Dr. Hannu Pöyhönen Statistics indicate that within several months of this year alone, over 1,000 people terminated their official membership in the autonomous Finnish Orthodox Church (which belongs to the Patriarchate of Constantinople): in the spring of 2020 it had 59,600 official members, and by the fall it numbered only 58,540 faithful. People leave daily, and the process continues.
What this means for the Church, what can be said about this exodus from the Church and the reasons behind it, and whether or not it is a catastrophe: these are some of the questions we discussed with Hannu Pöyhönen, Ph.D in Theology and a co-founder of the Panagia monastic center in the Finnish town of Lammi.
—Dr. Pöyhönen, I can’t say that the termination of official membership in the Finnish Orthodox Church brings any joy. Confusion, yes—the smallest official denomination in Finland is becoming even smaller. I realize that we are only talking about the external side of the problem. How would you characterize the current state of Christianity in your country? Can we make judgments about its state based solely on externals?
—We too were surprised to learn about the exodus of parishioners from our Local Church. That is a real tragedy, a great tragedy. No Christian, even a member of some other denomination, can rejoice at this. Only enemies of the Church and of Christ can be happy. Unfortunately, there are plenty of them in our days, which is manifested in the decline of Christianity in all European countries. In Finland, we even have a special website, “Quit the Church,” backed by a cult of “freethinkers,” which simplifies the process of terminating membership in the Church to just one click. This is how hundreds of thousands of people have already left their parishes, mostly in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.
—In your view, what are the reasons behind this mass exodus of people from the Church?
—This is a difficult time for Christianity in general. Both society and people’s living conditions have changed radically, which affects the nature of family life as well. People today no longer receive, from childhood, the seedlings of the Christian faith and experience of life in Christ in their families, though this was natural for the previous generations. At home, they no longer receive the strong foundation that individual life, or the life of a whole society or a nation is built on. As a result, a person becomes vulnerable to various influences on his consciousness, many of which are negative and differ greatly from Christian teaching.
Moreover, such a person develops a highly critical attitude towards everything (I would call it, “looking askance at everything”), we are taught such attitudes starting in school.
Let’s not forget that the average person today has turned into a blatant consumer who is used to choosing only the things he enjoys doing and that “suit” him personally. This leads to a situation in which Christianity stops being attractive to people, so instead they choose some elements from completely different spiritual movements with the aim of building their own spiritual realm that conforms to their consumerist requirements.
On top of that, immigration processes in Europe have brought once rare religions closer to traditional ones, making people question the exceptionalism of their faith while becoming familiar with new religious movements. An illustrative example of this is yoga, which has become an integral part of the lives of many Christians and even Christian communities. Western rationalism, which contradicts the human need for mystical experience, has served as a “fertile soil” here. In light of these changes, I think the Orthodox Church ought to emphasize the value of its Tradition more vividly, because my firm conviction is that it is the only form of Christianity that in all times remains the fount of the fresh and living water. The tradition of our Church is infinitely deep; the longer we stand on the path of self-purification, the greater the meaning that becomes available for our understanding, fully quenching our inner thirst.
The statistics on how many people belong to a Church and how many have left speak volumes, but they don’t say everything. The number of people who have left their parishes may likewise indicate that after joining the Church they didn’t find the Christian witness of faith that would have compelled and encouraged them to build their own paths in life. Some of them are sincere seekers of Christ, whereas some of the “faithful members” are just nominal Christians who ceased to practice their faith long ago. I think there is no need to cite any examples from the New Testament.
—You allude to Judas and all those who found the words of Christ strange and walked away from Him. Can we judge those who officially end their membership in the Orthodox Church?
—I think that we shouldn’t judge those who are leaving the Church. It’s a different matter when it is done provocatively, publicly and blasphemously. The Lord alone will judge them. Meanwhile, we know that by leaving the Church, a person drifts away from Christ with all the consequences for eternity. Out of love and concern for our neighbor, we should say this to every person who is thinking of leaving the Church. I believe that in their hearts such people don’t fully understand the implications of this action, and I hope the Lord will have mercy on them. I also want to hope that these people will eventually come to their senses and return to the Church before they die. Perhaps in the future a life crisis (or even a war, some other terrible trial) will help them reconsider their values. Out of love for mankind, God allows various tribulations precisely to give us opportunities to find a well of water springing up into everlasting life (Jn. 4:14).
—In your view, what are the main reasons contributing to the people’s decision to leave the Church?
—As I see it, people are tired of “rational Christianity.” Such an approach offers nothing to the heart—in it there is no joyful mystery, no possibility of establishing a real bond with the Triune God. This rationalism is like a half-empty basket containing nothing but a manual on ethics.
But your question nonetheless concerns the current situation of Christianity and our Church in Finland. For us at the Panagia Center, this exodus of parishioners from the Church has come as a great shock as everything happened quietly and discreetly. No one openly wrote about it or voiced suspicion. So, if we take Finland, people have most likely left the Church for a whole range of reasons.
Many are tired of the scandals undermining the authority of the Finnish Orthodox Church, which the media have zealously covered. Bad relations between the bishops are no secret to anyone, which is why Patriarch Bartholomew invited all the hierarchs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. Moreover, our Church has been a participant in many court cases related to internal affairs, conflicts and financial disputes in recent years. It’s natural that this oppressive atmosphere has affected our parishioners. This is an absolutely new situation though, because until recently the Orthodox Church had for decades been the darling of the Finnish media, which only wrote very good things about it and treated it with respect.
—I can’t refrain from asking you how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the Church.
—I think that the measures taken by the Finnish Orthodox Church to prevent the spread of coronavirus have, at least indirectly, impacted the number of parishioners leaving the Church. In Finland all Orthodox churches were closed until the end of July in spite of a lack of such requirements from the government! Throughout the period of restrictions, services were celebrated by clergy alone behind closed doors. The faithful were denied access to services even in large churches where safety precautions could well have been taken. As a result, people began to get used to a life without services and without the Church. The most deplorable aspect of this situation is that live interaction with priests and bishops has been disrupted. We all understand what happens when the shepherd leaves the flock and the sheep begin to wander on their own in search of a better lot. They lose strength, scatter and disappear, and many eventually perish.
I would guess that the pandemic might have contributed, though insignificantly, to the drop in the number of Orthodox because it was impossible to perform the sacrament of Baptism properly, as it had been done before. This is likely to be an insignificant factor, however.
To try and say it concisely, the figures for the exodus from the Church speak about a lack of vision that our Church has, for the moment, been unable to remedy, at least in any convincing way.
—Do you consider this a tragedy or a usual challenge of the world which lieth in wickedness (1 Jn. 5:19)?
—Yes, from a spiritual perspective, it’s a tragedy for the Church as every member of the Church is in Christ's flock. Christ the Shepherd left ninety-nine sheep in search of one that had gone astray in the mountains. But the life of the Church goes on regardless of the number of its members. Each is free to make his own choice.
The Church is invincible; The gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Mt. 16:18), as Christ Himself said. The Good Tidings of the Church should reach everyone and gather them in its bosom—but not via easy methods such as fawning over people or indulging their egotism. The Church must be faithful to its Head. For the Church, the quality, not the quantity, of its parishioners is paramount.
—So there is no need to panic?
—Of course, the Church shouldn’t panic due to the dwindling number of its parishioners; neither should it be upset over the reduction in tax income—honestly, tax allocations are not a cause for panic. As long as the Church lives according to its mission, it’s not so bad.
There is the vital force hidden in the Church, discovered by every person aspiring to do good, especially at crucial points of his life. And he can always come back. Perhaps in our age of materialism we see a strong polarization of spirituality: Believers become more deeply absorbed in spiritual life, whilst those who don’t care about it move away in search of the values of this world. The Apostle John says in his Revelation:
He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still (Rev. 22:11).
—Where are the ways out of the crisis?
—While the Church shouldn’t succumb to panic, it must carry on its work for the salvation of every human being, whether they haven’t joined yet, or have already joined, or first joined but then left at some point. There is special concern of the Church for those who once became part of the Body of Christ through the sacrament of Baptism regardless of hierarchy, be they bishops or laypeople. Christ suffered on the Cross for all of them and we should be ready to do the same.
—What can you say about the life of the Panagia center today? Do you receive guests? Do you celebrate services?
—Our community is still small, and our life is quite monotonous. Even so, throughout the pandemic we have received more visitors than we did in “normal” times. Young people in particular are resisting these unexpected events. There’s a sort of “good-natured protest,” and they are coming here in search of new inspiration, in the services and in talks with the brothers about the faith.
Throughout the pandemic, the Divine Liturgy has very seldom been celebrated in our center because we have no priest. The primary reason for this is the unwillingness of our Local Church to open new monasteries. According to the witness of the great elders of our days, what is needed to counterbalance secularism is monasteries, where prayer is offered up and the timeless Glad Tidings of Christianity can become a reality. I believe that monasteries are the only hope for the spiritual remediation of our secularized society, amidst a Protestantism that has lost its ideals. We received true inspiration and consolation last year during our pilgrimage to Greece, where we visited a large convent and talked to its abbess. She told us that as a spiritual daughter of St. Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite, she would often hear the following amazing words from him, “Monasteries will appear in Finland, too. People in Finland will be saved.” May God grant this to us and may monasteries in other countries become spiritually stronger. They will be the keepers of the faith in the difficult times to come, as was predicted by many clairvoyant ascetics, such as St. Paisios the Hagiorite.