Orthodox Christianity is growing, but the number of Christians worldwide who are Orthodox has fallen. And while the numbers may be growing, the Orthodox are less observant in their practice of the faith.
These are among the principal findings of a recent Pew Research Center report, which offers a mix of good and bad news about the current state of Orthodox Christianity around the world. Information in the study was gathered through surveys conducted in 2014-2016 in nineteen countries.
While focused on Orthodox Christianity, the study contains a great amount of information that should be of interest to Christians of all backgrounds.
Although the number of Orthodox Christians has doubled during the past 100 years, with some 260 million worldwide, Pew reports that the faith’s percentage of the world’s Christian population has fallen from 20 to 12 percent and its percentage of the world’s population from 7 to just 4 percent.
Some 77 percent of Orthodox Christians live in Central and Eastern Europe, with the largest number, 100 million, in Russia. Another 35 million live in Ukraine, the nation with the third largest number of Orthodox Christians.
Orthodox Christianity, the study finds, is growing at a faster rate in Africa than in Europe. Some 15 percent of the world’s Orthodox now reside in Africa, with 14 percent of that number, or 36 million, living in Ethiopia, the nation with the second largest number of Orthodox Christians in the world.
Africa clearly is a bright spot overall in the world for Christianity. The Vatican reported earlier this year that the Catholic Church also is seeing its fastest growth in Africa, which now has more than 17 percent of Catholics worldwide.
In relation to these numbers, Orthodox Christianity in the Americas is insignificant. The report finds that only 1 percent of Orthodox Christians live in North America (0.5 percent in the United States), and even less than that live in Latin America.
The report has some bad news for Roman Catholics hoping for reunification with the Orthodox churches: Despite seeing many commonalities shared by Catholic and Orthodox, particularly in Ukraine, most of the Orthodox faithful have no interest in seeing their church reunite with Rome.
In addition, a majority of Orthodox Christians differ with Roman Catholic teaching on two important matters: They see the Church’s allowing divorce and remarriage as acceptable and favor the ordination of married men as priests (married men serve as priests in Greek Catholic churches).
The Roman Catholic pontiff received some good news in the report: Nearly half of Orthodox Christians see Pope Francis in a favorable light.
There’s also good news for Russia, and in particular for the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, currently Kirill: While the number of Russian Orthodox has doubled in the past century, many Orthodox outside Russia now see the Moscow Patriarch as the highest Orthodox authority rather than the Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch, currently Bartholomew, who traditionally has held this position.
Despite the recognition of one patriarch as holding the position of highest authority among the Orthodox, the report clearly shows that when we speak of Orthodox Christianity we largely speak of separate national churches loosely connected by similar views that do not have a single universal leader as in the Catholic Church.
While only two Orthodox countries have a state religion, Pew finds in an analysis of its research that the Orthodox continue to see religion as an important part of national identity. Along with this, separation of church and state is viewed favorably by majorities only in four nations: Poland, Greece, Moldova, and Serbia.
Pew also reports that few Orthodox in Russia and former Soviet territories pray or attend Sunday liturgy weekly. This lack of commitment to faith, however, is similar to what Pew has found among Europeans and Latin Americans in general.
In Ethiopia, on the other hand, a large majority of Orthodox Christians pray daily and attend Sunday liturgy.
A good trend for Orthodox Christianity in Russia is that those raised as atheists under Soviet communism are converting to the faith.
On social issues the Orthodox still tend to hold traditional views. They resoundingly reject homosexuality and same-sex marriage. And while there is some support for the ordination of women as priests in some nations – Russia, for example – most Orthodox Christians reject it.
The Orthodox position on abortion, however, is mixed. In fact, a majority of Orthodox Christians support the legalization of abortion in Bulgaria, Estonia, and Russia – most likely an indication of the continuing influence of atheistic communism.
Another good sign for the faith: Most Orthodox Christians worldwide have icons in their homes. It may be a small thing, but so is the mustard seed.