Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

The Western Rite

Notes and Comments

The article of my esteemed colleague Father W. S. Schneirla in the Spring ‘58 issue of the Quarterly and the recent Edict of the Syrian Archdiocese authorizing, under certain conditions, the use of the Western Rite within the Antiochian jurisdiction make the problem on the Orthodox Western Liturgy a very urgent issue for the Orthodox Church in America. It calls for much thinking and a very careful study of its various theological, spiritual and practical implications. The Edict signed by Metropolitan Antony Bashir specifies that:

". . . The mode of reception of groups desiring to employ the western rite and the character of the rites to be used, as well as the authorization of official liturgical texts, either in Latin or a vernacular, or customs, shall be determined in each instance by a commission of Orthodox Theologians familiar with this field . . ."

In this brief article, I do not pretend to even mention all the aspects of so complicated a matter. All I want is to raise a few questions which in my opinion are especially important.

Let me first of all make it clear that theoretically I find myself in basic agreement with Father Schneirla. The unity of rite in the Orthodox Church is comparatively a late phenomenon and the Church never considered liturgical uniformity a conditio sine qua non of her unity. No one who knows the history of Christian worship will deny the richness of the Western liturgical tradition, that especially of the old and venerable Roman liturgy. One may even ask whether the liturgical unification performed by Byzantium and which deprived the Orthodox East of the wonderful liturgies of Alexandria, Syria, Mesopotamia, etc. was in itself a wholly positive achievement. Last but not least, it is obvious that in case of an eventual return of the West to Orthodoxy, the western Church will have her own Western Liturgy and this will mean a tremendous enrichment of the Church Universal . . . In all this and thus far my agreement with Father Schneirla is complete.

My doubts concern not the theoretical, but the practical aspect of the whole problem. Yet by practical, I mean something much more important than the simple question of prerequisites which would make a definite rite formally acceptable as "Orthodox". No doubt, in advocating the Western Rite, Father Schneirla is ultimately moved by practical, i.e., missionary considerations: its acceptance by the Church should make conversion to Orthodoxy easier for Western Christians. Such is also the main motivation of Metropolitan Antony’s Edict: "it (i.e., the Western Rite) might serve the . . . purpose of facilitating the conversion of groups of non-Orthodox Western Christians to the Church . . ." Maybe it is unfair to point out that the scholarly and objective analysis by Fr. Schneirla of the various Orthodox experiments in the Western Rite hardly substantiates this optimistic assertion, for some future experiment can achieve a greater measure of success in such corporate conversion. The center of my doubts is not here. For me, the only important question is: What exactly do we mean by conversion to Orthodoxy? The following definition will, I presume, be acceptable to everybody: it is the individual or the corporate acceptance of the Orthodox faith and the integration in the life of the Church, in the full communion of faith and love. If this definition is correct, we must ask: can the "conversion" of a group or a parish, for which its spiritual leaders have signed a formal doctrinal statement and which hasretained its Western rite, however purified or amended, can such a "conversion" – in our present situation, i.e., in the whole context of the Orthodox Church as she exists in America today – be considered as a true conversion? Personally, I doubt it very much. And I consider this growing interpretation of conversion in terms of a mere jurisdictional belonging to some Orthodox Diocese, of a "mimimum" of doctrinal and liturgical requirements and of an almost mechanical understanding of the "Apostolic Succession" as a very real danger to Orthodoxy. This means the replacement of Orthodoxy of "content" by Orthodoxy of "form", which certainly is not an Orthodox idea. For we believe that Orthodoxy is, above all, faith that one must live, in which one grows, a communion, a "way of life" into which one is more and more deeply integrated. And now, whether we want it or not, this living faith, this organic spirit and vision of Orthodoxy is being preserved and conveyed to us mainly if not uniquely, by the Orthodox worship. In our state of national divisions, of theological weakness, in the lack of living spiritual and monastic centers, of unpreparedness of our clergy and laity for more articulate doctrinal and spiritual teaching, of absence of a real canonical and pastoral care on the part of the various jurisdictional centers, what holds the Orthodox Church together, assures its real continuity with tradition and gives the hope of a revival is precisely the liturgical tradition. It is a unique synthesis of the doctrinal, ethical and canonical teachings of Orthodoxy and I do not see how a real integration into the Orthodox Church, a genuine communion of faith and life may be achieved without an integration in the Orthodox worship.

I agree with Fr. Schneirla and I have said it on several occasions, that our liturgical tradition has to be purified from many local, antiquated and sometimes utterly un-Orthodox elements and practices. Nevertheless, it stands at present as a living bond of unity and "koinonia".

And then the last question: is it quite correct to define our rite as "Eastern" and therefore "foreign to all the Western Christians have known" to quote the Edict? I would like to suggest a rather sharp distinction between "Eastern" and "oriental". No doubt there are many oriental features, oriental ingredients in our liturgical life. No doubt also, that for many Orthodox this "orientalism" seems to be the essential element. But we know that it is not essential and we know that progressively all these "orientalisms" are being eliminated in a very natural and spontaneous process of adjustment of our cult to the American life. But then what remains and what can be described as "Eastern" is nothing else but the Biblical and the Patristic "content" of our liturgy. It is essentially and structurally Biblical and Patristic, and therefore, it is "eastern" in exactly the same measure in which the Bible and the Fathers, or rather, the whole Christianity can be termed "Eastern". But have we not proclaimed time and again in all our encounters with our Western brothers that it is this "East" precisely that constitutes the common and the catholic heritage of the Church and can supply us with a common language which has been lost or distorted? The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or the Easter Canon of St. John of Damascus, are, I believe, much closer to that common and Catholic language of the Church than anything else in any Christian tradition. And I cannot think of any word or phrase in these services that would be "foreign" to a Western Christian and would not be capable of expressing his faith and his experience, if the latter would be genuinely Orthodox . . .

These considerations, however fragmentary and incomplete, lead to the following conclusion: I think that in the present situation of the Orthodox Church in America, the Western Rite, theoretically justified and acceptable as it is, would, instead of "facilitating conversion", dangerously multiply spiritual adventures of which we had too many in the past, and which can but hinder the real progress of Orthodoxy in the West.

– Alexander Schmemann

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 2 - New Series, No. 4, Fall, 1958, pp. 37-38.