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Comments on the Late Fathers Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff

A Reply to Mr. Ognian Rangachev

by Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos of Etna

Editor’s note—. This past spring, the official journal of the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate published a very harsh attack, by a student of theology at the University of Sofia, Ognian Rangachev, against Bishop Chrysostomos of Etna, criticizing him for comments which the latter made, during a trip to Bulgaria in early 1995, about the late Fathers Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff. Mr. Rangachev dismisses the traditionalist Bulgarian Orthodox Church as having no real ecclesiastical status, praises Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff in particular for their studies of liturgical theology and their opposition to "godless ideologies," and questions the integrity of Bishop Chrysostomos’ criticisms of these two well-known theological writers. Emerging as they are from the communist yoke, many Eastern European theologians have been deeply influenced by the works of Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff, one Romanian theologian having referred to them recently as the "New Pillars" of Orthodoxy and "theologian saints." In light of this influence, we believe that Bishop Chrysostomos, in his response to Mr. Rangachev, which has appeared in the traditionalist Church press in Bulgaria, makes some very important observations about the life and work of these two Churchmen, strong observations which provoke caution but which avoid disrespect or hyperbole. We hope that they will help our Eastern European readers, as well as others, to reflect more circumspectly on the "Westernized" theology represented by Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff and by their students and followers.

During a recent trip to Bulgaria, I had occasion to preach to the Old Calendar Faithful under the omophorion of Bishop Photii of Triaditza. My short, extemporaneous homily was quoted in the Church journal published by the Bulgarian Old Calendarists, leading to a response by Mr. Ognian Rangachev, a fourth-year theology student at Sofia University, in the pages of the official periodical of the Bulgarian Patriarchate. I hasten to respond to the hyperbolic words contained in this most unfortunate article.

The writer in question takes great exception to what he claims was a characterization, in my homily, of the late Fathers Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff as "the most perverted theologians who have spoken within the Orthodox Church." He also notes that I spoke of them as being "not Orthodox, but Uniates." These stark and misleading statements, first, are taken wholly out of the context of my sermon, which was a warning against the "Westernized" theology which is so prevalent in contemporary Orthodox circles. Second, taken out of context and thus misquoted, as they are, these comments certainly do not represent other of my statements, found in a number of articles and books, which admit that, despite their "perversion" by the ecumenical movement and the Western spirit to which they were exposed in the Roman Catholic schools where they received much of their education—my actual accusation—, Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff did much in America to bring attention to the profound teachings of the Orthodox Church. Third, I did not call these theologians "perverts," as Mr. Rangachev’s selective extractions from my homily would suggest, but observed that they were perverted, to a greater extent than any other of the voices known universally in the contemporary Orthodox Church, by their Western "captivity." And finally, since I live in America and am a witness to the excessive ecumenism preached by these two theologians—to the point of accepting the validity of Greek Catholic ("Uniate") and other heterodox sacraments—, I have every right to express my opinion that they were "Uniates" and not Orthodox, though I am, of course, speaking of their spirit, not of their actual affiliations: they were Westernized Orthodox, that is, "Uniates," in their intellectual outlook.

Let me also say that the late Father Georges Florovsky, the mentor of my vicar Bishop (if Mr. Rangachev will allow us a "venturesome" claim to clerical office) and a friend and spiritual advisor when I was at Princeton, also expressed great reservations about the Orthodoxy of Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff. Much of their theology, he often told us, he considered "Uniate in tone, if not substance," to use his own words. This was also the opinion held by the outstanding traditionalist theologian, Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky. It seems to me that, though Mr. Rangachev apparently feels that we Old Calendarists cannot reckon ourselves part of the Church, and that when we express strong opinions we are "blasphemous and impertinent," we have every right to speak critically of two Orthodox theologians who, whatever their accomplishments, seriously compromised their Orthodox confession by excessive ecumenism and writings which are not wholly Orthodox (a subject on which I shall subsequently comment at greater length). Nor should we be subjected to vulgar accusations for exercising this right. After all, while I consider the theological spirit of these two men to have been wholly perverted by their ecumenistic leanings and a Western mentality (a tragic thing, given their obvious intellectual and scholarly skills), I consider them to be Orthodox in the technical sense and do not deny that they were Orthodox clergymen. This is a compliment which Mr. Rangachev obviously does not return, since he questions, again, whether we traditionalists ("Old Calendarists") constitute even a Church. He is not alone in his ignorance of the Church’s ecclesiology of resistance, but his unfortunate antipathy is unwarranted, especially since, as I have pointed out, he quotes me out of context, in a hyperbolic spirit, and without granting me the right to offer strong criticism without being accused of impertinence and blasphemy.

With regard to Mr. Rangachev’s assessment of the theology of Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff, I would ask, first, that he look at their legacy: St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York, an institution which many of the members of Orthodox Church in America consider a center of "liberal ecumenism," tainted as it is by a distaste for monasticism and an anti-Patristic ethos. For example, its present Dean, Father Thomas Hopko, who comes from a Uniate background and is an ecumenical activist formed in the theology of Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff, has written that it is not a belief of the Orthodox Church that the Virgin Mary gave birth to Christ without the "physical violation" of her virginity. This statement shows both an ignorance of Old and New Testamental exegesis and of the Church’s services, wherein this doctrine is clearly set forth. He also writes that St. Nicholas the Wonderworker was not an ascetic (though the services in the Saint’s honor point out that he was famed for fasting and vigils), influenced as he is by the "de-mythologizing" of St. Nicholas by the Roman Catholic Church. Father Hopko also teaches, as did Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff, that the Chrismation of a heterodox believer into Orthodoxy constitutes an "acceptance" by Orthodoxy of his heterodox baptism, and not an act of oikonomia by which, to quote the late Blessed Justin of Serbia, the Panmysterion of the Church creates Grace where it was not before. Such ecumenical views, Uniate confusion, and un-Orthodox teachings are the direct legacy of the two theologians in question. That they are known throughout the Orthodox world makes the tragedy of their theological shortcomings—without hyperbole—tragic beyond words.

Now, with regard to Mr. Rangachev’s specific assessment of the theology of Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff, let me say that the former’s commentaries on Orthodox liturgics are anything but Orthodox, as I and others have argued in a number of theological journals. Both were influenced by the spirit of Roman Catholic liturgical reform and were especially inimical to the "hierarchical" notion of worship found in the traditional Patristic sources which have for centuries formed our Orthodox understanding of worship. Schmemann, in fact, fully accepted the idea that Eastern worship was "corrupted" by post-third century liturgical developments, developments which traditionalist Orthodox scholars see as the full development of the embryo of Orthodox worship present in the persecuted Early Church. He developed a "Eucharistic" liturgical theology which placed emphasis not on the organic nature of the Church’s witness and the integral mystery of the whole cycle of worship, that is, on the experience of the Transfiguration, but on the image of liturgical a-cension—an active work focused on the worshipper and conveyed in liturgical symbolism. The essence of Orthodox worship is not an "ascension" into the Heavenly Realm, but the meeting and integration, through the efficacy of mysteriological Grace, of Heaven and Earth, making the Liturgy, not an eternal enactment of the Mystery of Salvation alone, but, more importantly, a very immersion into the Mystery of God. Nor is the Liturgy symbolic or simply a typological re-enactment of a greater mystery partly separated from us until the Parousia, a living and eternal promise of salvation, as Schmemann opines; the Divine Liturgy constitutes the fullness of God’s Revelation outside time and space, a participation in the Divine and communion with the Resurrected Christ.

Let us also note, in response to both Schmemann and Meyendorff’s notion of a restorative Christian ritual in which spiritual health is achieved by a kind of liturgical "acting out," that the Divine Liturgy is restorative only in the sense that communion with the Divine transforms our very flesh. It enlivens the Kingdom of God within us, not because it is a regenerative process itself or because it has the "essential power of psycho-drama," as one of Father Schmemann’s students recently argued, but because it is a Perfect Supper, wherein we gain nourishment which is regenerative. The distinctions which we are making are subtle ones, so subtle that they lead us traditionalist Orthodox to accept St. Dionysios the Areopagite as a Great Father of the Church, while they led Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff, and especially the former, to seek out "new" alternatives to "Pseudo-Dionysios" and his supposedly Neo-Platonic hierarchical ideas and to imitate the spirit of Roman Catholic liturgical "renewal," misunderstanding both Neo- Platonism and the Fathers in a way that no good theologian should.

Did Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff really fight godless ideologies, or did they, as the leaders of an uncanonical jurisdiction which separated from the anti-communist Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, negotiate with the Moscow Patriarchate, under communist domination, to recognize their jurisdiction as the "Autocephalous Orthodox Church of America"—an autocephality even now recognized by no Church except Moscow? And did they not do this with the aid of Nikodim of Leningrad, long suspected of KGB ties and recently accused by a Greek Catholic writer of being a secret Roman Catholic bishop and a Jesuit? Did they not, representing American Orthodox believers who a generation ago were seventy-five percent Greek Catholic, collaborate with a communist-dominated Church to thwart dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which is based in the United States and made up primarily of Russian immigrants, and the Moscow Patriarchate? Did they not also support political ecumenism, the same ecumenism which calls the Orthodox modernists to embrace Papists as brothers and to revile us traditionalists as heretics and schismatics? Is this in the spirit of opposition to godless ideologies? Forgive me, but while Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff often courageously and effectively spoke out against communist repression and aggression in the former Soviet Union, there were two sides to their anti-communism and many lapses in their opposition to godless ideologies!

Finally, Orthodoxy is measured, as St. Photios tells us, by our fidelity to the Fathers. Personality has nothing to do with the issue. For that reason, we should never come to the point of defending those whom we like and reviling those whom we do not like, as Mr. Rangachev has falsely accused me of doing, but which he himself does in calling me ugly and unedifying names. We must measure all things by our fidelity, again, to Holy Tradition, which Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff often opposed and overturned. Only a superficial reading of their works and an unfamiliarity with their activities in America would lead any objective observer to any other conclusion. This is not to denigrate these men or to argue that their positive accomplishments were anything but that. However, their witness must be put in context and it must be acknowledged that they were not "Pillars of Orthodoxy," equals to the Church Fathers, or traditionalist Orthodox thinkers. They did much for Orthodoxy from mindsets that were essentially Uniate and which were unfortunately polluted and perverted by the panheresy of ecumenism and the insidious effects of Western theological thought.

I regret that my words were taken out of the context of my overall sermon and that my comments about Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff seemed so hyperbolic. I apologize for this latter lapse. I do not apologize, however, for expressing my honest opinions. It is Mr. Rangachev who should apologize to me and to his traditionalist Orthodox brothers in Bulgaria for language that is unbecoming a Christian, for attitudes that engender hatred and not love, and for a spirit that thrives in the realm of ecclesiastical politics, but which causes true Christian charity, toleration, and forgiveness to wane. We traditionalists have a Divine responsibility to speak boldly and at times harshly about the errors of the modernists. In so doing, as long as we do not fall to the sin of personal condemnation and character assassination—the primary weapons, unfortunately, of those who wrongly court warfare in the Church—, we should not be subjected to condemnatory diatribes from those who, under the influence of modernism, would, in fact, most likely benefit from our guidance.