The Numbers Game Print
Written by Sherry   
Friday, 28 November 2008 06:45
I pity those standing in line at 4 am this morning to catch those post-Thanksgiving bargains. Cause it's white Friday around here (snowing) and I'm a bit dazed after two months of obligatory 4 am rides to airports all over the country. It really feels like a change to be sitting snugly at my dining room table looking out at the snow and feeling sorry for someone else. CSI: We put the "M" in Mendicant.

I wanted to share some of the other insights I gained last week on the differences between the Orthodox and Catholic experiences.

The first and most obvious is numbers. Fr. Gregory told me that the average Orthodox Church in America parish has 106 members and that the average Greek Orthodox church has slightly over 200. Holy Assumption parish which sponsored the workshop only had 43 adult members. The OCA is smaller than the Greek Orthodox Church but together they represent 60% of all Orthodox in the US. Orthodoxy includes 0.6% of all Americans and is smaller than Buddhism or Jehovah's Witnesses and about the same size as the American Muslim community.

After 11 plus years of teaching in Catholic parishes who describe their membership vaguely in terms of "thousands of families", I was taken aback. Only two weeks before, we (Fr. Mike and I) had been in LA where a recent synod estimated that the average parish boundaries in LA contains 19,000 Catholics, where they worried that only 40% of the 5 million Catholics in the archdiocese ever darkened the door, and where they had baptized 100,000 new Catholics in 2007. It was like being among Quakers again where little meetings of 35 or 50 supported a full-time pastor and his or her family.

While, as Fr. Gregory emphasized to me, there are very few significant theological differences between us (He quoted an Orthodox luminary who asserted that, apart from those places where we specifically disagree, St. Thomas Aquinas is a sure guide to the Orthodox faith - which made this Dominican-without-portfolio happy!) the numerical difference alone means that the life of the average parish and pastoral practice can't help but be profoundly different.

I asked Mary Jensen (Fr. Gregory's wife) what they would do when faced with a parish of 1,000 people. Break it into 5 parishes of 200 each - each with their own pastor - was her reply. Of course, that answer implied a couple things: that parishes of 1,000 are an anomaly and you only have to deal with one at a time and that you have 4 trained pastors at leisure, kicking their heels and ready to move. It means you live in a world where 3,000 potential parishioners don't just show up on your doorstep the moment you open a new parish as so often happens among Catholics.

In any case, the seminary training of Orthodox priests is much shorter than that of Catholic priests (3 years as opposed to 6 years (diocesan) or more for religious priests (OPs receive 8 years of training, Jesuits, 12 years). In fact, seminary isn't absolutely required among the Orthodox as Fr. Gregory told me about a very theologically sophisticated priest who never attended seminary and was more or less ordained on the spot. It sounded a great deal more like Catholic pre-Reformation practice than what we are used to today. To begin with, Orthodox seminarians do not have to spend two years studying philosophy.

Addendum: I should mention that 56 - 59% (I've seen slightly different figures) of Orthodox Church in America clergy are converts from other traditions: mostly evangelical or Catholic. This is very different from the situation within the Greek Orthodox Church where only 13% of priests are converts.

So I begin to understand the comments I had read from Orthodox bloggers that Catholics are good at creating structures and systems and i began to understand the comment one Orthodox woman made that the C & G was "business-like" - a response that is completely unique in my experience. Huge numbers require organization and a certain level of standardization. To enable 30,000 people to attend 380+ live workshops taught by 100 different trained teachers in 6 countries requires organization. If you are really small and local, you never have to wrestle with the same kind of issues.

In many ways, Orthodoxy in the US seems closer in culture to medieval Catholicism in Europe before the challenge of the Reformation, religious war, and modernity forced us to change our ways dramatically.