Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Notes on Evanston

THE TIME HAS NOT YET COME for an adequate evaluation of the Evanston Assembly — of its significance for the Ecumenical Movement, and the Orthodox Church and Christianity in general. The following notes are therefore but a few personal remarks, some of the first impressions, the first reactions, subjective and fragmentary, as they necessarily are.

To me, Evanston meant first of all a living picture of Christianity, an opportunity to take its "temperature," to enter into direct contact with its various aspects. By no means was this picture complete, but even those elements which were lacking in it — the suffering Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox Churches from behind the Iron Curtain, the Church of Rome and all that it represents in Christendom — these churches, by their very absence stressed the real content of the picture: The critical, the even tragic situation of Christianity in the world in the midst of this Twentieth Century. What clearly emerged from all reports, for all conversations is this plain fact: That Christianity is facing today one of the most terrible challenges it has ever faced, that the hand of Antichrist puts its dark shadow on what used to be called "The Christian World."

In Russia, in Eastern Europe, in many parts of Asia, Christians once more are persecuted pro nomine Christi, for their refusal to accept any absolute lordship but that of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one eternal Kyrios of the world. And on that scale the Church has suffered persecution since the days of Diocletian! The situation is not better in the countries which still enjoy freedom of religion. Everywhere Christians have become a minority, surrounded by either indifference and materialism, or by active anti-Christian ideologies, philosophies and ways of life. The world worships false gods and this neo-paganism is not a mere metaphor. We face a fact which seems monstrous after almost two thousand years of Christian era, and yet is true: The progressive dechristianization of the human race.

To realize this fact, to admit it, and to look for a truly Christian answer to it was the first task of the Evanston Assembly. And I think that in spite of so many things which we, Orthodox, could not accept, which we could not recognize as ours, in the Report on the Main Theme, (Christ, the Hope of the World), and also in the reports on the decisions of the various Assembly sections (Social Questions, Responsible Society, Interracial Problems, etc.) in spite of one-sidedness and incompleteness, one has to acknowledge this spirit of a militant Christianity which we experienced at Evanston, and which was the deepest inspiration of the Assembly. The time will come for an objective evaluation and a necessary criticism of the Evanston decisions, but the very desire to reconquer the world to Christ, the concern for the world in its suffering and fears, the call to charity and brotherhood, to Apostolic zeal and responsibility cannot be forgotten, however, imperfect or questionable was their expression in words and documents at Evanston.

"The need today is for a sober look at the world outside our Church walls, and an even more sober look at our churches, their structure, their comfort and ease." These words, heard at one of the Plenary Sessions, sounded in our ears long after we left Evanston, as the call to a real renewal of our church life in a situation which requires from us the total loyalty to Christ.

What certainly constitutes the major issue of the Ecumenical Movement, at least for us, Orthodox, was the problem of Christian reunion and the significance of that particular point. The Orthodox statement concerning the Report on Faith and Order clearly indicates our position, yet the presentation of the whole problem would require a long theological development, for which there is no room in the present article. But one thing must be stated: One cannot really understand the problem of Christian reunion as it stands within the Ecumenical Movement, unless one sees it in the context of the situation described above. Christian unity has ceased to be a matter of academic discussion, a problem for those only who are "interested" in it. Every day we realize more and more that it is a problem for Christian conscience, which requires a real spiritual effort. Here also, if we cannot accept the Protestant approach to the problem or their way of solving it, we must at least understand that to call ourselves Orthodox puts on us a tremendous responsibility, which no one can escape without betraying Orthodoxy itself.

That brings us to the Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches. Within the Evanston Assembly, the Orthodox were but a small group of people coming from very different backgrounds, representing different Orthodox Churches. It was a small picture of Orthodoxy itself — its racial and national diversity, its unity in Faith and in loyalty to the same and the one Tradition, that of the Fathers and the Councils. We had a real spiritual expression of this unity at the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, celebrated on the first day of the Assembly in a small University Chapel on the Northwestern campus. A Russian Orthodox priest officiated; Greek Orthodox professors from Athens sang the responses; a Seminarian from Illinois, American-born of Russian Orthodox ancestry, served at the altar; the Creed was read by a Syrian Orthodox from Lebanon; and among the communicants there was an Orthodox professor from a German University and an English girl from London, recently converted to Orthodoxy. This unity was so natural, this common Liturgy so self evident to all of us, that the painful question once more came to my mind: Why is it that we Orthodox must have that unity only occasionally, and that in fact the Orthodox Churches are so deeply isolated from each other in life, in thought, in cooperation? The necessity for a real unity of all Orthodox, a "unity in Faith and love" (St. Ignatius of Antioch) was revealed to us at Evanston, in all its dimensions: The necessity for theological consultations in order to witness together to the Orthodox Truth! The necessity for mutual help in all our infirmities and limitations so that we could not only in words, but in deeds present to our separated Western Christian brethren the reality of the Orthodox Church, and not merely the doctrine of the Orthodox Church! The necessity for a common overcoming of Orthodox provincialism, Orthodox nationalism, and the Orthodox communicants’ lack of interest for everything outside the narrow limits of our local parish problems!

The Ecumenical Movement, following the Evanston Assembly, is at a turning point. Much depends on the position which will be taken by the Orthodox Church in the World Council of Churches. In order to fulfill its universal mission, the whole Orthodox Church must recover inside herself the universal spirit, the living Faith in the Truth which is not ours only, but which we Orthodox must proclaim for the salvation of all.


Youth Consultant, Russian Orthodox Church of North America

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. III, Nos. 1-2, Fall, 1954/Winter, 1955, pp. 58-60