April 20, 2014

New study: The Orthodox Church Today

The Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, based in Berkeley, Calif., has released what it is calling “the first national survey based study of the laity, ordinary church members, in the two largest Orthodox Churches in the United States: the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA) and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).”

To a significant degree, PAOI said, the study reflects the profile of an entire Orthodox community in the United States.

The Orthodox Church Today” study addressed four broad questions:

– What is the “image” of the Orthodox clergy in the eyes of the “people in the pews?”
– To what extent do the social and religious attitudes of the ordinary parishioners reflect those of their parish priests?
– What do church members think about patterns of Church life in their local parishes?
– What do laity think about various issues dealing with “Democracy and Pluralism in the chirch,” “Changes and Innovations in the Church,” and “religious “Particularism’ and Ecumenism?”

PAOI also compared Orthodox Church life to Roman Catholic and various Protestant Churches in the United States.

From the highlights summary:

1) The common stereotype is that the Orthodox Churches in the USA are “ethnic” Churches of certain immigrant communities. The study shows that this not the case anymore. Nine out of ten parishioners in both GOA and OCA are American-born. Further, today, more than one-quarter (29%) of the GOA and a majority of OCA (51%) members are converts to Orthodoxy – persons born and raised either Protestants or Roman Catholics.

2) 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 “moderate-liberal” (31%).

3) 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 the
US Roman Catholics and found that in various measures American Orthodox Christians adhere more strongly to their Church than do Roman Catholics.

4) The strong Orthodox identity does not mean that “people in the pews” view their religious obligations exactly the way it is 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 Eucharist are perceived by the Orthodox laity as the most fundamental criteria of being a “good Orthodox Christian.” To the contrary, regular
Church attendance, obeying the priest and observing Great Lent are seen by majority of parishioners as non-essential for being a “good Orthodox Christian.”

5) 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 idea of the ordination of women. Male and female respondents expressed the same opinions on the ordination of women.

6) 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 “like-minded” 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.”

7) Orthodox Christians have various opinions on compatibility of evolutionism and creationism. With regard to public education, American Orthodox laity are divided in 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 one or other 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.”

8) Being a professional clergyman in 21st century America is, probably, not seen as a “dream choice” of occupation by most people. Yet, the study found that more than three quarters of the respondents “would encourage their sons to become priests.”

Read the full report.

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