Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

"Unless the Lords builds the House..."


On St Vladimir’s Seminary and its Theological Foundation: An Historic Appraisal


Rt. Rev. Alexander Schmemann

Dean St. Vladimir’s Seminary


This spring, on our Commencement Day, His Beatitude the Patriarch of Antioch Elias IV blessed the new building, housing some 40 students, and members of the Seminary staff. Now, on our Education Day, we are celebrating the tenth anniversary of ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL FOUNDATION. Finally, later in this school year, in May, we shall celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Seminary itself. All this constitutes a good occasion for a reflection not only on the growth of our school, but on the place of theological education in our Church in general. This is an occasion for self-evaluation, for an effort to grasp the meaning of past accomplishments as well as future needs. It is appropriate therefore that we begin with a few thoughts on the function of theological education in the Orthodox Church.



The fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 meant, among other things, a catastrophic interruption of Orthodox education, a frightening narrowing of Orthodox civilization. With the destruction of its schools, the Orthodox East was reduced for many centuries to "theological silence," and this at a time when the West was entering a deep, and in many ways still developing spiritual crisis, when the Orthodox witness could have been decisive. The destruction of the schools had two consequences. On the one hand, it resulted in a kind of eclipse of theology from the life of the Church, in the weakening of the very need for theology. Too many Orthodox have come to think that theology is not only useless but, from the point of individual salvation, even dangerous. Faithfulness to Tradition was identified with a rejection of reflection, of any search and questioning. On the other hand, the absence of strong Orthodox theological centers led to a peculiar surrender to the West — surrender expressed as much in the non-critical acceptance and exaltation of all things Western, as in an equally non-critical fear of the West as such.


For these reasons, when in the East — in Kiev, in post-Petrine Russia — there began the reconstruction of Orthodox theological schools, the latter remained for a long time an "alienated" body within the ecclesiastical organism — alienated because of that divorce between "theology" and "piety" which resulted from the multi-secular disappearance of schools, alienated also because of the Western patterns and the Western spirit of the new schools. In his Ways of Russian Theology, Fr. George Florovsky has given a detailed analysis of this "pseudo-morphosis" of Orthodox theology. "One prayed in Slavonic," he writes, "yet one ‘theologized’ in Latin . . ." But even as Fr. Florovsky himself in his rather violent criticism admits, these Westernized schools proved to be tremendously beneficial for the Orthodox Church, for having gone through all Western temptations and having overcome them, having mastered to perfection methods and techniques, Orthodox theology by the end of the last century was freeing itself from blind submission to the West, recovering its own Orthodox path. In Russian theological academies, there appeared a sign of general theological renaissance and the problem of a theological school, of its radical transformation and reorientation, had high priority on the agenda of the All Russian Church Sobor whose preparation began in the first decade of this century. Theological interests were beginning to permeate wide strata of Russian society and theology was no longer thought of as dead "seminary scholasticism." There began, in other terms, a slow overcoming of that divorce between "theology" and "piety" which had such disastrous consequences for both. The Revolution interrupted this process and for many years precluded the very existence of theological schools in Russia. It is for this very reason that the problem of theological education acquired a new urgency in the Orthodox "diaspora" and especially in America.





The significant and promising fact of the establishment of Orthodoxy in the New World was not immediately understood in all its meaning by the Russian Church. Bound by her alliance with the State and her national consciousness, she understood her mission in America almost exclusively in terms of satisfying the religious needs of immigrants. And, since these immigrants were in an overwhelming majority workers and farmers, the question of their intellectual and educational needs were, at first, not even raised. Even at the time of the massive return to Orthodoxy of Uniates, the Holy Synod in St. Petersburg deemed it obviously sufficient simply to "receive" them, without worrying about the multi-secular poisons of Uniatism, which therefore have not been completely eliminated from our Church even to this day. Any educational work originating in America was due to the initiative of immigrants themselves, their brotherhoods, and other community organizations, to the initiative of such local leaders as Fathers Toth, Khotovitsky, Turkevich, Kohanick, and others. It came from "below," not from "above." When Archbishop Tikhon (later to become Patriarch) who, better than any other bishop sent from Russia, understood the novelty of the Church’s situation here and her specific needs, decided to establish a school, the miserable budget allocated by the Holy Synod made it impossible to develop that school into a real center of theological learning. In St. Petersburg, the American Mission was viewed as a provincial "frontier" to be supplied with rural clergy and psalm readers capable of teaching the Russian alphabet.


The fact that Orthodoxy in America was to live in a completely new and unprecedented cultural and spiritual situation, somehow by-passed the leadership of the Russian Church. And, first of all, the obvious fact that in the land of religious pluralism where all confessions are free and none can expect any help or protection from the State, the problem of religious education in general and that of training priests in particular, was without any exaggeration a question of life and death. Left to its own resources, deprived of an organic religious culture which, in the Old World, made it "natural" for everyone to be associated with his religion, each confession in America, to keep its members and to attract new ones, depends almost exclusively on its capacity to educate and to convince; hence, the emphasis placed by all religions in America on education and care for seminaries, theological faculties, etc. The Russian ecclesiastical leadership seemed to forget that the children and the grandchildren of the immigrants, whose ethnical needs at first shaped the life of the Church here, would sooner or later enter American universities, adopt the American culture, and that this would inevitably lead to the question of "compatibility" — the Orthodox world view and their new culture — and that this in turn would create the need for pastors and educators capable of understanding and solving this question. But on the "top" the certitude prevailed that all a pastor needs to know is how to serve and how to "get along" with his parishioners. As to ‘‘problems,’’ "questions,’’ and "doubts," they are but nonsense, to be taken car e of by a simple and authoritarian reference to the past. This perfect quietude, this conviction that everything is "in order" as lone as parishes exist, priests are appointed and transferred, and dues collected prevented — and maybe still prevents — many people from realizing that in fact thousands, if not tens of thousands of Orthodox "children" and "grandchildren" simply left the Church and were "dissolved" in American culture, whereas parishes little by little became secular organizations for which hierarchs and ecclesiastical centers are nothing but strange "super-structures" — always claiming their money.





The Russian Revolution weakened the Church in America for a long time. Only in the thirties did she recover enough strength to face once more the urgent question of theological education; and, once more, the question was raised from the "bottom," not from the "top." It came from a few individuals and groups who, in the midst of general apathy, acquired a growing awareness of a forthcoming crisis. This question regretfully never received a clear answer so that the path of our theological schools still remains a split one, an object of controversy and misunderstandings, suspicions and totally fruitless passions. But if one abstracts the purely human factors, always at work among men, the difficulty was implied in the question itself, and the question was: "What kind of school do we want for our priests, and what do we expect from them?"


Any attempt to solve the problem by mere reference to the pre-Revolutionary system of theological education with its distinction between seminaries and academies was doomed from the very beginning for the Russian seminary was a secondary school with a liberal arts curriculum and a theological "superstructure" al the end. The quality and competence of its faculty were assured by the theological academies or graduate schools of theology. And thus, with no academy to train qualified teachers, the Russian seminary would have been unthinkable. In America, however, the general educational system is radically different. Here, professional or graduate training always has college as its prerequisite, i.e. four years of liberal arts university studies. The secondary, or high school, is thus not considered sufficient foundation for any specialized training, and this applies first of all to clergy of virtually all denominations. For this reason, the only national accrediting agency for theological schools here — The American Association of Theological Schools — has adopted as its first and absolute principle for accreditation, the graduate of post-college level of institutional learning. Thus, to build an Orthodox seminary in America on the basis of high school preparation was tantamount to a rejection of the parity of education between Orthodox clergy and those of all other Christian denominations. These considerations may have seemed "academic" and irrelevant as long as our Church here kept the character of a closely-knit ethnical group. They revealed all their importance when the sociological structure of Orthodoxy in America began to change, when "children" and "grandchildren" went to college, when the second and third generations began to expect from their parents not only the performance of liturgical duties, but also a consistent explanation of the Orthodox faith, when finally it became clear that Orthodoxy in America cannot expect any help — material or spiritual — from the "Old World" but is to rely on its own resources. The Russian Emperor, Peter the Great, was criticized for having established in a virtually illiterate country, nor elementary schools but first, a university. Answering this criticism, a famous Russian historian said: "The emperor was right, for where there is a university elementary schools will come. No university, however, has grown out of elementary schools." Culture, different in this from a house, is to be built up from the top, not from the bottom. And it is one of the real tragedies of American Orthodoxy that so many here thought — and in fact still think — that the complex question of theological education can be solved indefinitely by half measures and ad hoc temporary solutions. This strange minimalism is especially tragical if one remembers that some 90% of the Orthodox in the world live under the persecution or at least pressure of militantly atheistic states and that the theological schools are deprived of elementary intellectual freedom. It is against the background of all these difficulties, of this necessity to look for a system of theological education adequate to our special needs and situation here, that one must consider the thirty years of St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s growth and development.





The proposal to create a seminary on the basis of the American educational system, i.e., as a graduate school, was made at the 6th All-American Church Sobor in 1937 by a former teacher of Archbishop Tikhon’s pastoral school in Minneapolis — Professor V. M. Bensin, a graduate of St. Petersburg Theological Academy. By that time, the pastoral school, which in 1913 transferred to Tenafly, New Jersey, had been closed for 15 years and the Church was threatened with an alarming shortage of clergy. This proposal, as well as another, inspired by a different approach to the problem — to open a pastoral school at St. Tikhon’s Monastery — was adopted by the Sobor and the projected school was given the name of St. Vladimir. Although approving the idea, however, the Sobor allocated no funds, drafted no plans, and thus left the execution of the project to the good will of those who initiated it. The Church at-large, still accustomed to the old idea of state help to and responsibility for theological schools, could not yet comprehend its responsibility for theological education. Therefore, one whole year elapsed before the school inaugurated its official existence by a prayer service conducted on October 3, 1938 by the late Metropolitan Theophilus. This existence, at first, was truly precarious. Except for a contribution from the F.R.O.C. (Federated Russian Orthodox Clubs) there was no guaranteed income of any nature. There was no building, no plant, no classrooms. The classes were held in the parish hall of the Church of Christ the Savior in New York City. Two other former members of the Minneapolis staff — Bishop Macarius llinsky (+1953) and Fr. Alexander Kukulevsky (+1963) — joined Dr. Bensin and thus made St. Vladimir’s both the continuation and the fulfillment of the plan laid down 30 years earlier by Archbishop Tikhon.


The first years of the Seminary (1938-1948) proved, however, to be very difficult. The Church gave her approval but the majority of her members were unable to realize immediately their responsibility for the support of the school. To many, the idea of a college degree as prerequisite for theological studies seemed an unnecessary and expensive luxury. If the Seminary survived at all, it was primarily due to the truly sacrificial dedication of Dr. Bensin and his colleagues, among whom Dr. Eugene Dobriansky (+1949) and Dr. Eugene Moskoff (+1950) must be mentioned as deserving eternal gratitude. With no permanent quarters, no funds, helped by a small group of friends, they struggled to keep the Seminary alive and true to its purpose. "They were often faced," wrote one of them twenty years later, "with a temptation to lower the standards, to compromise with what seemed to be a difficult situation; yet of all the reasons of these first years, the most inspiring is certainly that of the faithfulness to the vision, to the idea of the Seminary as defined at its beginning."


A working agreement with Columbia College was established, and in 1939 a first temporary home for the school was found on the campus of the General Theological Seminary. Then, World War II, while provoking a serious crisis — admissions had to be discontinued in 1942 for lack of funds — brought also unexpected possibilities for the Seminary’s further growth and development. The arrival from Europe of several renown scholars — George P. Fedotov, former Professor of St. Sergius Institute in Paris (+1951); Nicholas S. Arseniev of the Orthodox Theological Faculty in Warsaw; Eugene V. Spektorsky, formerly of the University of Kiev (+1950); Nicholas O. Lossky, the Dean of Russian Philosophy (+1965) — inspired Dr. Peter P. Zouboff, another founding father of the school (+1964) to see the transformation of St. Vladimir’s into a graduate school of theology. A memorandum, prepared by him and Professor Fedotov, was presented to the 7th All-American Church Sobor in Cleveland in November 1946 and approved by the Church. The school moved to new quarters rented from Union Theological Seminary. In 1948 the Sobor of Bishops officially named St. Vladimir’s a Theological Academy — a name reserved in Russia for the 4 graduate schools as distinct from some 69 diocesan seminaries — and on June 18 of the same year, the Seminary was granted a Provisional Charter by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York — thus officially establishing it as "an institution of higher learning."


The beginning of this new era coincided with the arrival from Paris of the Rt. Rev. Dr. George Florovsky, also of St. Sergius Institute, who was soon to be appointed Dean (1949-1955). Under his leadership, the theological curriculum was developed, the Faculty increased, and the school given a definite Pan-Orthodox orientation. "A contemporary Orthodox theologian," Fr. Florovsky said at the formal opening of the Seminary in its new status, "cannot retire into a narrow cell of some local tradition because Orthodoxy . . . is not a local tradition but basically an ecumenical one . . ."


In April 1953, acknowledging this progress, the Board of Regents granted St. Vladimir’s an Absolute Charter. But the task yet to be performed was still heavy, and long the road to the Seminary’s coming of age. The Fifties were thus spent in efforts, painful at times, to increase the support of the Seminary by the Church, to stabilize its administrative structure, to build up its Faculty, Library, and student body. In 1956 the acquisition of the late Archimandrite Anthony Repella’s unique collection of more than 10,000 books in the field of Russian theology, marked the beginning of the Seminary’s precious Library.


In 1958, in compliance with the rules of the State Educational Department and the principles of the American Association of Theological Schools, the graduate theological curriculum was completely separated from the college work, and a "Pre-Theological" Division was established for college students preparing themselves for theological studies. Finally, in 1961, a five-year search for a campus was crowned with the acquisition by the Seminary of a beautiful property in Westchester County.


On October 6, 1962, Metropolitan Leonty dedicated the new home of the Seminary. After a successful financial drive, new buildings were erected — including the Library, educational facilities, and dormitory. Housing for Faculty and staff was acquired. In June 1966, the Seminary was accepted to Associate Membership in the American Association of Theological Schools, and on March 31, 1967, by granting to the Seminary the power to award the Bachelor of Divinity Degree, the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York gave a final recognition to the Seminary’s maturity.


In 1968 the Seminary celebrated its Thirtieth Anniversary marking its "coming of age." At a solemn academic convocation held at Columbia University, the school was greeted by the Secretary of the American Associationof Theological Schools who welcomed the first Orthodox Theological Seminary into the American academic community. Honorary Doctorates were bestowed on Orthodox theologians working at different centers of Orthodox theology — in Greece, Russia, Syria, Paris . . . Obviously a new era in our life and development had begun, and it is highly significant that almost at the same time there took place within the Orthodox Church an event of unique significance; — the coming into existence of SAINT VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL FOUNDATION, a fellowship of Orthodox men and women dedicated to Orthodox education as the most urgent and essential task of the Church. Today in 1977 the Foundation begins to celebrate its Tenth Anniversary. These ten years saw the growth and development of the Foundation, its transformation into a living and active movement. It can be said without exaggeration that the movement brought forth new priorities within the Church: education, training, vocation, and mission. Therefore, this jubilee is indeed the feast of all Orthodox people in America.


10th Orthodox Educational Day, Oct. 1, 1977