"The Church as a Mission - Part 1: Introduction"

The Church as a Mission

Part 1 - Introduction

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Liturgical Theology Revisited

Dr. Athanasios N. Papathanasiou

Dr Theology, Lecturer at the Hellenic Open University (Athens)


“There is no Christian life without martyria.”

“A missionary orientation must be added to the whole theological structure of the Church and become an organic part of our theological ‘curriculum’.”




Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was a prominent Orthodox priest and liturgist. From 1962 until his death he served as the dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York and as adjunct professor at Columbia University, New York University, Union Theological Seminary, etc. His work focuses on liturgical theology and understand liturgy as the very essence of ecclesial experience. In this study, I shall try to see what contribution his theology has to make to a crucial issue of our times: the question of whether mission is an element which is essential to the event of the Church, or secondary to it.


      For some time now, certain theological currents within Orthodoxy have expressed grave reservations about mission. Sometimes they reject it as characteristic of Protestantism, as a matter of emphasis on preaching and neglect of the sacraments. Sometimes they do not accept mission, but only as something secondary; as something that does not define the identity of the Church and is not a decisive component of its “self”. In these views, the essence of the Church is to be found in the Eucharist alone. The opening-up of the Church is regarded as something secondary; it is seen as one of the potential products of ecclesial identity, not a structural element in that identity. According to such views, in short, mission may be somehow useful within history, but it is not really necessary, which means that – as with a host of other additional activities – it is absent, the Church’s “self” will not be impaired.


We should note here that one thing that complicates our attempts at discussion is the fact that the term “mission” is usually used as if its content were an obvious given, whereas in fact there are many different ways of understanding it, and these may lead to either a positive or a negative evaluation of it. In this paper, I am not going to defend mission as aggressive recruitment or as brain-washing propaganda, or indeed as cultural imperialism. In general terms, I define mission as a matter of church people being open to every “other” that is not Church, an openness that may take forms: witness, an invitation to convert, solidarity independent of any invitation to convert, contribution to universal reconciliation, etc. But what we should notice here is that all these “openings” do not constitute an attitude simply of coexistence, which is happy for the world to stay as it is, but make for an attitude of dialogue which is radically inspired by the vision of the Kingdom and the ultimate transfiguration of the world, with love as its supreme criterion. Whether explicitly or tacitly, therefore, in words or in actions, they form an attitude that brings a new message. As for the particular anti-missionary views previously mentioned, I should explain in advance that my own position is this: mission is not the antithesis of the sacraments, but neither is it merely a result of the sacraments. On the contrary, it is in a certain way an element innate to the Eucharist and a constative component of the very identity of the Church. The Church is not the Kingdom, and hence it exist in order to serve the Kingdom, to manifest and proclaim it. That is to say, the Church exist for the sake of the world and the transformation of the world into the Kingdom, and this means that the Church event in itself constitutes a mission. For this reason, I believe that missiology belongs within ecclesiology, and not in the following chapter which has to do with the practical applications of ecclesiology.


It is especially interesting, then, to see what Fr. Alexander’s thought has to offer on this question (the question of whether mission is integral to the Church event or incidental to it), precisely because we are talking about the thought of a liturgist, and indeed one of those responsible for the acceptance in today’s Orthodox world of the idea that the Eucharist is not just one of the sacraments, but the very event that makes the Church what it is.


Schmemann himself once remarked that “the Western Christian is used to thinking of sacramental as opposed to the world, and he links the mission with the world and not the sacrament”. The interesting point here is that the characteristically Western attitude which Fr. Alexander criticizes is precisely the one maintained (in the name of Orthodoxy and of being different from the West!) by those Orthodox who, as we have said, debase mission by defining it as the opposite of the sacraments!


Schmemann made a similar point in the early ‘60s. There he soberly recognized that a change had already taken place on the ecumenical scene. The long-held conviction in the West that the Easter Orthodox Church was non-missionary was by then giving way after the publication of serious historical research that demonstrated the missionary achievements of the East in earlier centuries. The important point, however, is that Schmemann did not content himself with that – with recognizing the glorious missionary past. He considered it important to examine the inner relationship between mission and Orthodoxy: what is the source of mission, according to the Orthodox understanding?


“A theology of Mission is always the fruit of the total ‘being’ of the Church and not a mere specialty for those who receive a particular missionary calling. But for the Orthodox Church there is a special need to reflect upon its basic missionary motivations, because its presumably non-missionary character has been too often explained by, and ascribed to, the very essence, the ‘holy of holies’ of Orthodoxy: its sacramental, liturgical, mystical ethos. Even now, as the study of Orthodox missions seems to correct the traditional view, there remains the temptation to explain these missions as a marginal ‘epiphenomenon’ in the history of Orthodoxy, as something that happened in spite of its general tendencies and trends. This is why a theological clarification is necessary. Can a church whose life is centered-almost exclusively on the liturgy and the sacraments, whose spirituality is primarily mystical and ascetical, be truly missionary? And if it is, where in its faith are the deepest motivations of the missionary zeal to be found?”


There is a need, therefore, for us to rethink mission and reorientation the face it presents. Fr Alexander himself showed that the path to this rethinking leads through ecclesiology: “It is without any doubt in Orthodox ecclesiology, i.e. in the doctrine and experience of the Church, that we find the basic elements of an answer”. Similarly, the following piece, dating from the 1959, its characteristic; it was written to greet the founding of the Inter-Orthodox Missionary Centre “Go ye”, which had been set up by decision of the Third General Assembly of Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth:


“To recover the missionary dimension of the Church is today’s great imperative. We have to recover a very basic truth: that the Church is essentially Mission, that the very roots of her life are in the commandment of Christ: ‘Go Ye therefore and teach all nations’ (Matt. 28:19). A Christian community that would lose this missionary zeal and purpose, that would become selfish and self-centered, that would limit itself to ‘satisfying the spiritual needs of its member’, that would identify itself completely with a nation, a society, a social or ethnical group – is on its way to spiritual decadence and death, because the essential spiritual need of a Christian is precisely that of sharing the life and Truth with as many men as possible and ultimately with the whole world. Mission thus is the organic need and task of the Church in the world, the real meaning of Church’s presence in history between the first and the second advents of her Lord.”


It is worthy of particular notice that in this quotation, Fr Alexander does not speak simply of the Church in mission, but also of the Church as mission. “The Church, he says, is essentially Mission”. “The Church is mission and that to be mission is its very essence, its very life.” This is a formula that he will reiterate in his last work, The Eucharist, as we shall see.


In the remainder of this paper, then, we will see what answers Schmemann himself gives, and also – beyond his explicit answers – what sort of missionary dynamic his liturgical theology has to offer, what are the dimensions of this viewpoint, what prospects it opens up and what problems it might create. We will try to take account of his thought as a whole, since one problem facing anyone studying Fr Alexander is that his words are largely unsystematic, and on occasion passionate and unruly. As Bruce Morrill has observed, Schmemann’s writings are often polemical in tone, with sharply-expressed formulations that often seem to contradict things that he says elsewhere.