"The Holy Spirit Outside the Church"

The Church as a Mission

The Holy Spirit outside the Church

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Liturgical Theology Revisited

Dr. Athanasios N. Papathanasiou

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



3.2 The Holy Spirit outside the Church


Fr. Alexander maintained that in the course of its history, the Church had forgotten significant aspects of its mission, with the result that in the twentieth century it has demonstrated a double failure: failure to achieve victory over the other world religions and failure to overcome secularism. He expressed his respect for the classical idea of mission as the preaching of one truly universal religion in contrast with the other religions, rejected any syncretism and disagreed with the current of theological through that accepted secularism as the world’s coming of age. This theological current had an aversion to evangelism and (as outlined by Schmemaan himself) saw the mission of Christians not in preaching Christ, but simply in living as Christians in a world which now lives as if there were no God. By contrast, Fr Alexander maintained that our aim should be to live in the world seeing everything as a sign of Christ’s presence, the joy of his coming, his call. “The world, be it in its totality as cosmos, or in its life and becoming as time and history, is an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence and power.”


What might this statement of Fr Alexander’s mean? Does it mean recognizing the presence of God simply in creation, precisely by reason of the fact that it is his own handiwork; or does it perhaps also mean God’s presence in human life, which might mean that he is present also in human endeavors, religions included? These are really enormous questions regarding the nature of the Church and its mission. What, we may ask, is the meaning of the fact that millions of generations of humans have come and gone on the earth without ever having any relation to the Church? Does it mean that they are all deprived of God’s action and of the hope of salvation? Or to the contrary, should we perhaps recognize that God is ceaselessly engaged in mission and ceaselessly working for the salvation of this creation in ways that we know, but also in ways that we do not know? The theology of St. Paul, the doctrine of the “germinative (seminal) word” and Christ’s own description of the Last Judgment gives us the right to recognize that the Holy Spirit does indeed constitute the Church, but at the same time it blows where it pleases. If, therefore, we accept God’s secret activity everywhere, then the Church is not first of all the ark of the saved, but the herald and minister of the Kingdom, i.e. first and foremost a missionary: a co-worker in God’s mission, a witness to his promises and a servant of his love for his world. The Church does not encase God’s activity, but neither does it betray its truth – the vision of the Kingdom – for the sake of some sort of syncretism.


I do not think that Fr Alexander has concerned himself particularly with these questions. What implications did he see in his statement that Christ “is the true and full Sacrament because He is the fulfillment of the world’s essential ‘sacramentality”’? Most probably, that creation, on the basis of the capacities sown in it by its creator, comes to function in the way truly natural to it when it is transformed through its liturgical encounter with Christ. But might this statement leave open prospects for an understanding of the history of the world and human endeavors as “preparations for the Gospel”, as Godgiven potentialities which however find their fullness in the event of the Church? At another point, indeed, and specifically in connection with the encounter between Orthodoxy and the West, Fr Alexander urges the Orthodox to abandon the spirit of self-righteousness, to open themselves up and make their own “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Phil 4: 8).  The extent to which, and the direction in which, these remarks can feed into a theology of encounter between the Church and the world, is a question that weighs heavily upon the ongoing work of theology.