Where Do We Go from Here?

Monastery of St. John of San Francisco - Manton, California

Father Alexander Schmemann: In Memoriam
Twenty five years have passed since the repose of Father Alexander Schmemann. Father Alexander’s vision shaped the structure and life of the Orthodox Church in America as well as St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His works informed and infuriated, transformed and influenced the life of the whole Orthodox community in America and beyond.

Reading his works now, I am impressed not only by his vision, but by how far the Church has come over the past fifty years since Father Alexander came to the United States from France. No longer is lay non-participation in the Eucharist the norm, a huge transformation. No longer is it questioned that the liturgical texts are a primary access to the Mind of the Church. The liturgy in the OCA is universally served in English, or the language of the local community where necessary. No longer is the OCA a Slavic ghetto of ex-Uniates; it has become a truly catholic community based on faith rather than ethnic and family tradition. No longer is it canonically isolated; it is fully in communion with all the other Orthodox Churches. Great numbers of the clergy, many of whom are converts to Orthodoxy, are well educated with master’s degrees in divinity or theology. These were some of the main issues with which Father Alexander dealt.

There are still more issues, however, which remain unresolved. The question of the so-called “diaspora” and the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a key issue, which not only Father Alexander but many others courageously addressed. The OCA’s autocephaly remains unaccepted by Constantinople, though its canonicity is unquestioned. Most of all, his vision of a united American Orthodox Church, embracing all Orthodox Christians under a single hierarchy, fully autocephalous and engaged with the contemporary social and cultural milieu, remains unfulfilled.

Father Alexander delineated some of the key challenges that the Orthodox Church must face in its mission in this culture. One such challenge is secularization: the reduction of Orthodoxy to a compartmentalized religious form fulfilling people’s “religious needs,” while their overall worldview remains defined by “the world.” Father Alexander wrote against this sellout to secularization, and it is one of the greatest impacts on how we do mission in our culture.

Another central issue is the relationship of monasticism to the mission of the Orthodox Church in this culture. At the time of Father Alexander’s death, monasticism was very minimal in North America. The larger men’s monasteries were primarily outside the canonical churches, and some were riddled with scandal. Others preserved external forms, but they sorely lacked elders with profound spiritual maturity. Still others were barely nascent, or even experimental in their forms and expression. Monasticism was entirely marginal to the life of the Orthodox community in America (except perhaps in the Russian Church Abroad). Elder Ephraim’s communities were not even planned. Father Alexander took a rather dim view of monasticism, undoubtedly because of its spiritual shallowness and external religiosity, as well as his knowledge of the corruption just under the surface of so many communities. He rejected the pharisaical externalism that is such an easy temptation for monasticism, the anti-intellectualism and arrogant elitism, all of which were part of the corruption of monasticism in Romanov Russia. Some say that his attitude was a carry-over from the rivalry between white and black clergy imbedded in the Russian ecclesiastical community. My opinion is that he would have agreed entirely with St. Ignatiy Brianchaninov, that where monasticism is in line with the Gospel it is healthy and constructive. Where it is formal and external, it is useless.

Since Father Alexander’s death, the Orthodox Church in America has suffered a crisis in vision. Father Alexander had provided that vision and direction, but no successors have arisen to his role of leadership. We have to ask the question, Where do we go from here? There is consensus that there is a crisis in vision and leadership. Given the foundation of Father Alexander’s work, what will bring us back to a unified vision and direction as we strive to do the work of mission as the Orthodox Church in America? We must first examine the past few years, and evaluate the context we have to address, before trying to answer this question.

Where do we go from here?

The mission of the Orthodox Church in North America has come a long way over the past forty years, with the formation of SCOBA, the autocephaly of the OCA, the influx of converts and translation of the services, the reconciliation of the Ukrainian Churches in North America with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the relative autonomy of the Antiochian Archdiocese, and the healing of the schism between ROCOR and the Russian Mother Church. The face of the Orthodox Church has changed dramatically, with the publication of literature, the education of clergy to better minister to the people, and the establishment of monasticism on a broad scale. But the question, and the point of judgment and hence the crisis, is, Where do we go from here?

We cannot make light of any of the remarkable developments of the past years. But we are faced with an ever changing social and political situation which is leaving our churches in a rather strange predicament. The old established social institutions—the Protestant churches which were the ethnic churches of American culture—are changing so rapidly that they have lost their Christian vision and validate all sorts of immorality. They have lost their status as defining elements in American culture and morality, and have are fast becoming post-Christian, dying on the vine. The new Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are attracting large crowds, but there is little staying power. People usually remain members for no more than three years. These churches have a lot of excitement and entertainment, but the experience is often very shallow and unsatisfying. They emphasize the Bible, but preach an oversimplified and distorted Calvinism or some other strange idea, and are blown about by every wind of doctrine. Fundamentalism means either dispensationalism, Calvinism or whatever the preacher has been reading that week. The Roman Catholic Church is being battered by these same social currents, and hangs onto its orthodoxy by the strength of the papacy alone, whose authority is steadily declining in the American scene. There is theological, liturgical, and spiritual chaos. And on top of that is the ever growing New Age conglomeration of syncretisms.

Then, you have us.

To paraphrase Father Thomas Hopko, from the inside, the Orthodox Church seems absolutely crazy. Until you look at the churches outside. Then we seem to be the paragon of stability. Orthodoxy in America has been shielded by its ethnicism and inherent conservatism from some of these social trends. It was even the most rapidly growing denomination in the country for a while. But, as the Church becomes indigenous in this country, it is encountering and has to deal with the culture at large. It can no longer hide under the dark veils of mystical antiquity and languages incomprehensible even to the faithful. Babushka watches Pat Robertson and Mother Angelica. Yaya watches Benny Hinn. Our people are now well educated and sophisticated businessmen, no longer non-English speaking immigrants. And thousands of converts have flooded the churches across the jurisdictional spectrum, each with his own baggage.

On one hand, the liturgy remains the same—though substantially in English—and there is no interest in changing it or the theology behind it. Church life remains the same, with festivals, bible studies, and dance and choral groups. Things are comfortable. But if we are going to go beyond where we are now, we are going to have to change. Not the liturgy or other services: they are a given. No one is interested in a reformation or Vatican II for Orthodoxy. Not even the day to day life of the parish or diocese will change. What must change is our fundamental attitude about who we are and what we are doing, and how we go about doing it. It is a question of vision and of mission.

For too long, we have been concerned about simply maintaining “our” church, serving “our” people, focusing on the services and on social events. But we have sorely neglected the core of the Gospel: to bring the good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to give sight to the blind and to raise the fallen. We have served mostly ourselves, and anyone who wants to join us—but not “Them.” This is not what our Lord Jesus Christ has given us to do. He has commissioned us to “Go into all the world, preach the Gospel to every nation, baptizing them ... teaching them to observe all I have commanded.” Our vision has been constricted, and our mission has been curtailed into something self-serving. We are so concerned about our own visions and missions, consisting of the petty little agendas of our organizations, that we ignore the underlying mission of the Gospel. It is no wonder that there are multiple parallel jurisdictions. We have lost sight of the thing that really unifies us: the vision and mission of the Gospel.

So what is the Gospel? What is the Good News that we have for people? We have lots of news for people, and lots of invitations, but they are not necessarily very good.

The Gospel is not that Orthodoxy is the True Religion and all the rest are false. The Gospel is not that they can become born-again Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Syrians, Serbs or what have you. It is not that they can come help us pay the mortgage. It is not that they can support our position against the Others—like the OCA vs. the Ecumenical Patriarchate, or Antioch vs. Jerusalem, or God only knows what. It is not that they can come join some enclave of a foreign culture and even be (more or less) accepted.

The Only Agenda: The Gospel

If we are really Orthodox, we should be able to preach the Gospel better than anyone else, because we have it in an undistorted form. So what is it?

First and foremost that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death and giving life to those in the tombs. It is the message of the Resurrection, the victory of Jesus Christ over death and hell. It is the Good News that the Kingdom of God is present, here and now, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and you can be baptized into it, commune of its grace, and be filled with new life. It is this that we constantly celebrate in church, in the services, in the cycles of feasts and fasts. And what does it do for us? It heals our souls, and raises us up from despair, and enables us to deal with any obstacle that comes in our way.

The good news of the “Orthodox” Gospel is that we are free from the destructive perversions of the Gospel which pervade the religious presuppositions of our post-Christian ex-Protestant culture. We don’t preach that God is a harsh judge waiting to damn us to hell for the least transgression. How often do we say in the Liturgy, “For You are a good God and the lover of mankind,” or “You are a God of mercy and compassion and love for mankind.” This is Good News. We don’t preach that we are inescapably predestined to be saved or damned, and there is not a thing we can do about it, either way. And we don’t preach that being a Christian is about going to heaven when we die. What do we say? As St John Chrysostom said, “For You have brought us up to heaven and endowed us with your kingdom which is to come.” Here and now, not just when we’re dead. And we don’t need to forget those who have gone before us, but we have continual remembrance of them, because in Christ they are alive with the same life with which we also live.

We celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, but it needs to be a real celebration of the integrity of the Gospel message. The triumph over iconoclasm has an essential point of faith: by His Incarnation, Jesus Christ sanctified matter. We can paint a picture of God Incarnate, and experience His Presence in and through venerating the icon. We can partake of His life by eating the bread and wine of His Body and Blood; we are immersed into His life in Baptism, anointed with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, and made part of His Body. The world itself, matter, is sanctified by Christ’s Coming, and becomes a means of communion with God. And we ourselves, in this body, in this life, here and now, are sanctified and made holy, partakers of the life of God. Salvation is about life here and now, not “fire insurance” for after death! In Christ, all things are made new. “For He has brought us up to heaven, and endowed us with His Kingdom which is to come.” This is Good News!

A Call to Repentance

So what do we need to do? We need to focus on this life-giving message of the Gospel, which is what the Church, its life and services, are about anyway. We need to surrender to Christ, and put aside our self-serving agendas. Only then can we come together to do the work of Christ: to draw all people to Him. We need to learn the Scripture, so that we can live it. We need to serve the poor and those in need without regard to who they are or whether they are “ours.” In short, we need to love our neighbor as our self. In other words, it is time that we accepted the responsibility to incarnate the message of Christ at all costs. It is time we grew up.

Orthodoxy in North America has come a long way. Our forefathers in the Faith have laid a foundation for us to build upon. It is here that we can be encouraged and informed by the vision of Father Alexander Schmemann, and others. We have a lot of work to do and we have a long way to go. We must repent of the sins and attitudes which have distorted the life of our Church here, and then tear down the obstacles we have erected to fulfilling the mission of the Gospel.

We have to repent of ethnic phyletism. This includes convertism as well. I do not mean that our communities will not have their own traditional flavors—in more ways than one! We have to rejoice in our diversity; but not at the expense of our unity and cooperation. We can’t let any human barriers get in the way of the Gospel: language, culture, social or economic status, race, or anything else. When we let any human category exclude others from the Church, we sell out Christ, as the Jews did who refused to let Gentiles enter the Church.

We have to repent of the exclusiveness that leads us into sectarianism and self-enclosure in our own little self-satisfied groups. This attitude is alien to the Catholic mind, which presupposes a holistic vision of the faith and community of the Church. This means authentic encounter with non-Orthodox Christians in a spirit of humility and openness, not insecurity and arrogance. Exclusivist sectarianism is not the vision of the Catholic Church of the Roman Empire that embraced hundreds of cultures and united them in Christ. It doesn’t matter what the rituals look like if we do not have a Catholic vision. If we are not Catholic, we are not Orthodox.

We have to assert that we are not in diaspora. We have been here for many generations, and our churches are consecrated to last until the Second Coming. We are Americans and Canadians, with heritages to be proud of. We rejoice in our communion with the Churches of the Old World, but we are Orthodox Christians here and now, and we need to govern our own affairs and elect our own bishops and primate. The Fathers have taught us that as Christians we can have no abiding earthly country. We are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Orthodox churches can only be organized canonically on the basis of local territorial boundaries. We have to end the parallel jurisdictions, which fundamentally distort the life and mission of the Church. The most important canonical objection the Orthodox have against the Papacy is its assertion of universal jurisdiction, without territorial boundaries. Yet we have fallen into the same heresy, as virtually every national Orthodox church has jurisdiction outside its territorial borders, like in America. Just look at a phone book. We have to remind our hierarchs that there is no such thing as “universal jurisdiction” in the Orthodox Church, so if we are to continue to consider ourselves within the Apostolic Tradition, things must change.

Repentance not only entails recognizing and admitting the sin. It is not fulfilled until the sin is overcome, not to be repeated. This means that we have to reorganize the life of the Church in North America, with one synod of all the Orthodox bishops, under one primate elected by them. This is the only way to bring an end to the confusion and competition between the jurisdictions, all of whom are doing the same thing, but are captive to foreign nationalistic agendas. The mission of the Church in America must not be held hostage to the agendas of patriarchs and synods thousands of miles away in different cultures and nations. If they could be convinced relinquish their tight hold on their American cash cows, they might find our financial support of them to increase.

Still more important, however, is the critical need to repent of our self-serving agendas, which reinforce parochial and jurisdictional isolation and competition. If we could focus on the needs of the local community around us, and not just on ourselves and our institutions, every financial need and every personnel shortage would resolve itself. We must simply open our doors and hearts to those in need: those held by the poverty of loneliness and isolation, as well as financial need; those suffering from addictions and abuse; the thousands of children needing a safe place to go after school; the women—the widows of our age, from loss or divorce—left abandoned and in poverty barely able to survive. To minister to them is to preach the Gospel in words far stronger than any rhetoric. To receive them in love incarnates the Gospel, and fulfills the church as the Body of Christ—for “they will know you are my disciples by how you love one another” (cf. John 13 : 35).

On a more subtle level there is another temptation which demands our repentance. Too often we reduce the life of the Church to the services, to the cult, to religion. Those of us who are priests and concerned with the integrity and beauty of the services are especially prone to this. The Church is not the services. The Church is not the Eucharist. The Eucharist constitutes and fulfills the Church, but it is there to constitute and fulfill the entire life of the whole community, its good works of charity and self-denial, the self-offering of the faithful to those in need. But if these things are forgotten, what does the Eucharist consecrate and fulfill? It simply becomes a ritual act to fulfill the “religious needs” of the people.

Father Alexander Schmemann drew a sharp distinction between religion and faith. How easy it is to be religious—to focus on the external dimensions of the life of the church, its services, rules, disciplines, aesthetics, structure. But if these become ends in themselves, rather than expressions and supports to a life of faith manifest in works of charity, then our trust in these things is in vain and we are hypocrites, “having the form of religion but denying its power.” As one abbot recently said, “its hard not to be a Pharisee when you look like one!” It is not the forms that are the problem, but rather, our attitude towards them and the focus of our life as a Christian community. We are called to “do the one without neglecting the other.”

The reduction of faith to observance of religious forms is a foundational element of secularization. The forms divorced from their content become meaningless, or at best nostalgic reminders of bygone days. They can thus be compartmentalized or discarded, having no real impact on how we live our lives. The only way to fight secularization is to emphasize that faith is about how we live our life: not only the remembrance of God, but how we treat other people, for how we treat our neighbor is the criterion of how we love God. In this way, our faith is not relegated to an hour or so on Sunday morning. Rather, it impacts every encounter with another person, and every relationship we have.

Our communion with our neighbor is the criterion of our faith. The agendas of power and money, organizations and institutions, by which we isolate ourselves from our neighbors, are ultimately distractions from our real vocation as the Church. Our real calling is the mission given us by Christ, the work of Christ himself: “to preach the good news to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4 : 18). Then our religion will be true and authentic: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

Eucharistic Life: Thanksgiving with Joy

As Father Alexander would remind us, the most essential elements of the Christian life are joy and thanksgiving. When we live a life of faith, overcoming our selfishness by self-denial, doing the works of charity for which we have been recreated in Christ, we can have no other attitude but joy, and we offer all things to God in a sacrifice of thanksgiving. We sin and fall short—but repenting we find joy. We have to bear our cross, whatever it may be; but “behold, through the cross, joy has come into all the world!” We have great and diverse elements within our communities; but we can rejoice in the unity of the Spirit, as one Body.

What is our vocation as the Church but to be witnesses to the world of Christ’s resurrection, to heal by our love, and to raise the whole world as an offering of thanksgiving to God? Then all our life, as persons and as community, is transformed into a Eucharistic celebration of joy, an anticipation of the Presence of Christ in His Kingdom.

— This article was first published in Divine Ascent, the journal of the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco, No. 10, Summer 2005. More of Metropolitan Jonah’s writings will be posted as they become available.