I started reading a book today by an Eastern Orthodox bishop in the USA. He noted that more people who identified themselves as Orthodox never attended Church and did not associate themselves with any parish than those who did attend, however infrequently. Of course there are many who no longer even identify themselves as Orthodox, and some of those still considering themselves to be members of a local parish may well not be very active in their membership or spirituality. This is not mentioned to be critical in any way. But it does seem to me to describe a similar situation to that being experienced by our Coptic Orthodox Church, which estimates that as many as 75% of those who are associated with the Church by family background are lost to the Church as they grow older.
It is a matter of great sadness to me to find people who have been Orthodox, or members of Orthodox families, leaving the Church, and becoming members of non-Orthodox groups, or even abandoning any claim to faith in Christ at all and becoming agnostic or atheist. What is the cause? Why are so many finding that the congregations and communities they belong to are not helping them to become more fruitfully spiritual, but are, to be honest sometimes even places of harm, hurt and distress?
The internet and my own experience brings me into contact with Orthodox people who are considering leaving the Church, are struggling with their participation in the Church, or have already made a decision to walk away. There is no need for me to address my comments here to anyone but myself. If there are lessons which should be learned then surely I am the one who must learn them first of all. So to be clear, I am not addressing any particular situation or congregation, and I am only reflecting myself on the responsibility I have as a priest and pastor for those in my care, those with whom I am in contact, and those who turn to me for support.
What are some of the reasons that are causing so many to leave the Church? And 75% is surely a disturbingly high percentage of any community to be lost, and it is essentially an unsustainable level of loss. These are some of the issues that I am considering myself as being significant, and as demanding a response from me as a priest and spiritual father.
Unless you are converted… None of us can be born into the Church. We cannot be and become Christians while relying only on the faith of our parents. Certainly this is how the Christian experience properly begins for most Orthodox. They receive new life in Christ as a gift in baptism, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their chrismation. But if Protestantism is in error in suggesting that having offered a short prayer we are always in a saving relationship with God, then those from an Orthodox background can be equally in error if they assume or insist that having been baptised and chrismated nothing more is required of us than occasional religious activity. On the contrary, each of us must be converted every day, making a determined choice to serve God in faith. But many of those who leave the Church have not been taught that they should be entering more fully and completely into such a personal relationship with God. They have not been taught that a personal and continuing conversion, a turning round each day and developing our spiritual experience is the essence of the Orthodox way, and not something only for the most advanced. If someone has not been converted and not been shown that our Christian Faith is to be a personal relationship with God, then it is very understandable that the Orthodox spiritual life becomes unbearable, and appears to be only a matter of rules and regulations.
False religion… Indeed, some of those who leave the Church have been taught a false religion. This can be, on the one hand, because they have learned only to adopt a set of moral rules and behaviour. But the Orthodox Faith is not a morality, it is life in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Others have been taught, wittingly or unwittingly, that God is angry with us, and sent His Son into the world to punish him and pour out His anger and hatred on Him. Yet others come to understand that our relationship with God is a matter of bargains and religious transactions, where we offer certain religious practices and God will give us what we want. No wonder people are leaving the Church if these are what they understand of Orthodox Christianity. These are false religions, they are essentially expressions of paganism. If we believe that the Christian life is only a matter of behaviour, or if we believe that God is angry with us and will send most people to Hell, or if we even believe that we can engage in commercial transactions with God, then we will be unfailing disappointed. These are not forms of Christianity. If someone has been taught such a form of religion it is not surprising to me that they might abandon it, In doing so they are not abandoning Orthodox Christianity at all but a false representation of it which deserves to be rejected.
Cultural disconnect… Of course one of the reasons why it is possible to pick up wrong ideas about the Orthodox Faith is that we can present it in an incomprehensible language. This can mean that the language of worship is not understood by those who attend services in the Church. When this occurs we are, to a great extent, excluded from participation in what is happening. How can we be nourished if we do not understand. But more than this, there is also the case that the culture in which our Faith is described is not always understood. When we have no answer to questions about why we do things in this way or that way, and even worse, when we treat such questions as being forbidden or offensive, then we are failing to communicate. Indeed we are communicating a message that the Faith is not to be understood at all, and that what matters is really only external conformity. There should be no questions which cannot be asked, and as far as possible we should have reasonable and compelling answers. If we forbid questions then it is not surprising to me that any will be repelled by such demands and will seek an apparent freedom of questions elsewhere.
Ways of the world… Of course there are many questions which our presence as Orthodox Christians in the West will generate. Not only about the culture and practices of our Christian community, but questions about science, politics, social developments and a host of other aspects of modern life. The Church should have reasonable and helpful answers to these questions. But unfortunately it seems to some that we are either unable to provide substantial responses, or that those who ask these questions are blamed for raising them. I am not afraid of questions. It seems to me that they always help those with pastoral care to gain an understanding of those things that are troubling members of the Church. If there is a genuine question, about evolution, or homosexuality, or abortion, or any such subject, then we must answer as honestly as the question is asked. If we do not answer, or cannot answer, or will not answer, then it seems understandable to me that those with already fragile faith will find that their commitment to life in the Church will be undermined even further.
Jack of all Trades… I do know that many of those with whom I speak, or who contact me by email, seem to think that as a priest I might have experience of every situation and be able to speak authoritatively on any subject. But it is not true. I have some experience as a priest and I have studied aspects of theology and spirituality, and I believe that thanks to God I am granted grace to serve others when they ask for spiritual advice. But I am not a marriage guidance counsellor. I am not a careers counsellor. I am not a financial advisor. I am not a motor mechanic either. Often I will say to people that I am speaking only as their friend, and that they can reject my suggestions and conversation as being inappropriate when it comes to something practical about their life. I am aware of how dangerous and harmful it might be for me to speak with any authority outside of the responsibility I have as a priest and spiritual father. Unfortunately there are those who have been hurt by receiving advice as if it was authoritative when it should not have been and was outside the scope of the spiritual relationship proper to a priest. When such advice is given with too great an authority it can cause great harm, and has done so. In such cases it is again not surprising to me that some will find it impossible to continue sharing in the life of the Church. But it is not the one who has been hurt who should surely be blamed.
Bear with one another… Sadly, many of the people I hear about seem to have left the Church because they have been hurt by others. Sometimes this is because they have become the subject of gossip. Others have found themselves isolated and ignored when they have attended Church services and meetings. Still others have been let down by people in the Church, or have been offended by the behaviour or conversation of others, even that of the clergy. Of course when we have a stable and mature faith we can bear with many such offences. But if such a person is perhaps young, or not very well established in their spiritual life, then being hurt or ignored or gossiped about can be more than can be borne with. And what is to be done when it is the priest who has unfortunately caused such offence. I feel the responsibility as a priest and in my weakness I know that I have sometimes caused others to feel hurt. I cannot blame someone for finding it difficult to continue in the Church when they do not experience it as a warm and comforting community.
Keep the tradition… These are some of the reasons why it seems to me that people are leaving the Church, and cannot easily be blamed for doing so. Those of us who are converts face our own difficulties sometimes. I am sadly also aware of many converts who are considering leaving the Coptic Orthodox Church, or have already done so. For most of these, as far as I can understand, it is the apparent failure of the Church to preserve the Orthodox Tradition which is the greatest obstacle. The introduction of Protestant forms of worship for instance, and other recent developments in ecclesiology, seem to suggest to some converts that the Coptic Orthodox Church is not as serious about maintaining the Orthodox Tradition as they are. I know what they feel and I sympathise to a very great extent. I may not always agree with any particular action that a person takes, but I appreciate why they feel it necessary to turn to another Orthodox community to find a greater adherence to the Orthodox Tradition they have often adopted at personal cost. I don’t blame them. They love the fullness of the Orthodox Faith as I do.
Are these enough reasons to help me understand why people are leaving the Church? I believe they are, and they should be the subject of much reflection on my own practice and behaviour as a priest. There is a need for education in many cases. An authentic spiritual education that leads Orthodox Christians into a continuing and deepening experience of union with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit. There is a need for the clear rejection of false views of Orthodoxy at every opportunity and the presentation of the transforming experience of the Orthodox spiritual life. We need to address the cultural, scientific and social questions which are raised by our living in the 21st century, and we must make sure that no questions are dismissed and no one who asks a question is made to feel as if they are a cause of offense. And we must take much more effort, and greater care, of all those who belong to the Church with us. We must not be a cause of hurt, we must ourselves become spiritual men and women who are filled with the divine life and love and are sharing that life and love with others. How can it be possible that so many of those who leave the Church do so without any great effort to support them and help them find healing? We are at fault for allowing people to leave without being noticed, and for being the cause of them leaving.
What is required of us beyond better spiritual education and apologetics, and a more caring and loving experience of community? It seems to me that we who remain must repent. We are not without fault, even if we have not directly caused any soul to be lost. But they also belong to Christ. He loves them and died for them, and wishes them to find life in union with Him. We did not take such care of them as Christ asks of us. Therefore we should repent. And if our repentance is true then we must begin, now and immediately, to do all that we can so that no other soul be list through any of these reasons, and that as many of those who have already departed from us be gathered up without any blame being laid upon their own choices, but as though all the fault were our own.
How can we speak of Orthodoxy as being true and abundant life in Christ is 75% of those who belong to us are lost? If it is truly that transforming and renewing experience of union with God then we must come to share his own life and love, and give ourselves in sacrifice and humility for the sake of those on the edges, those who are struggling, those with difficult questions, those who have fallen and need a hand to stand again, those who have not succeeded in the world. They are the majority of us, not the minority. Without them we are incomplete for God desires them to find the fulfilment of their own renewal in baptism which unites us with them and with Christ.
May He grant us such grace, such compassion, that we are not content to lose such precious souls but will do all that we can in the will of God to preserve them in peace and in the unity of the Church.