In the United States and to our own parish. This month we will look at research relevant to world Orthodoxy. The statistical information is drawn from recent studies conducted by the ‘Pew Research Center on Religion in Public Life’[Based in Washington D.C. The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact finding think-tank that provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends in both the United States and around the world. The center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis, and other empirical social science research. The Pew Research Center does not take policy positions, and is a subsidiary of ‘The Pew Charitable Trusts’.]
Orthodoxy in the United States
The history of Orthodox Christians within the present boundaries of the United States dates to 1794, when Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived in Alaska and proselytized its native inhabitants. This missionary work continued during the 1800s, but the bulk of Orthodoxy’s growth in the United States owes to late 19th- and early 20th-century immigration from countries across Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East. By 1910 nearly half a million Orthodox Christians lived in the United States, and in 2010 the figure was approximately 1.8 million – about half of 1% of the U.S. population.
The Orthodox presence in the U.S. is a fragmented one. The Orthodox population is distributed among more than 21 separate jurisdictions [ex. Russian, Greek, Antiochian, Coptic etc.]. This reflects varied ethnic ties to countries with their own self-governing Orthodox patriarchates. Nearly half (49%) of U.S. Orthodox Christians identify as Greek Orthodox, 16% as Russian Orthodox, 3% as Armenian Orthodox, 3% as Ethiopian Orthodox and 2% as Coptic Orthodox.
The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese is approximately 13% of the overall Orthodox population. In addition, 10% identify with the Orthodox Church in America, a self-governing jurisdiction based in the United States.
Nearly two-thirds (64%) of U.S. Orthodox Christians are either immigrants (40%) or the children of immigrants (23%), the highest such share of any Christian denomination in the United States.
By common measures of religiosity, Orthodox Christians in the United States are somewhat less likely than most other American Christian groups to say religion is very important in their lives (52%) and to say they attend church at least once a week (31%). By comparison, 68% of U.S. Christians overall say religion is very important to them and 47% say they are weekly churchgoers.
The Global Church
Over the last century, the Orthodox Christian population around the world has more than doubled and now stands at nearly 260 million. In Russia alone, it has surpassed 100 million, a sharp resurgence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Despite these increases in absolute numbers, Orthodox Christians have been declining as a share of the overall Christian population – and the global population – due to far faster growth among Protestants, Catholics and non-Christians. Today, just 12% of Christians around the world are Orthodox, compared with an estimated 20% a century ago. And today 4% of the total global population is Orthodox, compared with an estimated 7% in 1910.
The geographic distribution of Orthodoxy also differs from the other major Christian traditions in the 21st century. In 1910 – shortly before the watershed events of World War I, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the breakup of several European empires – all three major branches of Christianity (Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism) were predominantly concentrated in Europe. Since then, Catholics and Protestants have expanded enormously outside the continent, while Orthodoxy remains largely centered in East Central Europe. Today, nearly four-in-five Orthodox Christians (77%) live in Europe, a relatively modest change from a century ago (91%). By contrast, only about one-quarter of Catholics (24%) and one-in-eight Protestants (12%) now live in Europe, down from an estimated 65% and 52%, respectively, in 1910.
Orthodoxy’s falling share of the global Christian population is connected with demographic trends in Europe, which has lower overall fertility rates and an older population than developing regions of the world. 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. Historically, the presence of Orthodox Christianity in the Slavic portions of Eastern Europe dates to the ninth century, when missionaries from the Byzantine Empire spread the faith deeper into Europe. Following the Great Schism between the Eastern (Orthodox) churches and the Western (Catholic) church in 1054, Orthodox missionary activity expanded across the Russian Empire from the 1300s through the 1800s.
On the whole, Orthodox missionary activity outside Eurasia was less pronounced, although Orthodox churches retained footholds through the centuries in the Middle East, and Orthodox missionaries won some converts in such far-flung places as India, China, Japan, East Africa and North and South America.
Today, the largest Orthodox Christian population outside of Eastern Europe is in Ethiopia. The centuries-old Ethiopian Orthodox Church has an estimated 36 million adherents, nearly 14% of the world’s total Orthodox population. This East African outpost of Orthodoxy reflects two broad trends. First, its Orthodox Christian population has grown much faster than Europe’s over the past 100 years. And, second, Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia are more religiously observant, by several common measures, than Orthodox Christians in Europe.
Orthodox Christians in the former Soviet Union generally report the lowest levels of observance among Orthodox Christians worldwide, perhaps reflecting the legacy of Soviet repression of religion. In Russia, for example, just 6% of Orthodox Christian adults say they attend church at least weekly, 15% say religion is “very important” in their lives, and 18% say they pray daily. Other former Soviet republics display similarly low levels of religious observance. Together, these countries are home to a majority of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
In sharp contrast, Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia report considerably higher religious observance. Nearly all Ethiopian Orthodox Christians say religion is very important to them, while roughly three-quarters report attending church weekly or more often (78%) and about two-thirds say they pray daily (65%).
Orthodox Christians in the United States, who make up roughly 0.5% of the overall U.S. population and include many immigrants, display moderate levels of religious observance, lower than in Ethiopia but higher than most European countries, at least by some measures. About half (52%) of Orthodox Christian adults in the United States say religion is very important to them, roughly one-in-three (31%) report that they attend church weekly or more, and a slim majority say they pray daily (57%).
There also are substantial populations of Orthodox Christians in the Near East-North Africa region, mostly in Egypt with smaller numbers in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. Overall, Orthodox Christians comprise roughly 2% of the Near East’s population, logistical concerns make it difficult to survey these groups. Egypt has the Near East’s largest Orthodox population (an estimated 4 million Egyptians, or 5% of the population), mainly members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Social upheaval in the Near East over the past century has taken a drastic toll on the Orthodox population there. In Palestine, for example, nearly 20% of the population in 1920 was Christian, with Orthodoxy making up over 70% of that total. Today the Christians in the Holy Land are less than 2% of the population with the Orthodox making up about half that number. Hostilities in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria have drastically decreased the overall Orthodox population in the Near East as many Orthodox migrated to Europe and America.
While the worldwide population of all non-Orthodox Christians has virtually quadrupled since 1910, the Orthodox population has merely doubled, from approximately 124 million to 260 million. And as the geographical center of the overall Christian population has shifted since 1910 from its centuries-old European base into developing nations in the Southern Hemisphere, most Orthodox Christians (roughly 200 million, or 76%) still live in Central and Eastern Europe (including Greece and the Balkans).
Nearly four-in-ten of the world’s Orthodox Christians live in a single country – Russia. Ukraine has both a substantial Russian Orthodox population and many members of several self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, with an estimated 35 million Orthodox Christians in total. Today religious upheaval in Ukraine threatens to destabilize the world wide Orthodox Church and create a schism within major factions of the Church. The Russians have already severed relations, including Communion, with the Church of Constantinople and her daughter churches worldwide – including the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America.
It is Africa, though, that has seen the largest Orthodox population growth outside of Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East. In Ethiopia the Orthodox population has increased over the last century from 3 million to 36 million. Its Orthodox history dates to the fourth century of Christianity, more than half a millennium before Christianity developed in Russia. Orthodox Christianity in Kenya and East Africa developed during the early to mid-20th century through the assistance of missionaries and became affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa in the 1960s. If current trends continue, Africa will be the population center for world Orthodoxy by the end of this century.
Understanding these global statistics and considering the trends highlighted here should help us develop a clearer picture of where our Church is currently and what may bode for her future. As a parish of over 1,500 people, we have a role to play in the future of Orthodoxy here in America and around the globe. Hopefully, studies like this PEW research report motivate us to seriously consider the crucial part we contribute to the stability and growth of the Orthodox Church.
Blessings, Fr. +Timothy