20. 2005: the Big Trip, Part 4- the Falling Away from Christianity in the West, “Family Values” and the Value of Travel

I had been in Europe for four weeks. It was my fourth trip to western Europe and my fifth trip to Greece. As I flew home I pondered what I had seen and heard, and I’ve been speculating about it ever since.

The Decline of Christianity in the West

I hear there are places in western Europe where Christianity is alive and well. All I can say is that I haven’t seen many.

Western Europe still has a visible Christian veneer, but few practice their religion any more. Only 2% of Church of England members worship on a typical Sunday. Since 1969 the C of E has closed over 1,500 churches. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby says, “The culture [is] becoming anti-Christian, whether it is on matters of sexual morality, or the care for people at the beginning or the end of life. It is easy to paint a very gloomy picture.” As of 2016, those claiming no religion now outnumber Christians in England and Wales.*  An Orthodox priest told me that most young people now have no religious upbringing, that when he wears his cross on the street, children come up and ask, “What’s that?

  • See a 2016 survey “Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales”, and a current Wikipedia article “Religion in England” with extensive documentation. 

The Spanish Centre for Sociological Research reported in May 2017 that while 69.3% of Spaniards still identify as Roman Catholic, 57.8% of them rarely go to Mass, and 16% more go to Mass a few times a year. According to a recent Eurobarometer Poll, 19% of Spaniards, 24% of Danes, 26% of Slovenians, 27% of Germans and Belgians, 34% of Swedes, and 40% of the French claim to not believe in “any sort of spirit, God, or life-force.”

Christianity is also now losing ground in America. According to a 2014 Pew Research survey (see below), the percentage of Americans identifying as Christians declined by about 8% in the preceding 7 years, and the percentage  claiming no faith increased by about 7% to almost 23% of the population. If this keeps up for a few decades… However, about 80% of Americans still say they believe in (some sort of) God.

How are we Orthodox doing? We’re too small for Pew Research to pay attention to us. Official Orthodox statistics say that between 2000 and 2010 our number of congregations in America grew by 16% to 2,370. It’s hard to know how many Orthodox people there actually are in the United States. If we have 6 million members as we sometimes claim, that would work out to 2,532 people per congregation. Not likely! But at least we still appear to be growing.


How to explain this falling away from western Christianity in its heartland? I think no one really knows, but I have asked others about it, especially in England and here at home. Here are some speculations:

One English priest said to me, “It’s because the Church of England is established”, so people don’t take it seriously. But the Church in Greece is also established for all intents and purposes, and from all I have seen, Orthodoxy seems to be doing well there.

Another Englishman suggested it’s because of Christian divisions: each faction says, “This the true faith”, but each teaches something different, so people just give up. But then how do you explain why in America, where Christians are more divided than anywhere else and almost every community has many denominations, about 50% of us still go to church regularly?

Someone else said it’s because Christians, whether left wing or right wing or middle of the bird, are giving so much attention to politics that they have forgotten their wellspring: God and worship and love. That may well be.

Roman Catholic child abuse scandals and coverups have surely given all Christians a bad name. Some years ago I was yelled at and almost attacked on the street by a man who thought I was a “Catholic priest”.

In Spain I suspect it’s because a very strict legalistic Roman Catholicism supported the repressive fascist Franco regime of the 1930s through 1975, and when it fell, so did the practice of that religion.

A Greek theologian, John Romanides, says that people are rightly rejecting the western “terrorist” God who dangles sinners over eternal fire, or who arbitrarily predestines some to hell. This is a long way from our God who “is good and loves mankind.” Olivier Clement wrote that the “authoritarian God, whose main concern is to punish the rebellious creature, [is] an image that bears a certain responsibility for… modern atheism”. (quoted by Andrew Louth in Modern Orthodox Thinkers, p. 273 ) Or the equally arbitrary God who rejects people unless they are not under the authority of a particular bishop or unless have had a “born again” experience.

However, in Greece…

I haven’t found any reliable statistics on Church attendance in eastern Europe.  I read that many Greeks do not take their Orthodoxy seriously. However, I’ve attended maybe 45 church services in Greece (not counting Mount Athos) and perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but with few exceptions churches have been full or nearly so on Sundays and holy days. Icons and crosses are normal in shops, restaurants, post offices, even banks. Below is a modern Athens restaurant with Saint Euphrosynos, patron saint of chefs, right next to the menu! Many churches are open with people praying and candles burning. On buses and the Metro rail, often people cross themselves when they pass churches. Orthodoxy is all over TV. The Archbishop of Athens swears in the Greek government – for better or for worse! Christianity is just “in the air”. It feels very different from western Europe and the United States.

What is the explanation for the falling away from Christianity in the west? for its apparent flourishing in Greece? If you have ideas, please post a comment.

Family Values: Europe and America

I have returned from my trips perplexed in other ways. Western Europe may not have much religion any more, but they have so much that supports families. Even before I was Orthodox I believed in what we used to call “family values”, strong traditional Christian families. Orthodoxy teaches that the “house church” comes second only to the local church itself – where children (and parents, too) are shaped in the love and life of the Kingdom of God.

In what follows I don’t intend to be political. I don’t care who supports families, whether enlightened politicians or generous business interests or private charities. I just want strong, healthy families. Consider: All of Europe has universal health care, so no families fall into despair because of bankruptcy or poverty if major illness strikes. (The United States is the only industrialized country not to do so.) All of Europe requires extensive time off work with pay for new mothers and even fathers, so they can give their newborns a solid loving beginning. (The United States is the only industrialized country not to do so.) Europe has so many small family-owned stores and restaurants and inns which encourage private initiative, creativity, responsibility and family cooperation, rather than the monochrome corporate chains which have taken over here. In Europe people seem to have more time for their families: cafes and trattorias and kafenions filled with people who linger with friends and family. Western Europe tolerates far less poverty than we do. Are these not “family values” issues? Are these not moral issues? Jesus had a lot to say about caring for people. And why does secular western Europe have a lower abortion rate than does our “religious” United States? I wish I could say the same for Greece.

Why all these differences? I’m not sure. But I’ve concluded that there’s more to family values than a couple of “wedge” issues.

The Value of Travel

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy. When men of sober age travel, they gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country, but they are subject ever after to recollections mixed with regret—their affections are weakened by being extended over more objects, and they learn new habits which cannot be gratified when they return home.” But, as “less happy” and unsettled as it sometimes has made me, still I love to travel, and I believe in the value of travel. Read the New Testament: see how many early Christians were forever coming and going. “The Lord has made  of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth.” (Acts 17:26) To travel is to see other kinds of people whom God has made, other ways of doing things.

G.K. Chesteron wrote, “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” Through my travels I’ve learned to appreciate America more. Christians are free here. Christianity is still alive here, and Orthodoxy is finally making itself accessible to Americans. Despite our current political nastiness, in real life so many Americans are good and kind and generous. America has provided a home and a refuge for “the tired, the poor”, those “yearning to breathe free” and has assimilated them well compared to Europe –  my own ancestors not so long ago, and so many more today – and I pray God that we continue to do so.

Here’s an idea which my wife thinks is off the wall, but let me run it past you: Since I’ve been Orthodox I’ve come to think that our American form of government has a pattern that (quite unintentionally) is almost Orthodox, at least in principle. We Orthodox have hierarchy and authority but deep down we are a “peoples’ Church”. The Holy Spirit is poured out upon all of us (Acts 2:17), and so the Orthodox Church is not authoritarian, not dominated by a few rulers. All of us Orthodox people, lay and clergy together, preserve the living Holy Tradition – and we do a pretty good job of it, too, if I do say so myself. Now, on a secular basis I think our American system is similar – if we will follow it. No authoritarianism, thank you. No tyrants controlling us and shoving us around, no big powerful special interests running the show –  if we adhere to our American system. “Government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Yes! Hooray for the red, white and blue! – when we do it right.

But that doesn’t mean we know it all. I wish Americans traveled overseas more.  I have heard few American accents in Europe. We are only one small part of God’s world. I have come home wishing we Americans were more open to what we could learn from others, especially from some of the older cultures of the world. As we travel and watch and learn and listen to others, we find out things we would never know otherwise. For one thing, in 2005 I discovered that Barney the Dinosaur can speak Greek! with the same dippy voice he has here. But to be serious, travel makes us ask questions and think and grow, not just take what we are and how we do it for granted.

So I have seen the world – well, parts of it. And I am grateful. For “the Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world, and all things have knowledge of the voice” (Wisdom of Solomon 1:7), and I have wanted to see what he has been up to. As I approach my eightieth year, my long distance traveling days may possibly be over now, but I’m still learning as I ponder all I have seen and heard.

However, in this Blog we’re only up to 2005. We still have a long way to go.

But next week: We’ll stay home for American Independence Day and consider “The Orthodox view of Patriotism”


3 thoughts on “20. 2005: the Big Trip, Part 4- the Falling Away from Christianity in the West, “Family Values” and the Value of Travel

  1. I enjoy your posts. Thank you. Just a correction …. The Archbishop of Canterbury is Justin Welby, not Justin Wells.
    I think there are many reasons why church attendance is as it is in the UK. Interestingly, the fact that the Church of England is established is not a negative factor. Local parish churches are part of the fabric of local communities – and are expected to be. It is no surprise that the local CofE church was heavily involved in the care of those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. Doing the match, hatch and dispatch constantly gets new people on the radar of parishes and it is amazing how many people are brought in. Parish churches frequently have good relationships with local primary schools.
    I don’t know enough to say why church attendance is so low. I have lots of opinions, but only a thin veneer of facts to back them up.
    I look forward to the next instalment of your blog.

    1. Thanks. We have a reader in the UK! I suspect spell-check changed Welby to Wells. I’ll correct it.

  2. fr.Bill, I wholeheartedly agree, Having traveled much in service; I think mandatory military service after High School, would show Americans just how much they take for granted living in America; how good they have it here…, even on the lower end of things. Not to mention getting a new take on how the world REALLY IS…, new perspectives; options intellectually, etc. And when all is said and done; I still think America is THE place to be, where opportunity; and the freedom to pursue that opportunity, ( the TRUE American dream), awaits ANY & ALL.

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