Tag Archives: Schmemann

Liturgy in the West-part 2

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

Liturgy in the West-part 1

Alexander, Schmemann, “The Liturgical Problem,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1964, Vol. 8, #4,  pp. 164-185.

Schmemann concludes his article on the different challenges to the Church’s liturgical life in the West with a bold and frank statement not about liturgy but about the evangelical witness of the Church.

It is in and through liturgy that the Kingdom of God “comes with power” (Mark 9:1)—power to judge and to transform. It is liturgy which, by revealing to men the Kingdom, makes life and history, nature and matter a pilgrimage, an ascension towards the Kingdom. It is liturgy, in short, that is the power, given to the Church, to overcome and destroy all “idols”—and secularism is one of them. But liturgy is all this only if we ourselves accept and use it as power.

Earlier in this same essay, he argues that secularism is not, as we might suppose, the absence of religion or even hostility to religion. Rather it is about a certain, unwholesome “autonomy” from the Gospel.

When we have a secular worldview, we may very well believe that the Gospel “can supply life with ethical standards, with help and comfort.” What secularism excludes, however, is the very possibility of “transform[ing] life into … [the] very content is God and His Kingdom.” And so, the typical Orthodox Christian (priest as well as layperson) believes “in God and in the immortality of the soul, he can pray and find great help in prayer, but once he has entered his office and begun working, this work itself is not even supposed to be ‘referred to’ the fundamental religious realities of Creation, Fall and Redemption, but is indeed ‘self-sufficient’ or autonomous.”

The practical effect of this is that the vast majority of Orthodox Christians go through their days without any awareness of the presence of God in their lives. And without such an awareness, they are incapable of gratitude to God. As a result, they never come to see their lives—with all the accompanying successes and failures, its joys and sorrows, its hopes and frustrations—as they really are: A gift from God given to them not only for their salvation but the salvation of the world.

This is why Schmemann says people come to Liturgy on Sunday (if they come at all since less 30% of us will be there on Sunday) merely to take a break from the daily grind of work and family life. Or maybe, they see Liturgy as the Christian equivalent of a secular “safe place,” a brief retreat from a hostile culture.

In either case, they have no sense that Liturgy (to say nothing of the other services and sacraments of the Church) is the means by which they don’t just offer their lives to God but receive their lives back from Him but not only renewed and transformed. As I mentioned in the January lecture, at the Divine Liturgy, we don’t simply offer our lives to God (“Lift up your hearts to the Lord”!) but at Holy Communion receive that life back transformed by Christ into a share of His life.

I am skeptical of Schmemann’s rosy view of the liturgical of the Church in the patristic era or in traditional Orthodox countries. I’m unconvinced not because I reject his analysis of secularism but because I agree with it.

Schmemann’s analysis of secularism is, I think, the fundamental problem we face as sinners in every age and in every culture. We are always tempted to put God in a box, to limit God’s role in our lives. Think here of the hymn from Matins on Forgiveness Sunday:

Woe to thee, O my wretched soul! Thou hast received authority from God to take thy pleasure in the joys of Eden, but He commanded thee to not eat the fruit of knowledge. Why then hast thou transgressed the law of God? (Ode I)

We fell precisely because we refused to accept with thanksgiving creation and our whole of our life as God’s gift to us.

Instead, and like Adam, we try to re-arrange things according to our own will and for our own purposes. And we do this whether we are Americans or Ukrainians, whether we live in the USA or Europe or any traditional Orthodox country.

Taken together, what does Schmemann’s analysis tell us about the liturgical life of the Church?

Important as it is to celebrate the service well (“Say the black, do the red”!), this isn’t enough. Again, liturgy isn’t magic. To celebrate the services well means to celebrate them with not only with faith and understanding but also with the expectation that through our worship of God we will not only be saved but transformed. This happens because in the Church’s worship we personally encounter Jesus Christ and receive His forgiveness.

And this isn’t simply something that happens to us. Through the liturgy God the transforms and saves the world. In liturgy the creation itself is brought into an ever-greater conformity.

This means not only the material world. The social world—the world of work and family life especially—are transformed in and through the Church’s worship. If all of human life and creation are not renewed, then none of it is renewed and we are not saved.

We are not saved without the renewal of all of creation because human beings are both a microcosm and a macrocosm. To be human means that we are both an image of all creation and that all creation is fulfilled in us.

So, again, what does this mean for the liturgical life of the Church?

We must invest the time and energy need to understand the Church’s worship and what it means to worship God as Orthodox Christians. This means not only that we need to study but pray. Too often priests limit our prayer lives to our celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the other sacraments and services of the Church.

But if I only “pray” in Church, I can be sure of one thing. I don’t really pray at all. As a priest, I must daily, hourly, offer my life to God as a “sacrifice of praise.” Without this, I won’t have the grace needed to help my parishioners be themselves transformed by the Church’s worship.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Decorum, Liturgy & the Priest’s Spiritual Life

Let’s return to our earlier discussion of liturgy and the spirituality of the priest (see here). To recap briefly what I said,  the idiosyncratic liturgist seeks to shape the liturgy according to either his own personality or the ethos of the community. Doing so, in either case, means constricting human freedom to what is given. Here the insights of the social scientist can be helpful.

When a social system becomes closed in on itself, it tends to concentrate dysfunction and pathology. This is Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good) applied to a social group.To understand this, think about how a pond, cut off from free flowing water, will eventually become stagnant. This usually doesn’t mean nothing grows in the pond—that there is no life—but that only a very few things grow. And what does grow, grows at the expense of other forms of life that would naturally be in the pond.

Another way to understand this, think about a pond. Now imagine that the pond is cut off from free flowing water, will eventually become stagnant. This usually doesn’t mean nothing grows in the pond—that there is no life—but that only a very few things grow. And what does grow, grows at the expense of other forms of life that would naturally be in the pond.

So if idiosyncratic forms of liturgy lead to spiritual stagnation, what is the priest to do? After all, as we said earlier, the fact that we are embodied creatures mean that a certain amount of idiosyncrasy is unavoidable. I will, in other words, only mostly “Say the Black” and only mostly “Do the Red.”

The spiritual life of the priest-celebrant doesn’t just go awry when he tries to shape liturgy according to his own personality or the community’s ethos. His spiritual life is also deformed when he uses liturgy as a means of denying the fact of human embodiment. Yes, in the words of the Cherubic Hymn, the celebrant, like the congregation, “mystically represent the cherubim.” But neither the congregation, and more importantly for our concerns here, nor the priest are actually angels.

There needs to be a gentle, peaceful and appreciative acceptance of the unavoidable missteps and variations that emerge whenever we gather together as the Church. It’s worth repeating Grimes when he says that given the nature of liturgy, “it is easy to overstep oneself, and as a result there is always something inherently clumsy about the liturgical stride.” This why, as he concludes, we humble ourselves “and apologize by confessions of sin, cleansings, sweats, baptisms, and incensations” (Beginning in Ritual Studies  p. 45).

And when we try, either individually or corporately, to block out the need to confess our myriad missteps and lack of attention, what happens?

In this situation, even when celebrated according to the rubrics, liturgy becomes something else. It becomes what Grimes calls “decorum” or a pattern of “indirection and repetition” (p. 39) that doesn’t so much serve transcendence as it does to reinforce “roles, statutes, and interpersonal intentions” (p. 40).

The irony here is that reducing our celebration of liturgy to decorum (what Schmemann Introduction to Liturgical Theology, p. 97, called “liturgical formalism”) we are is just as self-enclosed, and so just as prone to stagnation, as in the idiosyncratic form of liturgy. What makes this confusion so deadly spiritually is that like liturgy, decorum is also a relatively conservative way of ritualizing our social interactions. From the outside, decorum and liturgy can look very much the same. It is where they diverge, however, that it is important for our concern here.

As I said, liturgy assumes that I will always fall short of what is celebrated. This is why repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are built into the Church’s worship. For this reason, liturgy always challenges me to ask if I am who my actions claim I am. And if I am open to the question, I realize that I’m not. “Liturgy,” in other words, “is how a people becomes attuned to the way things are— the way they really are, not the way they appear to be” (p. 45).

Decorum moves in the opposite direction. When I violate “the decorum of an occasion” I’m saying that even though I’m physically present, I am psychologically or spiritually not “participat[ing] in … the occasion” (p. 40). And when I break the “rules of decorum”? Then “I am ignored, snubbed, gossiped about, or frowned at” (pp. 40-41; in light of this, the offense of the wedding guest in the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14 is evidently a more serious matter than his merely being rude).

While the consequences are relatively light, return for the offending party requires a great deal of effort. Return means that the offender conformity to group’s  “lightweight cultural ‘ought'” and so ratify, affirm and accept the group’s power structures. In other words, restoration comes not through forgiveness but hazing.

When a priest (or a parish) habitually defaults to snubbing or gossiping or shunning this is a sign that—however faithful he is to the rubrics—decorum and not liturgy is the wellspring of his spiritual life.

What the priest has lost, or maybe never found, is the ability of the Church’s liturgical tradition not simply to challenge him but to transform him. Transformation is always personal and so requires that the priest not only see how his life and ministry fits within the broad sweep of the tradition of the Church but also how that same tradition is, as it were, being played out in his own life and ministry. “Death in general is transformed by a funeral into the events of a person’s dying. By means of ritual, a natural demise is made for family and friends a concrete occurrence. This is the kind of work that liturgical rites do best: transforming the inevitable” into the personal and communal (Grimes, pp. 46-47).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Schmemann and the Life of the Parish

Fr Alexander Schmemann in his essay “What Is the Parish?” makes what he characterizes as two shocking assertions.

Fr Alexander Schmemann and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

First, that “the parish as we understand it now, i.e., as an organization with officers, by-laws, finances, property, meetings, elections, etc., is a very recent phenomenon and exists, in fact, almost exclusively within the Orthodox ‘diaspora.'” His second, and what he calls his equally shocking observation, is that “in spite of all its religious connotations” the parish as it exists in America is “a product of secularization.” He qualifies this slightly by saying “that in the process of its development within the American way of life [the parish] has accepted a secularistic basis which little by little dissolves the ultimate seriousness of that which it claims to serve and to be, i.e., the Church.” He then goes on to offer a brief analysis of “the genesis and the development of the Orthodox parish in America.”

As for his diagnosis of the situation he says that the parish has become “an end in itself, an organization whose whole efforts and energies are aimed at advancing its own good material stability, success, future security, and a kind of self-pride. And it is no longer the parish that serves the Church, it is, indeed, the Church that is forced more and more to serve the parish.’ This mindset is so entrenched that even the “priest, the last sign and representative of the ‘Church’ in the “‘parish,'” is expected to “entirely subordinates the interests of the Church to those of the parish.”

All of this, he says, is a result of Orthodox Christians capitulation to secularism. Recent sociological studies in the growth (or not) of Christianity both in the US and worldwide, I think give us reason to doubt Schmemann’s analysis of the Church in America. For example, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (The Churching of America 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, 2nd edition) have argued the churches that have failed to thrive in the American free market of ideas are established churches. It is likely not secularism as such that has led to what Schmemann calls the parish’s “loss of religious seriousness” but rather the Orthodox Church’s loss of state support when its faithful came to America. Living and developing as a beneficiary of the state fosters an inability—and even unwillingness—to compete in the free marketplace of ideas. Like other established churches, the history of Orthodox Church put it at a disadvantage in America. Ironically, freedom and prosperity have harmed the parish. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, the parish needs to learn how to use the blessings of America to further the Gospel.

Schmemann makes a mistake here common to intellectuals. His scorn for democracy and the free market (economic as well as intellectual) leads him to shift responsibility for the Church failure from Orthodox Christians to American culture. Doing so, however, he overlooks the long history, of prophetic Christian involvement in American. To be sure, this witness is often less than perfect. But as Stark and Finke, argue, not all Christian communities succumb to the temptations inherent in the Novus ordo seclorum. If in fact, as Schmemann argues, the parish “by standards and principles, which, when applied to an individual, are condemned outright by Christianity as immoral: pride, gain, selfishness, and self-affirmation” we need to first look inward and examine our own consciences and practices before we look outward to the social conditions that may have contributed to this state of affairs.

To his credit, Schmemann does look inward. He criticizes “the constant preaching in terms of the ‘glory’ of Orthodoxy.” He is correct when he says that this “is a rather ambiguous substitute for the glory that according to the Gospel is due to God alone.” If in fact, the parish “has replaced the Church and, by the same token, has become a completely secular organization” it isn’t simply because of secularism but a failure to preach the Gospel. It reflects a situation in which we make good Orthodox who are not (necessarily) good Christians in the sense of being disciples of Jesus Christ.

While I think he is romanticizing the history of the Church, when he says that “this it is radically different from the parish of the past” (see for example, the treatment of mediaeval parish life in R. Stark, The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious than Ever), he is correct that the parish has in many ways “ceased to be a natural community with [the] Church as its center and pole of ‘ultimate reference’ and ‘seriousness.'”

But this raises, or should raise, a question. If the parish serves the purpose of the Church, what is the purpose of the Church? What is that “common religious ideal” that unites us as Orthodox Christians?

In simplest terms, we are to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16: 15, NIV), making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything” Jesus has commanded, confident that our Lord is with us “always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28: 19-20, NIV).

The goal of the Church, and so the parish, then is this:

  • To Preach the Gospel
  • To Make Disciples
  • To Catechize the Faithful
  • To Live in Hope

With all due respect to Schmemann, his argument is that it is the failure to do these things, rather than secularism as such, that has led to the parish’s lack of religious seriousness. In what follows, we’ll look briefly at each.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory