Schmemann, “The Spiritual Problem,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1965, Vol. 9, #4, pp. 171-193.

As much as I’ve returned again and again to Schmemann’s work, I’m always frustrated by a certain superficiality in his discussion of the problems of Orthodoxy in America.

On one level, I think he does an admirably job in describing the challenges faced by the Church in America. Where I think his work fall short, and the current article is a good example of this, is his failure to consider the history of Christianity’s growth in America. If he did, he would (hopefully) have seen that the failures or problems of the Church in America are not unique to the Orthodox Church. They are rather common to all those established Churches transplanted to America from the Old World.

Those Christian communities that grew here, grew because, as Schmemann says, they took seriously the human heart’s desire for God. And all these churches were upstart groups. Small, sectarian groups that emphasized personal repentance, a strict moral code, asceticism, rigorous worship and philanthropic commitment. To be sure these largely evangelical Christians had different views from the Orthodox Church about what all these disciplines of Christian life meant. But for all that they frequently preached a rather superficial and often moralizing view of the Gospel and emphasized an emotional style of worship, they did lead people to Christ and did so frequently at the numerical expense of those formerly established Churches.

What I think Schmemann fails to take account of is that the Church in Old World was an established Church. This meant not only that the Church was supported financially by the Empire or the State but that the Church was able to outsource much of her administrative life to the government. You see this today in Greece were (until recently) clergy were not only paid by the government but that the government protected the Church from “competition” from non-Orthodox religions.

Coming to America, and here I think Schmemann is correct, meant Orthodox Christians had to be personally responsible for all the things the State did in the Old World. If as Orthodox Christians we failed, we failed because we weren’t ready to be responsible in this way. It is because we lacked the practical experience that we failed to do all the things necessary to fulfill the Church’s mission to preach the Gospel, worship God and sanctify the whole of human life making it into the sacrament of God’s presence He intended it to be.

Or rather, we didn’t so much fail as were overcome by the myriad practical details that, until recently, were taken care of for the Church by the State. In other words, we—laity, clergy and hierarchs—were not ready for the kind of freedom , to say nothing of responsibility, America offered.

Like other formerly established Churches, religious freedom has been corrosive to the Church. Even seemingly vibrant non-Christian traditions have proven unequally to the task of freedom. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that Muslims lose an even higher percentage of young people than does the Orthodox Church. What does this tell us?

It tells me at least that neither community was ready for responsibility that comes with the freedom America offers us.

Schmemann is right to point out that if our commitment to the Orthodox Church is not personal it will not endure. No matter how beautifully or faithfully or regularly we celebrate the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the Church, if we do not preach personal commitment, if we do not help people grow in their personal commitment to Jesus Christ and the Gospel, we will fail.

Toward the end of his article, Schmemann says it is possible for the Church to exist and even thrive in America but only if we embrace the “deep sense it is freedom that constitutes the only truly ‘American way of life.’” For all their theological shortcomings, this is how early American evangelical Christians were able to take what was, in 1776, a largely unchurched America and make it a vibrant, churched America. As late as the early 20th century, Chesterton was able to truthfully describe America “a nation with the soul of a church”!

So what must we do?

First, we must reject “the superficial and oppressive conformities which have been consistently denounced and castigated by the best Americans of all generations as a betrayal of the American ideal.” In place of this we must help people understand and live out the reality that as Orthodox Christians in America we have both the freedom and “the duty, of choice and critique, of dissent and search.”

It is only in this way, that we can help each other understand that it is in the Church and through the worship of God that each of us can discover the possibility “to be himself.” I become who God has created me to be by being a faithful Orthodox Christian.

If we fail, we fail because we haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities God has given us in planting the Church in countries and cultures in which not only is the Church NOT established but frequently criticized. Or as Schmemann concludes, “there is nothing in the American culture which could prevent the Church from being fully the Church, a parish truly a parish, and it is only by being fully Orthodox that American Orthodoxy becomes fully American” or Ukrainian or German or Mexican or whatever.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory