ENGLISH VERSION: Former editor of OCANews.org MARK STOKOE: “The most important religious event of 2015 - the Church"s continuing failure to stem a massive generational falling away from faith”
Portal-Credo.Ru: What religious event in 2015 do you feel was most important for the world?
Mark Stokoe: Sometimes the most powerful earthquakes are so deep, or so far out at sea, it takes a long time before we feel their effects. A recent, massive, academic survey of Americans found that Millennials – especially the youngest Millennials – are far less religious than their elders. For example, only 27 % of Millennials say they attend religious services on a weekly basis, and only 40% of Millennials say religion is very important in their lives: this is less than half of what Baby Boomers and older Americans profess. In short, as older adults (comprised mainly of self-identified Christians) pass away, they are being replaced by young adults who display far lower levels of attachment to organized religion than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations did when they were the same age. It is as bad, or worse, in Europe and South America. So this is the most important religious event of 2015 - the Church's continuing failure to stem a massive generational falling away from faith.
Pope Francis, to his credit, is trying to make Christianity more accessible - to divorced people, gays, the poor. But while he is trying to open doors, the Orthodox Church seems to be building higher and higher walls through condemnations, denunciations, rejections, separation.
The Maginot Line failed as an effective strategy, and I suspect this new attempt will fail as well.
- What changes have occurred within the Patriarchate of Antioch, as a result of the war in Syria and throughout the Middle East. Do you see their future as a persecuted Church, or in exile in the USA?
- Where to begin? The old centers of the Antiochian Church in Syria and Lebanon are being destroyed by civil war and the massive refugee problem that stems from that war. The new centers, in North and South America, are seeing this generational fall off, mentioned above. Until the Syrian civil war ends -- and it is hard to see how it ends in any way good for the Church -- the Patriarchate will continue to struggle to survive. I suspect it will be forced eventually to move to Lebanon, and if Lebanon fails, overseas. At that point Geneva looks most likely.
- What will become of Western Europe, given over a million Muslim refugees this year?
- Let's keep things in historical perspective. In 700 AD Muslim armies had taken Spain, and were on the outskirts of Paris. In 1529 Ottoman armies were besieging Vienna. In 2015 a million Muslims are begging to be let into Europe, not conquer it. After the Second World War there were 11 million displaced persons, east and west. Europe survived, and under far less propitious circumstances than the present. This is a human catastrophe, not a religious one, and our response as Christians must be to follow Christ by giving them the shirt off our back, if required; not requiring they be baptized before receiving help. God knows what He is doing. Let us be open to Him, and to Him in our suffering brothers and sisters.
- Who will benefit most from the Pan-Orthodox Council this coming year, and who will not? Do you think it will really be held?
- There forthcoming meeting will not be the long-awaited "Great and Holy Council" in the manner or style or importance of the previous seven. It will, rather, be the first meeting of representatives of many, if not most, Orthodox Churches, that will take place every 3-4 years from now on. Some will not attend this first one -- because they are boycotting, or were not invited. They may attend the next. The point is these gatherings are not of historical significance, but of administrative convenience. This lack of ultimate importance is evidenced by the complete meaninglessness of the current topics. No one in the entire world cares about the internal ordering of the Orthodox Churches. As Syria burns, millions are on the move, and the ice melts and waters rise, this is all the Orthodox world has to offer?
- Is it fair that the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) makes claims for leadership of the Pentarchy, given its size?
- I understand the question, but am saddened by it. It reminds me of the situation described in Luke 22. Our Lord and his disciples have just celebrated the first Lord's Supper - what a moment! - and what are they doing? As Luke recounts: "A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves".
If the Russian Church wants to be first, let it be first in service to the world, and then to its sister Churches. Such is the Word of the Lord Himself. This, however, is not what they are doing, and so the whole question makes me sad.
- Which of the Orthodox churches are most dependent on the State? And which are not?
- Well, clearly the OCA is the least "dependent" on the state of all Orthodox Churches, in every context: financially, politically, etc. I doubt President Obama even knows the OCA exists! The "dependency" of other Orthodox Churches to their states is less clear: some are financially dependent on their state to survive - others are politically dependent as well -- and perhaps Antioch is even militarily dependent on the Assad regime for its survival in the face of ISIS.
Others are seen as simply "creatures" of a state, so closely are they entwined with the political objectives and actions of their nation - or its current leader. Where this is the result of compulsion, we can sympathize with their plight.
Where it is the result of "choice" - it is culpable. The Church is not a nation, any nation, nor are any nation's objectives ever those of the Church, even if on a very rare occasion they may temporarily coincide. A Christian has no homeland on earth, but only membership in one Kingdom, that of heaven. Woe to the Church that forgets that fundamental truth! For when martyrdom comes, and it comes to all Churches, do they die for eternal glory of Christ, or for very temporal glory of some transient nation-state?
- Under what conditions in Ukraine can you envision one local Church? Would that Church be patriarchal, autonomous or autocephalous?
- The schism in Ukraine is so tragic. It is humanity at its worst. That which should bind people together - national identity, faith, history - now tears them apart.
However, the status of the Ukrainian Church (or Churches, at present) is a decision to be made by the Russian and Ukrainian Churches - as mother and daughter churches. Clearly a united Ukrainian Church would be worthy of being raised to autocephalous, Patriarchal status at some point, and worthy to be recognized as such by all other Orthodox Churches, given its immense size. But is this time? Is this the best way forward? I cannot answer these questions.
But this I do know: Russian Church must decide, not the Russian state. The Ukrainian Church must decide, not the Ukrainian state. The best mother always does what is best for the daughter, even when it is painful for that mother, or may involve loss, or trouble. Children must be allowed to find their own way forward -- and make their own mistakes. This is how we grow in life, and mature in faith. To be kept in perpetual dependence is unhealthy for all, and ultimately self-defeating.
We must all pray that our Bishops seek wisdom, and truth and what is best for the future of the Church.
May God bless us all in this New Year!
Interview by Svetlana Vais,