Staunton, May 8 – The Moscow Patriarchate likes to claim that 80 percent of the Russian population are Orthodox, but its own figures show that only about three percent attend church once a month or more let alone take part in other aspects of church life, according to a new book by Father Nikolay Yemelyanov, The Harvest is Plentiful but the Laborers are Few.
The vice rector of the St. Tikhon Theological Institute devotes his study to why, over the last two decades of relative religious freedom, the church has not been able to increase the percentage of what the Orthodox call “churched” believers and to whether it may be able to do something about that in the future.
In an interview published on the Pravoslavie.ru portal, Yemelyanov notes that while the percentage of Russians who identify as Orthodox has risen from 31 percent in 1990 to 68 percent now, the share who attend church at least once a month has risen above two or three percent only in one year (2013) (pravoslavie.ru/121035.html).
Identifying oneself as Orthodox in most cases in Russia today, the priest says, “does not have any relationship to religiosity. Instead, people call themselves Orthodox in order to designate their ethnic and civic membership as a Russian and citizen of Russia.”
But those who take part in religious life on a regular basis are quite different from those who don’t. They are more often in the villages than in the cities because in the former, the parishes are smaller and the priest has greater opportunities to work with individuals. They know him and he knows them. In the cities that is impossible.
But there are not enough priests to keep the size of church communities at the desired level of 200 to 500 parishioners. In Russia, there is only one priest for every 6050 people, far fewer than in Europe or the United States where among Roman Catholics, there is one priest for every 1050 to 2688 nominal believers.
It is unrealistic to think that the ROC MP will be able to boost the number of priests by three to five times; and it is important to remember that any increase might be a necessary condition for the growth of real believers but not a sufficient one, given that the number of priests in Russia has increased 500 percent but the share of “churched” Orthodox hasn’t budged.
According to Yemelyanov, building new churches is a good thing; but building new congregations is far more important. And he urges as one of the means to do that to attract people from within congregations to train as priests and then be returned to the places from which they come rather than appointing them to somewhere else.
He also suggests that it is necessary to enlist parishioners to help attract others to the faith and not leave the burden entirely on the shoulders of the priest as things generally stand now.