As Orthodox Christians in the United States seek a new unity out of ethnic fragmentation, they must grapple with the fact that many who say they cherish the faith nevertheless ignore its teachings and practices.
“They see the Orthodox Church in an unorthodox way,” said Alexei Krindatch, research director of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute at the University of California-Berkeley, who conducted an in-depth study of Orthodox Christians in the United States.
He spoke in Ligonier at a national conference of Orthodox Christian Laity, church activists from across all ethnic jurisdictions. They welcomed this year’s call from the patriarchs of all of the Eastern European and Middle Eastern Orthodox churches to begin forming united Orthodox churches in places such as North America and Australia. The patriarchs instructed all Orthodox bishops in North America to begin meeting together to deal with the issues of their own regions. Groups such as Orthodox Christian Laity want to help the bishops along that path.
Orthodox Christians have a high sense of identification with their faith, Mr. Krindatch said. Eighty-seven percent said they couldn’t imagine being anything but Orthodox, compared to 70 percent of Catholics who felt the same way about their church. But although more than 70 percent of Orthodox identify themselves as conservative or traditional — wanting no or slow change — many also consider key teachings of the faith optional.
Mr. Krindatch found that 60 percent believed they could be good Orthodox Christians without going to church every Sunday — and they attended less frequently than Catholics or evangelical Protestants.
More than a quarter believed it was unnecessary to give time and money to either the church or to help the poor. Another study found that 62 percent of Orthodox Christians believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Metropolitan Jonah, national leader of the Russian-rooted Orthodox Church in America, reacted strongly to the abortion findings, telling the assembly, “If 60 percent of our people support abortion, then we have failed miserably in our teaching.”