"The Church as a Mission"

The Church as a Mission

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Liturgical Theology Revisited

Dr. Athanasios N. Papathanasiou

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


3.3 Love and solidarity

How did Schmemann judge the Church’s presence in society and the Christian’s participation in social activism?


“Good works’, being gradually isolated into a special sphere of church acvitity, ceased outwardly to ‘depend’ on the Eucharistic offering. Here, however, we approach the most important element for and understanding of the proskomide. For so obvious was the inner link between the eucharist and the ‘sacrifice of love’, the inner dependency of one on the other in the consciousness of the Church, that the preparation of the gifts, on ceasing to be an expression of practical needs, remained as a rite, expressing this inner dependency, realizing this inner link.”


In our day,


“liturgy is confined to the temple, but beyond its sacred enclave it has no impact, no power. All other ecclesiastical activities – in a parish, a diocese, a local church – are based more and more on purely secular presuppositions and logics.”


In previous sections we have already confronted the question of whether Christian life is to be identified solely with liturgical celebration. Schmemann underlines the danger of lapsing into ritualism:


“Being pure gift, this joy [i.e. the joy of Resurrection] has a transforming power, the only really transforming power in this world…” “[But,] does this mean that there is nothing we, as Orthodox, can do in this secular age except to perform on Sunday our ‘ancient and colorful’ rites, and to live from Monday until Saturday a perfectly ‘secularized’ life, sharing in a world view which is in no way related to these rites? To this question my answer is an emphatic No.”


Yet after this “emphatic No”, just where we should expect an affirmation of day-to-day action and solidarity at the side of the victims of history, we encounter a reservation!


“[We transform the world – by being truly ‘men for the others’, not in the sense of constant involvement in social or political affairs, to which one so often reduces Christianity today, but by being always everywhere and in all things witnesses to Christ’s Truth, which is only true life, and bearers of the sacrificial love which is the ultimate essence and content of man’s priesthood.”


I find this passage shattering. He gives priority to sacrificial love, he defines openness to the “other” as an element of ecclesial identity and identifies love with witness. But at the same time, I think there is an ambiguity. In what way can sacrificial love be manifested in real life if one repudiates involvement in social issues? Schmemann is absolutely right in his fears of the Church degenerating into a marketing device, a political party or a vehicle of worldly influence. But how can Christian consciousness remain true to its faith and its mission (and indeed “always, everywhere and in all things”) if it does not make judgments about the economy, social injustice, the structure of this world? If it does not bear witness in these areas in word and in deed, is there not a danger of degenerating into a bourgeois Christianity satisfied with the security of individual virtues? This ambiguity becomes especially pronounced, In think, in the prologue to Fr Alexander’s final book, where he unleashes a “vitriolic statement” against theologies of liberation:


“Meanwhile, it can be said without exaggeration that we live in a frightening and spiritually dangerous age. It is frightening not just because of its hatred, division and bloodshed. It is frightening above all because it is characterized by a mounting rebellion against God and his kingdom. Not God, but man has become the measure of all things. No faith, but ideology and utopian escapism are determining the spiritual state of the world. At a certain point, western Christianity accepted this point of view: almost at once one or another ‘theology of liberation’ was born. Issues relating to economics, politics and psychology have replaced a Christian vision of the world at the service of God. Theologians, clergy and other professional ‘religious’ run busily around the world defending – from God? – this or that ‘right’, however perverse, and all this in the name of peace, unity and brotherhood. Yet in fact, the peace, unity and brotherhood that they invoke are unto the peace, unity and brotherhood that has been brought to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We must bear in mind that Schmemann was writing at a time that was seeing within the ecumenical movement a reinforcement of the tendency to interpret the Church’s mission not in metaphysical terms but as solidarity with the sufferings of the world. This trend is found its most official expression in the Third General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala in 1968, and of course sparked many clashes of theological views, some of which bypassed any reference to metaphysics, some were skeptical about social involvement and some struggled to combine the two. From the viewpoint of Orthodox theology, it can, I think, be pointed out that a social activism with no transcendent content leads to secularization and a loss of the heart of the Church, which is the vision of the Kingdom. The Church is not however obliged to give in to a coercive dilemma between surrendering to an activism of this sort or rejecting social concern altogether! I venture to say that Fr Alexander is wrong when he maintains that concern with social justice and politics “derives to some extent from Hegel, with his transformation of history into History with a capital H”. First of all, I think it creates confusion to identify interest in social justice with participation in party-political power games with ulterior motives: the two do not necessarily go together. In the second place, in the biblical and patristic tradition of the Church there has been a long process of giving new meaning to social concern and affirming practical solidarity as a prophetic work, a manifestation of the new commandment that Christ brings, and as an affirmation of love as the only thing that will remain forever; indeed, a sign of the Kingdom! I have the impression, however, that such an understanding of social concern is absent from Fr Alexander’s writings.


It is by no means impossible that Fr. Alexander’s background in the emigration from Bolshevik Russia and the development of anti-Communist sentiments played a role in this attitude, combined with his admiration for America, expressed particularity both in his Journals and in the memoirs of his widow Juliana. In his Journals one finds a critical view of right wing and left wing Christians, but also a strikingly unreserved acceptance of American and British policy in Vietnam and the Falklands respectively! The repugnance he feels towards the horrors of totalitarianism and the gulags is of course completely understandable. And yet, I at least am not aware that he ever criticizes the Latin American dictatorship that were supported by the United States and were responsible for assassinations even of clergy. “The foolish Third World”, he wrote in January 1980, “continues to see in America the Enemy No. 1”. Is it a coincidence? Two months later, there was the assassination in San Salvador of the Roman Catholic Bishop Oscar Romero, of whom Metropolitan Irenaios of Kisamos and Selinos in Crete wrote “Bishop Oscar Romero was a bishop of the Catholic Church. But his example transcends Catholicism and he becomes a Martyr and Saint of the whole of Christendom” (it should be noted that Oscar Romero’s preaching deplored violence in any form and insisted that true liberation does not have only an earthly dimension). Yet I am afraid that in Fr Alexander’s writings, the only occasion when Latin America reapers after his wholesale rejection of liberation theology is in his wholehearted endorsement of the British military intervention in islands off the coast of Argentina in 1982!


To the question raised by social issues, Fr Alexander seems to have just one answer: devotion to worship. Only if we have a true experience of worship, he says, shall we be in a position to deal with everything else.


            “The world is desperate in its need for Sacrament and Epiphany, while Christians embrace empty and foolish worldly utopias…” “Once we discover the true lex orandi, the genuine meaning and power of our leitourgia, once it becomes again the source of an all-embracing world view and the power of living up to it – then and only then the unique antidote to ‘secularism’ shall be found.”


In my view, this position needs to be welcome (particularly in regard to the danger of utopias, in the sense that Florovsky saw them as a precursor to totalitarianism); but at the same time it should cause us to raise questions. With this hesitancy about action, is there perhaps a danger of the very thing that Schmemann feared, namely the degeneration of the Liturgy into ritualism, escapism and mysticism? If we suppose that the lex orandi is the sole source, and if we have indeed lost its true meaning (as Schmemann has pointed out countless times), how then wll we be able to recover it? Whence are we to derive the criteria so as to restore the source? Apparently from other sources – faith, the quest for truth – that are not independent of the Liturgy, certainly, but intermingled with it! Perhaps we should give thought to what I said earlier about understanding the Eucharist also as a derivative. The Eucharist is indeed a sign of the Kingdom, but another sign of the Kingdom is the sacrament of our fellow man, our encounter with the powerless with whom Crist identified himself in speaking of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:35-40).


Alongside this rejection of participation in social struggles, there are also some other comments of Schmemann’s which really create puzzles and a sense that they are insufficiently developed, and so present contradictions. At one point, for example, he defines as the object of mission man, not however individually, but as a whole nexus of relationships: state, society, culture, nature. And indeed. The chapter in question ends with the splendid words: “In the world of incarnation, nothing ‘neutral’ remains, nothing can be taken away from the Son of Man”. This holistic perspective is indeed important. Yet it remain an open question, I think, how he understood the state as an object of mission. How is this to be understood by someone who at the same time wants to avoid sliding into either theocracy or traditionalism? Perhaps (and I say this purely as an example) one might suggest a Christian contribution to the formation of a tolerant and “open society”, rather as proposed by Karl Popper in the mid-twentieth century? But in such a case, how can this happen if, like Fr Alexander, one is on the one hand mistrustful of involvement in social issues, and on the other considers that Christianity is not a matter simply of individual improvement?


Perhaps the most balanced, heartfelt and fruitful expression of Fr Alexander’s position is a terse entry in his journal for Tuesday, 27 February 1973: “Yesterday afternoon, in the Trinity Church on Wall Street, I lectured on prayer. And immediately, a question: ‘Is it not more important to feed the hungry…?’ Why the either/or of our times”? This may be the quintessence of an undeniably valuable theological contribution, where all bones of contention can really function as precious opportunities for dialogue an