Patriarch Kirill says there are 150 million believers in the ROC MP, a number larger than the population of the Russian Federation and one that includes people in Ukraine, Belarus, other former Soviet republics, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and other Orthodox congregations outside of the Russian Federation.
But the real number is much lower, no more than one or two percent and perhaps less, if one counts as believers only those who attend religious services regularly. Then there are the figures the Russian state offers on the number who attend services on holidays such as Christmas. This year, Moscow said 2.6 million did – just under two percent of the population.
As to the size of the church’s institutional base, the ROC MP says that on February 1, 2018, the church had 303 bishoprics and 37,799 churches, figures that include those not only in Russia but abroad. The church says it has 40,447 clerics, including 35,625 consecrated priests and 4822 deacons.
For the Russian Federation alone, these figures are far smaller: 190 bishoprics (excluding three in Crimea) and 23,281 clerics including 20,149 priests and 3132 deacons. This means, Pluzhnikov says, that there are somewhat fewer priests than parishes and so in rural areas, many priests serve more than one church.
If one accepts that the real number of parishioners is a maximum of 1.5 million and the number of parishes at no more than 25,000, that means that the average parish has approximately 60 members, larger in the big cities but smaller in rural areas. That is the real face of the ROC MP in Russia and not the far larger numbers the patriarchate gives out.
Approximately 15 years ago, Plyushnikov says, he worked as a teacher in a rural school and regularly attended church. That infuriated the school’s direction who was a communist and feared that he would conduct religious propaganda in schools. “I am an atheist but also an Orthodox,” she said repeatedly, an indication of how problematic such claims are.