The Orthodox Church Today
New Research Reveals Some Not-So-Obvious Facts about American Orthodox Christianity
“The Orthodox Church Today” study released by the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, California (www.orthodoxinstitute.org) disproves many stereotypes and provides groundbreaking insights into the life of today’s American Orthodox Christian community.
With its historical roots in nineteenth-century Russian Alaska, Orthodox Christianity in the USA today accounts for about 1,200,000–1,300,000 faithful worshipping in 2,200–2,300 local parishes spread all across the nation.
“The Orthodox Church Today” is the first national survey-based study of ordinary parishioners in the two largest Orthodox Churches in the USA: the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA) and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Combined, the GOA and the OCA account for more than half of all Orthodox Christians and parishes in the USA. Therefore the study reflects to a significant degree the profile of the entire American Orthodox community.
Respondents from more than 100 randomly selected Orthodox parishes situated in various parts of the country participated. The questionnaire focusedon the personal, social and religious attitudes of Orthodox parishioners and on patterns of everyday church life in their local parishes. Special attention was paid to the “image” of Orthodox clergy in the eyes of “people in the pews,” and to issues related to “Democracy and Pluralism in the Church,” “Changes and Innovations in the Church,” and “Religious ‘Particularism’ and Ecumenism.” Many comparisons with American Roman Catholics and Protestants make study results especially interesting for a wider audience.
Here are some interesting facts about today’s American Orthodox Christianity.
- The common stereotype is that Orthodox Churches in the USA are “ethnic” churches of certain immigrant communities. The study shows that this no longer the case. Nine out of ten parishioners in both GOA and OCA are American-born. Further, more than one-quarter (29%) of the GOA and a majority of OCA (51%) members today are converts to Orthodoxy – persons born and raised either Protestants or Roman Catholics.
- Not all Orthodox are equally “Orthodox.” The study found that the gaps between the “left” and the “right” wings in American Orthodoxy are wide and that American Orthodox Christians are deeply divided among themselves in their personal“micro-theologies.” Answering the question, “When you think about your theological position and approach to church life, which word best describes where you stand?” the relative majority (41%) of church members preferred to be in the safe “middle” and described their theological stance and approach to church life as “traditional.” At the same time, quite sizeable factions identified themselves as being either “conservative” (28%) or “moderateliberal” (31%).
- Orthodox Christians have a strong sense of their religious identity and clear preference for the Orthodox Church. Nine in ten parishioners said that they “cannot imagine being anything but Orthodox.” For an overwhelming majority of parishioners, “Christianity” essentially means “Orthodox Christianity.” Indeed, eight out of ten respondents think that “there is one best and true interpretation of the meaning of the Christian faith and the Orthodox Church comes closest to teaching it.” The study compared GOA and OCA members with American Roman Catholics and found that in various measures American Orthodox Christians adhere more strongly to their Church than do Roman Catholics.
- The strong Orthodox identity does not mean that “people in the pews” view their religious obligations exactly as expected by the institutional Church. In reality, most parishioners make personal choices among various norms of Church life, holding firmly to what is central for their faith and approaching the rest as desirable but not crucial. The beliefs in Jesus’ resurrection and actual presence in the Eucharist are perceived by the Orthodox laity as the most fundamental criteria of being a “good Orthodox Christian.” In contrast, regular Church attendance, obeying the priest and observing Great Lent are seen by a majority of parishioners as non-essential for being a “good Orthodox Christian.”
- Only three in ten parishioners would support women being altar servers or deacons, and only one in ten think that women should be eligible to the Orthodox priesthood. It is a historical fact that in the past the Orthodox Church had a female deaconate which died out in the Middle Ages. Today, however, a vast majority of American Orthodox Christians do not favor the ordination of women. Male and female respondents expressed the same opinions on the question.
- More than two-thirds of the respondents say that they wanted to belong to parishes that “require uniformity of belief and practice and where people hold the same views.” That is, American Orthodox Christians have quite different (“liberal-moderate,” “traditional,” “conservative”) personal approaches to Church life, but they prefer homogenous, “likeminded” parishes. Only one in four respondents favor “big-tent parishes that tolerate diversity of beliefs and practices, where people hold different views and openly discuss their disagreements.”
- Orthodox Christians have various opinions on the compatibility of evolutionism and creationism. With regard to public education, American Orthodox laity are divided into three almost equal groups: those who favor teaching creationism instead of evolution in American public schools (33%), those who reject this idea (35%), and those who are unable to take a stand on this matter (32%). Almost equal proportions of them either agreed (41%) or disagreed (38%) with the statement “Evolutionary theory is compatible with the idea of God as Creator.” More than one-fifth (21%) of respondents were unable to evaluate this statement and said that they are “neutral or unsure.”
- Most people probably do not consider being a professional clergyman in twenty-first century America the occupation of their dreams. Yet the study found that more than three quarters of the respondents “would encourage their sons to become priests.”
Downloadable copies of the complete “Orthodox Church Today” study report are available on the web-site of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute at www.orthodoxinstitute.org/orthodoxchurchtoday.html.
For more information on this study or to schedule media interview with the principal researcher, contact Alexei Krindatch, Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, Akrindatch@ aol.com.
Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute (PAOI) is an affiliate member of the Graduate Theological Union, an ecumenical consortium of nine independent seminaries and eight affiliated centers based in Berkeley, California. PAOI exists to educate, communicate and promote the traditions and culture of Orthodox Christianity. The Institute’s major programs include:
- Two-year Master of Arts in Orthodox Studies – the only graduate program in Orthodox Studies in the United States west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the only one not offered by an Orthodox seminary;
- InterOrthodoxPress publishing company;
- Parish Life Project – an ongoing program to study the inner realities of Orthodox Church life in the U.S. through sociological surveys and other research methods.
For more on PAOI, see www. orthodoxinstitute.org, or write firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 510- 649-3450.