THE TIME FOR ORTHODOX UNITY IS NOW!

An Increasingly Unorthodox World

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The interior of an Orthodox Church (Brett Ziegler for USN&WR)

Source: US News & World Report

Leaders in the Orthodox Church say the religion may need to adapt to contemporary times to remain relevant.

By Sintia Radu, Staff Writer

A season of religious holidays around the world moves into higher gear on Wednesday with the observance of one of the most important saints in the Orthodox Church, a person whose gift-giving legacy is partially tied to the birth of the Santa Claus legend in the U.S.and Father Christmas in the U.K.

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.”

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12 Comments

    • This, unfortunately, is NOT malarkey. As Orthodox Christians we need to get our heads out of the sand and see the world as it really is. People have real material and spiritual needs that are not being addressed presently by our Tradition.

      Given some of our depraved and inept clergy and hierarchs in positions of leadership and responsibility, the laity needs to step in and take a stand.

  1. It seems to me that the chief reason the Orthodox Church has not grown at a rate commensurate with other Christian bodies is the overall perception that it is a foreign religion and that Americans and Canadians of different ethnic backgrounds do not really belong. Sadly, many Orthodox churches perpetuate this with the name of the church (i.e. St Dmitri Russian Orthodox Church; St Seraphim Greek Orthodox Church, etc) as well as the insistence upon clinging to “mother country” traditions and language. One has only to visit the parish hall following the liturgy to understand that in many Orthodox churches you simply are viewed as an outsider. In general converts to the Church do not appreciate hearing this and become defensive when this is brought up but the fact of the matter is: it’s blatantly true. My first visit to an Orthodox Church actually followed this line: “What your name?” I responded, “Wayne …” The older man actually said, “What the hell you do in my church?” A few years later my wife and I were looking for a church in another city and when I was asked by an usher what my name was he informed me that we would be much happier at the Antiochian church on the other side of town. I have several more stories of conversations with priests from the Ukrainian and Romanian churches and they all follow the same pattern.

    So… until the Orthodox Church addresses the ever-present phyletism and ethnic bigotry among both its clergy and laity, Orthodoxy will remain on the periphery.

    • You are 100% corect Wayne. I was a parish leader in a GOA church in Poughkeepsie, NY and when I wanted to put Orthodoxy first, I was demonized by the ethnic tribalists who use the church as an ethnic social club. I could not win, started attending an OCA parish minutes from my home an have never looked back. The GOA is a joke!

  2. You both are dead wrong. In Princeton, NJ three miles from Princeton University the American Orthodox Church of Mother of God Joy of All Who Sorrow which rests on nine acres of land have made the transition to the majority being converts Liturgizing in English. The Church has different races and ethnic backgrounds attend and respect and love all. The stewardship averages $3,500.00 and they are Christ centered. Guys Seek and you shall Find….Anthony Carris

    • Anthony,

      Please send us the address of your church and times of services and we will drive to Princeton from where we live to hear the services in English.

      Is this church canonical and under whose jurisdiction is it? I’m familiar with the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and the Antiochian Orthodox Church (AOC) but where did the American Orthodox Church come from?

      Anthony, I don’t believe Wayne and I are “dead wrong” in our observations.

    • I’m truly happy for YOUR experience but it does not negate MINE. I’ve been in the Orthodox Church since 1991. My suspicion is that my 26 years in all likelihood gives me a little more experience in these things. I’m well acquainted with many of the evangelicals who came into the Church in the late 80’s as well as having personally corresponded with Frank Schaeffer prior to his going off the rails, so to speak. I knew that new converts would become defensive once I shared my own views (I’ve heard this story for several years now). There are reasons why the Orthodox Church has failed to grow in America in proportion to evangelicals, Roman Catholics and two of the cults (Mormons and Jehovahs Witnesses) and a serious conversation needs to engage our hierarchs rather than simply dismissing facts that one does not wish to face.

      • I suspect that it varies a great deal from parish to parish in the GOA. I was converted into my church, Saint Andrew the Apostle Greek Orthodox Church, 11 years ago, and felt very welcomed by the predominately Greek community. Since we are the only Orthodox church in our county, we have attracted many non-Greeks over the years. As a consequence, the parish council decided to do more of the Liturgy in English.

        When we travel to the east coast (we are Californians) we tend to go to OCA churches, because when we did go to GOA parishes, the bulk of the liturgy was in Greek. People were friendly to me and my family, though.

        I had a friend who was very emphatic about the language issue. He grew up in a Lebanese family in Ohio, and talked about how 2 or 3 generations in, the kids don’t know enough Arabic to feel included. His home parish (Antiochian) went from doing the Liturgy in Arabic to doing it in English, and he felt very strongly it was the right thing to do.

        At the same time, it would grieve me to make those who learned English as a second language feel excluded.

  3. Greek, English, Slavonic is not the issue. The issue is whether or not the service can be understood. If the language is not understood there is no worship. I grew up in a Greek family and Greek was my first language and yet I can not pray even the Lord’s prayer in Greek. I know more Greek than most of the people in my congregation. Greeks use Greek because they worship the Language and culture rather than the Lord Jesus the Christ. Some would say you can do both but Jesus clearly stated” you can not serve 2 masters because you will love one and hate the other.” In many places, the GOA is a Greek club with fancy rituals or as someone else stated a Greek club masquerading as a church.

  4. Perhaps it is because my parish is in a small town. There is only one orthodox church, so all orthodox Christians go there, as well as regular attendees of related churches (Coptic, etc.). All have been welcome. Previous, I was a member of an Antiochian Orthodox Church, largely ethnic but still welcoming. Then there was an Antiochian Church in SW Texas that wanted little to do with me, though the Greek Orthodox Church in the same town was welcoming.

    The issue appears to be whether or not the parish welcomes people or not. In far too many cases, the phrase “ethnic ghetto” is appropriate. The Roman Catholic Church does well because it is branded as the “Catholic Church” and gives services in English. Here, the Pan Orthodox Community is still Russian, Armenian, Greek, etc. If our Church is to flourish in North America, it should be American.

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