Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Schmemann Addresses Antiochian Archdiocesan Convention in Toronto

Your Eminence, Right Rev. Hierarchs, Venerable Priests, and Members of this holy Assembly:

My first words tonight are words of gratitude. All of this year, while I was sick, I received from our Orthodox community so many messages of love, of compassion, and of encouragement, that the illness itself was transformed in my heart. It revealed to me the love of Christ with an intensity, a light, a joy which made it a new gift and a new blessing. The first message to reach me in the hospital was that of Saedna Philip. This, Your Eminence, I will never forget. Therefore, my beloved fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ, may I express to you my deep gratitude, and this in a most beautiful confession and affirmation: "Christ is in the midst of us. He is and He shall be."

When invited to speak here tonight, I received no instructions of any kind. I was free to choose my theme. But as I began to think about it, trying to go beyond the usual superficial banquet optimism, someone told me that the guiding biblical text of this convention was to be I Peter 2:9: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." Immediately my search came to an end, in the first place because this is one of my favorite texts, and in the second place, because I cannot think of any biblical text more appropriate to our many ecclesiastical problems.

I do not know whether all my contemporaries in the Church would agree with me in saying that, at the end of the fifties and in the sixties, all of the Orthodox churches in America were going through a kind of renaissance. I say "a kind of" because I am not sure that "renaissance" is the appropriate word here. But whether it is appropriate or not, I am sure that something significant was happening in the Church — a new hope, a new vision, a new experience of the Church. How vividly I remember some events which, although at the time they seemed modest and maybe even marginal, were in fact to leave their mark on Orthodoxy in America and beyond. I remember the birth and the first meetings of' S.C.O.B.A., the Standing Conference of Canonical Bishops, a spontaneous response of our hierarchs to the need for unity and cooperation. Even more modest was the coming into existence of the O.C.E.C., the Orthodox Christian Education Commission, which literally created and in inspired an Orthodox vision of the religious education. And then there was the birth throughout the country of Orthodox clergy fellowships and of Orthodox Christian fellowships on college campuses.

There is no reason to go bend this enumeration of the major aspects of that renaissance. What is important for us today is the light we all felt, the hope we all shared, the certitude that a crucial moment of fulfillment was about to come. I am not exaggerating. That renaissance was not an idyllic process to be remembered sentimentally as one remembers one's childhood. There were difficult, almost tragic, moments and impasses. There were misunderstandings and unnecessary polemics. Someday historians of Orthodoxy in America will help us to analyze and evaluate the documents, the minutes, the reports which are now quietly at rest in our chanceries. Yet the light and the hope were there, with us, making our life meaningful and creative.

But then that light began to fade, that renaissance began to fold its wings. Something had happened, and the question is "what?" and "why?" In answering these questions, the first temptation is always to find a scapegoat, to discuss things on a personal level, and this means, on the lowest possible level. Twenty-some years later, we can (and I would like to add, we must ) reject and forget that simplistic approach. But we must still ask "What happened?" and "Why?"

Why do we find today the reappearance of that term "crisis", so often used and even more often misused? Are not our churches, for example, on the whole now in a much better state, materially, organizationally, etc .? Don't we today have schools of theology to train priests, teachers, organizers, choir directors? In general, would it not be more appropriate to celebrate all these achievements rather than to bring up and dwell on the "crisis" in our church life, the traditional alibi for all our difficulties and impasses?

My intention, however, is not at all to gather more evidence of the failures and defeats of our church life, more accusations. It is to prove that our crisis was not only inevitable, but in the last analysis was and remains beneficial. If only we could understand what is its real significance, we would widen and deepen our vision of the Church. Let me quickly explain this apparent paradox.

We all know, of course, that the focus of the renaissance of the late fifties and sixties was the search for organic, i.e. institutional, visible canonical unity of the Orthodox Church on this continent: the overcoming of jurisdictional fragmentation, of ethnic self-centeredness, of unnecessary overlapping, of all that for decades stood in open contradiction to our common belief that the Orthodox Church is the true Church and not simply a collection of various national and ethnic traditions. It is in connection with that ultimate step, and as a reaction to it that our renaissance came to an end.

But dear fellow Orthodox, I wish to share with you my certitude that this "end" in reality constitutes the beginning of a new era in the life of the Church, a new ascension into the mystery of unity. For without that "end" we would never have faced the real problem before us. Why is this so? Because all our efforts to achieve the ultimate goal — the organic unity of Orthodoxy in this country — and to fulfill the canonical demand for the unity of the eplscopate, for an American synod of bishops, etc ., were doomed and revealed themselves to be impossible . They were impossible not because of some hidden intrigues, group pressures, general inertia, but rather because to proceed along that path required not only diplomatic skill, compromise, business agreements, but first of all a gift of the Holy Spirit, a renewed faith, a self-sacrificing sense of obedience. It was this heavenly dimension of an earthly project that immobilized all of us at the very moment when we discovered our unity, discovered that what we need is a divine Amen, a Pentecost, an act of obedience that would make us free .

Organic unity will never be achieved by diplomacy and bureaucracy, essential and necessary as they may be for the Church; they are "of this world," and there is a built-in contradiction in all efforts to heal, edify and fulfill the Church by means of this fallen and fragmented world.

Here I come to the ultimate and, to me, the most important point. The apparent end of the renaissance is not a defeat or a failure, but an inevitable step toward victory. It has forced us on every level to discover that we are one. It has brought us together, be it sometimes only in disagreement. What we have realized is the very simple truth: that all conversations about the future organization of Orthodoxy in America would have been vain and insignificant if we were not the Church. And that we are the Church is expressed and fulfilled in our eucharistic communion. It may have been very useful, very necessary for us to discuss in detail various ecclesiastical problems. But when Christ touches us with the light and the joy of our ascension with Him to the Kingdom of God and to the table of the Lord, then we understand the real scope of Orthodoxy in America.

Defeat is transformed into victory. Death is destroyed by death. Fear is swallowed up by joy. Darkness gives way to light. Suffering becomes a way to Christ. Such, for us, is the meaning of the Church, and one cannot escape it. I do not know what each one of us is to do in the light of what has been said, but God Himself reveals to each one of us what He expects from us. Through the biblical "still, small voice" we as Christians must rediscover our faith and recover our true vocation. At the same time, let us remember that our true vocation has already been defined: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." And in the uniquely beautiful words of St. Paul (I Cor. 3:22-23) "…all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's."

The Orthodox Church , November 1983, p. 2