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A Letter Concerning the Views of Frs. Alexander Schmemann and Alexander Men


April 16, 1998 (Old Style)

Dear Brother Petko:

Christos Anesti! Christos Boskrese!

I greet you in the joy of Pascha, asking for your prayers and the holy blessing of Bishop Photii. My greetings to your clergy and Faithful in Bulgaria.

Thank you for your letter and greetings. We have, to the best of our ability, compiled a few statements, in response to Bishop Photii's request, about Father Alexander Schmemann and Father Alexander Men. I hope that they will be helpful to you.

In essence, both Father Alexander Schmemann and Father Alexander Men were prominent representatives of the liberal approach to Orthodoxy that is still characteristic, today, of what is often called, here in the West—and especially in traditionalist circles—, the "Paris school" of theology (in reference to one faction of the Russian emigre community in France, which was organized under the Eparchy of Metropolitan Evloghy, following his separation from the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad). Calling these two men "liberals" may seem subjective, at first, but in fact Father Alexander considered himself to be a spokesman for a more liberal Orthodoxy and was, from time to time, an outspoken critic of Orthodox traditionalism. This seems almost obvious to us, here in the West, but is, in fact, something rather astonishing to Orthodox in Eastern Europe, who have little knowledge of the kind of renovationism that holds forth in the so-called Orthodox Church in America (known as the Metropolia, before its recognition as an autocephalous Church by the Moscow Patriarchate), a jurisdiction in which Father Alexander spent the greater part of his life and which was an outgrowth of the Eparchy of Metropolitan Evloghy.

While not denying that each of these men had some good points to make, or that they were Orthodox by formal confession and conviction, one should be very cautious about their ideas. This is especially true since these ideas enjoy, unfortunately, wide circulation in this post-Communist era, and nowhere more so, perhaps, than in traditionally Orthodox countries like Russia and Bulgaria.

Oddly enough, for all his liberal theological tendencies, and in spite of his avowed disdain and not-so-well-disguised hatred for the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA), Father Schmemann perhaps unwittingly wrote one of the best defenses of the very ecclesiology of resistance which undergirds our very existence as Churches walled off from innovating "official" Churches like the State Churches of Greece and Bulgaria. In an article entitled "Problems of Orthodoxy in America: The Canonical Problem" (St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, Vol. VIII [1964]), he put to rest what he considered to be patently false ideas about canonicity and ecclesial validity. According to one point of view, Father Schmemann noted, "to be 'canonical' one must be under some Patriarch, or, in general, under some established autocephalous church in the old world" (p. 69). This idea reduces canonicity, he argued, to subordination, which thus becomes the basic principle of ecclesiastical organization, as if a Patriarchate, however venerable, were eo ipso the source of canonicity or legitimacy. By contrast, he opined, "in the genuine Orthodox tradition the ecclesiastical power is itself under the canons and its decisions are valid and compulsory only inasmuch as they comply with the canons. In other terms, it is not the decision of a Patriarch or his Synod that creates and guarantees 'canonicity,' but on the contrary, it is the canonicity of the decision that gives it its true authority and power. Truth and not power, is the criterion, and the canons, not different in this from the dogmas, express the truth of the Church" (p. 73). No Bishop or Synod can make canonical what is uncanonical, any more than either can square the circle. According to Father Schmemann, Bishops who fail to preserve Tradition in its fullness and sanction deviations from the truth of the Church are condemned by the Canons. By this logic, those Hierarchs who not merely sanctioned the New Calendar innovation, but actually imposed it on their respective local Churches, and thereby deviated from the fullness of Tradition, stand condemned by the very Canons which they pledged to uphold when they were Consecrated!

Strangely enough, once the former Metropolia, of which Father Schmemann was such a prominent clergyman, received its autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate in 1969, renaming itself the "Orthodox Church in America" (OCA), Father Alexander no longer endorsed the ideas that he so eloquently expounded in the aforementioned article. Prior to 1970, the Metropolia was recognized by no "official" Orthodox Church (although it was de facto in communion with some of them). Even in the mid-1980s, as Father Thomas Hopko, one of the leading spokesmen for the OCA and the successor of Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff as Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, has admitted in print, his Church was still awaiting official recognition from the Greek-speaking Patriarchates and from those of Romania and Serbia (see "Fifteen Years of Autocephaly," Sourozh, No. 21 [August 1985], pp. 43-44). In the course of seeking such recognition, the traditional ecclesiology set forth by Father Schmemann in his 1964 article was jettisoned by OCA theologians—Father Alexander among them, as you can see in his critique of the "Sorrowful Epistle" of Metropolitan Philaret (The Orthodox Church, November 1969)—in their desire to conform to the ecclesiology of officialdom and "Patriarchalism," if I may coin a term, that is so widespread among modernist Orthodox. In his journey from the Metropolia to Moscow and autocephaly—an autocephaly which he helped broker in collusion with the Russian Patriarchate while it was still under communist domination!—, Father Schmemann betrayed his own ecclesiological views, adopted the very attitude against which he had earlier argued, and showed himself to be a theologian of expediency, when the occasion demanded it.

Let me emphasize that, as a traditionalist Orthodox believer, I am not guilty of the stupidity and bigotry which is often attributed to critics of Father Alexander by those who have made of him a virtual Church Father. Thus, in a published review of his last book, The Eucharist (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1988), I paid tribute to his "wonderful wisdom about the Eucharist and commentaries on liturgical theology which...are the marks of a provocative and original thinker and scholar." I also noted that this book was "well worth reading" (see The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2 [1989], pp. 173-175). At the same time, I pointed out that I have always had profound misgivings about Schmemann's renovationist approach to liturgical scholarship, arguing, for example, that he not only fails to discover pastoral and spiritual reasons for the development of liturgical rubrics, but likewise virtually never attributes liturgical change to the action of the Holy Spirit. Here, again, we have clear evidence of the better thinking that we sometimes find in Father Alexander, as well as evidence of his shortcomings and deviation from the Patristic consensus.

These shortcomings are nowhere more obvious than in Father Schmemann's problematic work, Introduction to Liturgical Theology (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975). The late Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, a brilliant theologian and Professor at the Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY, wrote an incisive critique of this work, shortly after its publication, in which he draws attention to the obvious spirit of renovationism that permeates the entire book (see "The Liturgical Theology of Father A. Schmemann," reprinted in Selected Essays [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1996], pp. 82-102). Father Michael cites with astonishment Father Alexander's observation that "Orthodox writers are usually inclined to 'absolutize' the history of worship, to consider the whole of it as divinely established and Providential" (Introduction, p. 72), rightly adding that what looks to the non-Orthodox West (and to those, like Father Schmemann, who were unduly influenced by Western scholarship) like a petrification or fossilization represents for us Orthodox "the finality of growth, the attainment of all possible fullness" (p. 85). By contrast, Father Alexander, "leaving aside the idea of an overshadowing by Divine Grace, the concept of the sanctity of those who established the liturgical order,...limits himself to a naked chain of causes and effects" (p. 86). Schmemann's is scarcely an Orthodox way of explaining liturgical development. It is symptomatic of the darker side of his theology.

Father Schmemann, as Father Michael further points out, tends to view the acceptance of Christianity by the Emperor St. Constantine as marking a rupture in the inner structure of the Church's life and as introducing a "liturgical piety," unknown in the early Church, in which the "center of attention is shifted from the living Church to the church building itself, which was until then a simple place of assembly," such that "the temple becomes a sanctuary, a place for the habitation and residence of the sacred" (Introduction, pp. 89-90). The very term "liturgical piety" is an invention of Father Alexander that has no precedent in the nomenclature of the Fathers of the Church. Needless to say, neither does his impious view of St. Constantine the Emperor, whose very Christian confession Father Alexander's fellow professors at St. Vladimir's have at times called into question.

More specifically, Father Schmemann, in his understanding of the Church's liturgical development, supposedly detects a transformation in the interpretation of the Eucharist, in the wake of the Edict of Milan, away from the early Christian understanding of an "ecclesiological union in an assembly of the faithful, the joyful banquet of the Lord," to an "individual-sanctifying" understanding, as if there were some conflict between the union of believers among themselves and the union of each believer with Christ through partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ. In a similar vein, he finds objectionable what he perceives as a division, in the fourth century, between clergy and simple believers at the expense of the New Testament idea of the people of God as a single "royal priesthood." Without basing his argument on any Patristic evidence, he maintains that the laity were considered profane, when in fact the Fathers who occasionally used such language were clearly referring to pagans and others who had not received the illumination of Baptism or who accepted Christianity as a mere formality, rather than in a spiritual sense. In instances such as these, we see a clear deviation by Father Alexander from very basic notions of "liturgical piety."

Father Schmemann, however, reveals the full extent of his dependence on heterodox scholarly prejudices when he writes that after the fourth century there was an excessive emphasis on the veneration of Saints as intercessors before the Throne of God, indicating the "eclipse of catholic ecclesiological consciousness" (Introduction, p. 166), and on the sanctifying power emanating from the Relics of Saints, to the supposed detriment of the early Christian (and Christocentric) tradition that a Martyr or Saint "was first and foremost a witness to the new life and therefore an image of Christ" (Introduction, p. 145). As Father Michael astutely observes, Saints are honored precisely "because in them Christ is glorified"; likewise, we venerate the Icon and Relics of a Saint "guided not by the calculation of receiving a sanctification from them, or some kind of power, a special grace, but by the natural desire of expressing in action our veneration and love for the saint" (p. 98). Needless to say, Father Alexander's understanding of the veneration of Saints and Holy Relics, at least from a traditional Orthodox way of thinking, is innovative, impious, and wholly at odds with the dogmatic traditions of the Church.

With regard to the particular book that you mention, Of Water and the Spirit (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974), like Schmemann's other works, it must be approached with caution. All of the strictures that I urge vis-à-vis his book on the Eucharist apply to this and other books by Father Alexander. His works can only be recommended as an example of how not to write Orthodox theology. Nonetheless, aside from my caution, there are, as I noted above, some good elements in Schemann's theological works. For example, Father Alexander was deeply opposed to the minimalism and secularism that he so clearly saw in contemporary Orthodoxy. In one place in his study of Orthodox liturgical theology, he recounts a shocking example of the in-roads made by secularism into the life of the Church. One Lent, he tells us, he was visiting a parish to hear confessions. To his amazement, a man walked up to him holding some sort of ticket, asking for "absolution." Apparently the man thought that because he had paid the annual fees for membership in his parish (a widespread system in America), he was "entitled" to receive "absolution" without making a genuine confession of his sins! Of course, we traditionalists are just as upset by such an empty, ritualistic approach to Orthodoxy. For this reason we can read the works of Father Schmemann with some degree of sympathy. However, this sympathy is constantly at odds with Father Schmemann's disrespect for the spiritual content of the Church's Mystery and his rejection of the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit in her liturgical development. Thus, in his book, Of Water and Spirit, rather than acknowledge the integrity of extant Baptismal practices, Father Alexander suggests—albeit circumspectly—that various changes and innovations be adopted in the Church's prevailing customs. Once more, we see that spirit of liturgical renovationism that smacks so much of contemporary Roman Catholicism, and this in the context of some very Orthodox thoughts!

When, in the context of an extemporaneous sermon in Sofia three years ago, I referred to Fathers Schmemann and Meyendorff as "the most perverted theologians who have spoken within the Orthodox Church," I had in mind precisely the tainting of their Orthodoxy by their participation in the ecumenical movement and by their reliance on Western scholarship. The late Father Georges Florovsky, with whom I discussed these two theologians personally on numerous occasions, also expressed serious reservations about the Orthodoxy of Father Schmemann, to say nothing of the quality of much of his theological scholarship. A good deal of his theology was, according to Father Georges, "Uniate in tone, if not substance" (see "Comments on the Late Fathers Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff: A Reply to Mr. Ognian Rangachev," Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XII, No. 4 [1995], p. 14). This may be shocking to those who think, following his posthumous rehabilitation by the OCA, that Father Florovsky was a colleague of Father Schmemann or (forgetting that Father Georges was once in the ROCA) that he was a great champion of the OCA. In fact, however, Father Florovsky was unceremoniously dismissed from St. Vladimir's Seminary and set off on his own, openly expressing throughout his career disdain for that institution and many of its professors. Nor did he died in the OCA, but, rather, directly under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. He distinguished himself, subsequent to his dismissal, as a professor of Church history at Harvard University and as a Professor of Religion at Princeton University, where I met him and where my assistant, Bishop Auxentios, studied with him.

With regard to Father Alexander Men, who was cruelly murdered in September of 1990, he was undoubtedly a remarkable figure in the Russian Church, who did much to propagate Orthodoxy under very difficult conditions. However, as a recent biography of him reveals, he was also thoroughly ecumenical in his outlook. As a student in the 1950s, Father Men began to explore the works of thinkers like Nicholas Berdyaev, Father Sergius Bulgakov, and Alexis Khomiakov. Although initially drawn to the writings of Khomiakov, he soon found the innovative and liberal ideas of Vladimir Soloviev more to his liking. As you may know, Soloviev was an ardent admirer of Papism—even receiving communion from a Russian Catholic priest on one occasion—, and was very much at odds with the Slavophile movement exemplified by Khomiakov. Later in life, Father Alexander spoke admiringly of "St." Francis of Assisi in one of his sermons. According to his biographer, he "was celebrated for his openness to other Christian confessions, and especially towards Catholicism." He liked to cite the words of Metropolitan Platon of Kiev: "Our earthly walls of separation do not go up to heaven." Father Men taught that the "church" is one (that is, is a single body in which Orthodoxy is but one element) and that Christians have been divided "especially by their narrowness and their sins." When asked whether he had ever considered becoming a Roman Catholic, as some of his former parishioners had recently done, Men replied: "For me, the Church is one. I think that it would be meaningless" (see Yves Hamant, Alexander Men: A Witness for Contemporary Russia: A Man for Our Times, trans. Fr. Steven Bigham [Torrance, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1995], passim). The identity of his murderers has never been discovered, or has, perhaps, been hushed up by the authorities. Anti-semites have been accused of it (Father Alexander was of Jewish origin), and even conservative monks from the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, who disliked Father Alexander's liberal views, have been identified as his possible murderers! In any event, it is surely premature, if not, given present evidence, inappropriate, to call him a Martyr; it is perhaps even open to debate, given his devotion to ecumenism. At any rate, time and caution are called for in this case. If Father Alexander Men was a true Martyr, God will eventually reveal this. It is our duty to wait. Incidentally, his appearance, like that of Father Schmemann, was not at all traditional. Both men had trimmed hair and goatee beards; they also seldom wore their rasa. While these may be personal failings, they are nonetheless symptomatic of a disregard for Holy Tradition which went, in the case of both of these clergymen, far beyond accidents and touched on essence.

I hope that these comments, inadequate though they may be, will help His Eminence, Bishop Photii, to counteract the adverse influences on his flock of those who mistake these two men as traditionalists and Orthodox traditionalists. In the case of Father Schmemann, this is simply naive. In the case of Father Alexander Men, we would do well to wait and exercise caution and prudence. Please convey my metanoia to His Eminence. I remain,

The Least among Monks,

+ Archbishop Chrysostomos

+ + +

From the "Church News" section of the Fall 1998 edition of Orthodox Tradition:

BOOK BURNINGS. According to an article by Maxim Shevchenko in the Russian publication Nezavisimaia Gazeta (29 May 29, 1998), on May 5, 1998, a number of books by Fathers Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and Alexander Men were removed from the library of the Orthodox Ecclesiastical School in Ekaterinburg and publicly burned. According to the article in question, this action was ordered by the local Bishop, Nikon of Ekaterinburg and Verkhoturie (a clergyman of the Moscow Patriarchate), following a decision of the Diocesan Council, in which questions were raised about the confessional integrity of some of the writings of Fathers Schmemann, Meyendorff, and Men.

Shevchenko, who has written widely in defense of ecumenism, in reporting on the book burnings, describes "...Fathers John Meyendorff and Alexander Schmemann" as the "greatest Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century." He goes on to say that: "There is nothing new in the position taken by the leadership of the Ekaterinburg diocese. According to testimony from those who had the good fortune to study under Fr John Meyendorff, even during his lifetime he had to endure the sectarian tricks of schismatics from the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. There were known cases when he, an Orthodox priest, arrived at a church of the migrs and he not only was not invited to the altar but was not even permitted to kiss the cross after the liturgy....Now this amazing philosophy of schism within Orthodoxy has arrived and been confirmed within the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow...."

While a demure attitude towards the phenomenon of public book burnings is natural, and especially regarding works which, whatever their deficits, also contain proper Orthodox teachings, the claim that Fathers Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff are the greatest theologians of the twentieth-century Orthodox Church gives us cause for deeper reflection. Whatever the contributions of these two men, both avid ecumenists, they immediately pale before such great spiritual figures as Archimandrite Justin (Popovich) or Protopresbyter George Florovsky (also an avid ecumenist, at one point in his life, but later a very erudite critic of the ecumenical movement). And these are but two of many similar figures that we might cite. The gratuitous, anecdotal, and biased references to the ROCA in this article, too, prompt some reconsideration. If Mr. Shevchenko's ecumenical leanings have so blinded him to the actual deficits in the works in question (including very serious dogmatic errors in the writings of Father Alexander Men), and if his hostile and unwarranted slap at the ROCA is representative of the mainstream views of theologians and journalists loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, perhaps purer Orthodox readings and books of a more traditional bent are much needed in Russia. One may not wholly agree with the tactic, but making room on the shelves for books that build, rather than compromise, personal faith, in such a circumstance, is perhaps not a bad idea.