Pew Research Center’s report published on November 8, “Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century,” contains very valuable data concerning the state of Orthodox Churches and the countries in which they prevail. However, questions concerning a number of the researchers’ choices cannot but emerge.
(1) The report’s definition of what constitutes “Orthodox Christianity” is deeply problematic. The report bundles together the Eastern Orthodox Church with the Oriental Orthodox Churches (also called Old Oriental, Anti-Chalcedonian, Non-Chalcedonian, Pre-Chalcedonian, Miaphysite, or Monophysite Christianity). These have hardly anything in common (compared, for example, to the common theological elements between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church): we are referring here to Churches that are not in communion with each other, haven’t been in communion since the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, and have developed different theologies ever since.
To illustrate the point, the Eastern Orthodox Church (today a communion of 14 local/national Churches, plus the Orthodox Church in America [OCA]) has ceased to be in communion with the Roman Catholic Church since, conventionally, AD 1054—half a millennium later than the clash with what are today the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The use of the word “Orthodox” in the title of Churches is purely coincidental (a claim made by both Churches, essentially), and problematic as terminology. One struggles to understand what would exactly be the rationale for this bundling of Churches that are not in communion and haven’t been so in more than 1500 years, in spite of current and laudable ecumenical attempts. What would be the definition of “”Orthodox Christianity” in “Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century” so that it encompasses both the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, but not other Churches? The reader shouldn’t get me wrong: I am inquiring on methodology, not making pronouncements about the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
By excluding certain impossible options (such as an academically reputable terminology, theological grounds, the question of communion, etc.), one is led to identify an orientalist sentiment as the sole possible basis for this definition: i.e., that these Churches “look Eastern,” they look liturgically similar and “exotic,” so naturally they can be bundled together in a report on their current state. There is a way this could work by employing the equally problematic term—although not downright wrong, as would be the case with “Orthodox Church”—of “Eastern Christianity,” which would geographicalize the question and leave other terminological considerations aside. But even in that case, how is it that other Churches, like the Nestorian “Church of the East” or even the Byzantine Rite Catholics, do not fit the description and are not included in the report?
It’s not only a question of accuracy per se, it’s a question of generating immense confusion in a subject that is already quite confusing for many Americans. Thus, in the same breath one reads analyses on the Church of Russia, the Church of Greece, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (which is covered in detail as “one of the biggest Orthodox Churches”), and the Church of Armenia, without the reader being informed that there is no viable definition under which all these would fall. It is indeed puzzling how a valuable report with so much effort invested in it should engender such confusion from its very title. Let it be said once again: there is no definition of “Orthodox Christianity” that includes Oriental Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Church, not only no definition acceptable to the Orthodox, but no academically viable definition at all.
(2) One of the bizarre outcomes of Pew Research Center’s questionable methodology of taking Eastern Orthodox and pre-Chalcedonian Churches together as “the Orthodox Church” is that a sizable proportion of Armenians (a pre-Chalcedonian Church) consider the Patriarch of Moscow or Constantinople—both belonging to a communion different from theirs—as their highest spiritual authority, rather than the Patriarch of Armenia (p. 43 of the full report). One wonders how can this be? Is this a form of “Eastern Anglo-Papalism,” i.e., declaring allegiance to the highest authority of a different Church?
Apart from that, and concerning the same question, I hope to be allowed to have certain doubts on the clarity of the question, which is explicitly aimed at investigating the influence of the Russian Church in Eastern and Central Europe. (Thus it is, I presume, that the flock of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church hasn’t been asked whether they consider the Patriarch of Constantinople or Moscow as their spiritual authority….) According to the above chart: % of Orthodox Christians who say they recognize the patriarch of __________ as the highest authority of the Orthodox Church, with options including the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Patriarch of Moscow and, if applicable, the country’s Patriarch/Archbishop.
While this question would be crystal clear in a Roman Catholic context, it is deeply problematic in an Orthodox context: is the person asked expected to respond on who has the highest authority over them, in that geographical territory, or who is the primus of the Orthodox Church at large, in an abstract way? These are two very different questions engendering very different responses, and it requires a stretch of imagination to assert that respondents have understood this as a question on the primus of the Orthodox Church at large. It goes without saying that, in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology, the local primus is recognized as the authority over me, with higher structures having hardly any power in that geographical area. Thus, the fact that faithful under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate—as for example Latvia or Belarus—will point to the Patriarch of Moscow is hardly puzzling at all.
Even Greece’s seeming exceptionalism is also to be easily explained: Greece doesn’t have a national Church proper, for the autocephalous Church of Greece is the jurisdiction of only a part of Greece, with other parts of Greece belonging to hybrid jurisdictions under the spiritual authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (“New Lands”), or directly to the Ecumenical Patriarchate (the five metropolises of the Dodecanese as well as Mount Athos), or to a semi-autonomous church with its own Archbishop under the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Crete). Thus, what seems like a divergence of Greek opinions to the uninitiated simply reflects the ecclesiastical structure of Greece, partly pointing to a national Church of Greece and partly to jurisdictions under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is much more nuanced than Pew Research Center’s “Church of Greece with a national Archbishop” tag would imply. Thus, what appears in the report as a geopolitically interesting finding may actually be a design flaw of the research behind it.
It goes without saying that this is a very valuable report. To cite but one example, we Greeks had no recent survey on the weekly church attendance percentage available. This report gives 17% as the percentage within the Orthodox population of Greece, i.e., 14.8% of all Greeks (as the report gives 87% as Greece’s nominal Orthodox Christians). This is a most interesting finding, as it refutes both the official Church’s claims about “Greece’s Orthodox population” and certain theologians’ wild underestimations of the numbers of Greece’s practicing Orthodox: recently, certain public figure-theologians cited as low as “2-3%” or “3-4%” for the percentage of Greeks who attend church. The fact that Pew’s report gives us 17%/14.8% as the current percentage is indeed valuable, among its many other equally valuable findings.
However, the design flaws of the report are far from insignificant. This is to be pointed out in order for further confusion to be avoided.
Sotiris Mitralexis is assistant professor of philosophy at the City University of Istanbul and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Winchester, UK. He holds a PhD from from the Freie Universität Berlin. His Ever-Moving Repose: A Contemporary Reading of Maximus the Confessor’s Theory of Time and an anthology which he co-edited, Maximus the Confessor as a European Philosopher, both appeared in 2017 and will be reviewed soon on Orthodoxy in Dialogue.