impressed with how beautifully, carefully and faithfully Patriarch Kirill and those around him serve the liturgy – their commitment to the liturgy is inspiring, actually and 3) they see that which typically isn’t seen by virtue of the veil provided by the iconostas being in place. Bottom line, their videos and other media teach liturgy and Eastern Christian spirituality well. Additionally, the Eastern Catholic Churches aren’t too proud not to utilize some of their materials for purposes of teaching as the theology is mostly the same. If it wasn’t done well, it wouldn’t be used.
Last, will Orthodoxy survive a changing world with a stagnant and/or shrinking population in Europe? Yes. It has survived the last 2K years, the next 2K shouldn’t be a problem. Why? I think the last sentence of the piece summarizes well how this will be accomplished: "Theology evolves as well as the process of knowing God," Antonescu says. "Some spiritualities never die but turn into something else that respond to the same human needs but maybe in a different way."
Orthodoxy is at a great disadvantage because of its ethnic based organisation. I cannot imagine finding an Orthodox church in small town America where most people still live, and if I do it will be a Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, etc., one that is fairly irrelevant to those who are not part of that ethnic community. Those end up joining other denominations if they do not go on hiatus first. In Europe, that is different because countries are ethnically based, and the Orthodox Church serves those countries according to their ethnicity. That is what happens when the vernacular is used for the liturgy. Yes, there are English Orthodox churches in America (OCA) but quite few in number and confined to the big cities; they are also not well known.
Also, the Orthodox way of evangelisation is bit peculiar since it seems to wait for people to walk through the door of the church, thinking that God will do all the work for them.
Certainly God freely gives grace, but our demonic secular society also tries hard to work against this gift, so the Church has to help them to accept God's grace.
(To submit this I had to click through 56 captcha pictures-it is getting worse and worse for me)
Most Orthodox jurisdictions within the U.S. use English for liturgy or, English with Slavonic/Greek/Ukrainian. The Orthodox Church in America was formerly part of the Russian Orthodox Church until becoming self-governing in the 1970s. Again, here, English is relied upon during liturgy with some Slavonic (more in some places, less in others). Orthodox churches can now be found throughout the country however, during the mass immigration of the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were mostly clustered around industrial centers and coal fields serving the newly arrived who were doing awful jobs under equally awful conditions. My home state of Pennsylvania had and I believe continues to have the highest number of Orthodox churches in the country given its high concentrations of Russians, Ukrainians, Antiochians, Greeks, Rusyns etc. That being said, despite efforts to Americanize, there is without question an ethnic flavor to these churches and, there should be as they shouldn't turn their respective backs on heritage, culture and tradition. The challenge is balancing a healthy regard for the past with a realistic view of how to move forward. To be sure, there are conversions however, I do not have statistic on the extent to which the newly initiated remain churched.
As for evangelization, I agree with the attachment, particularly the second paragraph. We welcome/assist/pray for those who choose to walk down the path however, that decision is theirs, not ours. Faith should not be forced upon those you hope become part of the 'faithful'. It goes without saying, it comes from within, it is discerned over a period and the result of that discernment is desire.
"It is God who brings people to the door of the Church and who convinces them that they should enter - however, we must keep the door to the Church open and visible. Hence, Orthodox evangelism must center on the Church - the beauty of the building, the beauty of the services, the frequency and availability of the services......Orthodox evangelism is the keeping of icons in our homes, in our offices, in our cars......While the Holy Spirit is the one who draws the world to Himself, it is you and I who keep the doors of the Church open and who welcome all who come."
Nobody in the West, including me, would attend a three hour version of the Roman Mass Sunday after Sunday. Maybe this is becoming a factor in the East.
RS you are right! The length of the Easter Vigil keeps people away too and I am starting to dread it too! Age I guess!
Orthodox Christians don't feel obligated to attend all the divine services offered in their local parish. In my experience, many Orthodox (unfortunately in my opinion) only attend the Sunday Divine Liturgy, which lasts for a little over an hour (maybe longer if there are memorials for the deceased).
I really like the recent Pew Report referenced in this article. It demonstrates just how recent is the demographic growth of the Catholic Church. In 1910, most Catholics lived in Europe, as do most Orthodox in 2010. What Latin America was to Catholicism in 1910 (a non-European area of demographic growth), Africa is to Orthodoxy in 2010. This corrects the misguided apologetic that the worldwide growth of Catholicism demonstrates its catholicity in opposition to a hopelessly ethnic and European-limited Orthodoxy (a characteristic that could also be applied to Catholicism at the dawn of the 20th century). It's more accurate to say that, demographically, Orthodoxy is one hundred years behind Catholicism and has the same potential for growth in the 21st century as did Catholicism at the beginning of the 20th century (maybe even more given the secularism of Catholic life after Vatican II, the effects of which will be felt in the coming decades).
Still on the topic of Pew Reports vis-a-vis Orthodoxy, the May 2017 Pew Report, "Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe" (http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2017/05/15120244/CEUP-FULL-REPORT.pdf) notes that contraception use (a common Catholic apologetic against Orthodoxy) is rejected more in Orthodox majority countries in Central and Eastern Europe than in Catholic countries (pages 118-119 of the Report) (although, to be honest, contraception approval is approved overwhelming by Catholics in the majority of countries around the world).
Maybe this explains the wisdom of the Catholics who don’t go to Mass and remain under cover. They can’t get more than a fourth of us on any given day.
I'm sure USA Today would recommend the Catholic Church get woke and modern to reverse it's declines as well. In the case of Orthodoxy, it just seems like a regional or ethnic appeal. And I don't know if that works in a mobile, generic society like the US. If people don't live in their ethnic neighborhoods anymore, I don't know that they'd return to attend Divine Liturgy, and I don't know if they'd feel welcome at a different Orthodox Church (or if that'd even be legal: Does a Greek Orthodox fulfill his "Sunday Obligation" by attending a Russian Orthodox Liturgy?
I wish the Orthodox well. I also wish they would reunite with Rome. The Church does need to breathe with both lungs.
Bernard, there is no “Sunday obligation” in Orthodoxy. But an Orthodox person could receive communion at any Orthodox Church, regardless of jurisdiction, so long as th person is properly prepared.
As an example, just a couple days ago, in Moscow, Pope Theodoros II of Alexandria celebrated the Divine Liturgy with many other hierarchs from various places, including His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, His Holiness Patriarch Irinej of Serbia, His Beatitude Patriarch Daniel of Romania, His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus, His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, His Beatitude Metropolitan Savva of Warsaw, His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon of All America and Canada, Metropolitan Theodore of Akhaltsikhe and Tao-Klarjeti of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and Metropolitan Gabriel of Lovech of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Here’s a video: https://youtu.be/bQuVG9jJ_NQ
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