Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russians Leaving Orthodox Church for Other Christian Denominations, Moscow Experts Say



Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 16 – There are now more than 15,000 Protestant congregations in the Russian Federation, according to a Moscow expert, a figure that surpasses the total of Russian Orthodox parishes and reflects in part Russian flight from the latter because of growing anger about the policies of the Moscow Patriarchate and the approach of  many of its priests.

            An article in “Novyye izvestiya” reports that a Levada Center poll has found that the number of people identifying as Orthodox has fallen by six percent since 2009, a reflection of the anger of many believers about such Moscow Patriarchal actions as the condemnation of the Pussy Riot demonstration (newizv.ru/society/2013-04-11/180944-v-poiskah-vernogo-puti.html).

            As the paper’s Diana Yevdokimova notes, “there are no exact statistics in Russia on the shift of people from Orthodoxy to other Christian confessions,” but there is some indirect data which are suggestive, including the number of congregations either registered by the Justice Ministry or operating without such registration.

            According to the ministry, as of September 2012, there were 14,616 Orthodox parishes, 4409 Protestant ones, and 234 Catholic ones, but Anatoly Pchelintsev, a specialist on religion at the Russian State Humanitarian University, says that for every registered Protestant congregation, there are at least two unregistered ones.

            Consequently, he suggests, the number of Protestant congregations in the Russian Federation is “about 15,000” or slightly more than the total number of Orthodox ones.  According to Pchelintsev, “the number of Catholic communities, unlike the Protestant ones, has remained at its former level.”

            Roman Lunkin, a leading Moscow specialist on religious affairs, told the paper that Protestants and Catholics are both growing and that this trend has “intensified over the last three years or so.”  And he confirmed Pchelintsev’s estimates saying that “depending on the region from a third to half of the [Protestant] communities are not registered.”

            Polls show that from 56 to 80 percent of Russians consider themselves to be Orthodox, but Pchelintsev notes, “the majority of them do not know the elementary foundations of religion and call themselves Orthodox as a way of asserting their national identity.”  The number of real Orthodox believers is between three and seven percent of the population, he continued.

            Few of these committed believers ever change denomination, Lunkin says, and consequently “the growth in the number of congregants of other Christian churches is occurring among the potential Orthodox Russian population which declares that it belongs to Orthodox culture, is patriotic but chooses another faith.”

Lunkin says that the Russian Orthodox Church has only itself to blame for such losses. “In the Orthodox Church alongside faith or sometimes in place of faith in Christ is offered faith in great Holy Russia, in the state, in patriotic values in ‘United Russia,’ but just no in Christ.  People who choose another Christian church are consciously choosing simply faith.”

For many Russians, he continues, the way in which the Moscow Patriarchate responded to the Pussy Riot scandal offended them, not because they supported the girls involved but rather because “they saw in Orthodoxy part of the state machine which does not display mercy or follow the message of the Gospels.”

Pchelintsev agrees. He says that “we are observing a small crisis of faith in Russia which is connected with the unethical behavior of Orthodox priests,” something that he said is alienating the faithful from the Church. The Moscow scholar added that if those who change denominations see in their new churches, they may leave the latter as well.

Patriarchate officials like archpriests Vladimir Vigilyansky and Vsevolod Chaplin, play down this trend, saying that this is a two way street with believers shifting in both directions and that “over the last two or three years,” most of those making a change have joined the Orthodox Church rather than Protestant or Catholic ones.

The independent specialists disagree and in fact point to deeper problems with Orthodoxy.  Lunkin, for example, says that the Church often tells its members that “You are baptized and you are Orthodox and that’s all.”  People want more from their churches, and the Protestants and Catholics give them more.

The Catholics require catechism courses, and both they and the Protestans make a point to involve their believers in public activities. That makes them stronger not only as institutions on their own, Lunkin argues, but means that they, unlike Orthodox congregations, form an important element of civil society.

Pchelintsev points to another aspect of Orthodox practice that is driving Russians away: the continuing use in services of Old Church Slavonic which few if any congregants understand.  “Nowadays, the Bible is sold everywhere. People want to study it and know it,” and that is what happens in Protestant congregations.

Lunkin says that the movement of people from Orthodoxy to other Christian faiths in Russia shows that “the Soviet habit of considering that all except the Orthodox are sectarians is gradually passing” and that for at least a decade, there is no reason to equate Orthodoxy and Russianness although many still do.

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