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“Liturgical renewal is a question of Ecclesiology and not just a question of ritual”

A nationwide conference with international participation “Witness of Faith” was held at St Philaret’s Institute (SFI) on the 13th and 14th of December, 2021, in honour of Fr Alexander Schmemann on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
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“Fr Alexander Schmemann will never be on the periphery, wherever people remember what God gave to the Orthodox Church – and in fact to all Christendom – in the 2nd half of the 20th century”, stated Fr Georgy Kochetkov, SFI Founder and PhD in Theology, as he greeted conference participants.

“Fr Alexander was one of the last Mohicans among the great movers and shakers of the Russian religious and philosophical renaissance which began at the end of the 19th century and continued – despite all the vagaries of history – for a hundred years,” added Fr Georgy. “This movement and its revelations have not to this day been fully integrated into Christian life, including in Orthodox Christian circles – whether Russian or American – and even less can be said of the other Orthodox churches. But Fr Alexander was not just one of the rank and file among the religious philosophical reformers, or even just one of the leading rank. He was a very original thinker and church activist. Anyone who has read even just his Diaries will tell you that much of great importance for life of the Christian Church can be found there, and that these things were not previously expressed by others. As we see that these specific hallmarks of Fr Alexander might please some but be irritating to others, we recall the sort of polemic that occurred during his lifetime and continues among Christians today. It’s worth thinking about what it is that causes such a reaction.” 

Fr Alexander’s son, journalist and writer Sergei Schmemann, joined in the conference from Washington D.C.

“When I think about my father’s short life, when I remember our family life, or when I communicate with him as I do very often and sometimes in dreams, I think of his life as an absolutely unique journey which paradoxically begins and ends in Russia,” said Sergei Schmemann, “despite the fact that my father never once set foot in Russia. As you know, he began his life in poverty as a Russian émigré in Estonia, Berlin and Paris. His parents and grandparents lived in hope of returning to that Russia which they had lost, and brought up their children in a corresponding manner.”

“But their came a day when my father realized that it was impossible to live in the past,” said Sergei Alexandrovich. “He himself transferred to a French school, and from that moment in time his perspective and understanding of Christianity began to expand, thanks to a French education, on the one hand, and to the remarkable professors from the St Sergius mission, on the other hand. And at the age of 30 and with a family with 3 small children he moved to America; a whole new world opened up before us. My father found confirmation of the universality of the Orthodox faith in which he had been brought up, and took upon himself the mission of spreading and deepening this faith in this world – of building up the American church.” 

“I travelled with my father often,” shared Sergei Schmemann. “He was meeting with America, with parishioners from various parishes – with Americans – and in them he found inspiration and his mission. But at the same time, he never turned away from Russia, which was nevertheless his country, his nationality and, in general, his soul. From practically his first year in America he began to broadcast to Russia via “Radio Svoboda”. These broadcasts were not sermons, but discussions – not only with Russia, but with himself about Russia and about her spiritual fate. For many years he had no idea whether he was being heard by anyone or not, but always considered it his duty to maintain that connection with his suffering countrymen. And thanks be to God he kept up that duty until such a time as it became clear that people were listening and hearing what he had to say.”

“My wife and I (she is sitting here beside me, listening and looking at all of you), never fail to remember our fellowship with you, Fr Georgy, and with your Transfiguration Brotherhood, when we were in Moscow,” said Sergei Schmemann. “We especially remember the grandly served Panikhida, on the first anniversary of my father’s death, as well as Paschal Matins in your church, at which my mother, who had not yet passed away, was also present. We thank you for all those good memories.”

“You, your meetings and your academic papers confirm that Fr Alexander really was a Witness of Faith,” added Sergei Alexandrovich, speaking to conference participants. “It is through you that his affairs are fulfilled and continue to live on. I wish to personally thank you for that, brothers and sisters – with a deep bow to Fr Georgy and all who have come together today. Thank you for this opportunity to share in the memory of my father with you.”

“Fr Alexander Schmemann and Liturgical Renewal” was the name of the paper presented by Professor Emeritus of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Petros Vassiliadis.

Professor Vassiliadis reminded us of how well-known specialist on the Eastern Church, Fr Hugh Wybrew, describes the gradual transformation of the Eucharist from a common table into a ritual practice. The Eucharist, originally conditioned by the domestic setting in which it was being served, changes to the point of unrecognizability when it becomes a public act: what was previously simple food and drink becomes a sacrament demanding emphatic reverence, and changes from being clear in the sense that everyone hears everything, into a secret act, where silence and silentness predominate. “And it is impossible, concludes Professor Vassiliadis, following Wybrew, that Eucharistic practice, having endured so much change over the past centuries, should remain entirely unchanged in the future. But at the same time, as far as I know there are only two places within the canonical Orthodox churches where it is possible to speak about radical     liturgical renewal: New Skete Monastery in the OCA, and the Transfiguration Brotherhood within the ROC.”

“Liturgical Renewal is a question of ecclesiology and not just a question of ritual,” Vassiliadis emphasized. “At the end of the day, the word ‘liturgy’, in its original sense, is absolutely foreign to any sort of religious (cultic) or ceremonial (ritualistic) categories. Insofar as Christianity, in its original sense, is the ‘end’ of religion in the same sense that Christ is the ‘end’ of the old law (compare Rom 10:4), so in this way is ‘liturgy’ the end of the worship of God in generally accepted, habitual forms, i.e. the worship of God via simple, ritualistic ceremony. ‘Liturgical theology’ is the primary theology of the Church: theologia prima and not theologia secunda, as scholastic theologians previously understood it. And Fr Alexander Schmemann was a pioneer in the establishment of liturgical theology as a primary theological discipline.”

The conference programme is available here.

The following people participated in the conference:

David Gzgzyan, Dean of the Theology Faculty at SFI, member of the Inter-Council Presence of the ROC (Moscow),
Zoya Dashevskaya, a Senior Lecturer at SFI and member of the Society of Oriental Liturgy (Moscow), 
Natalia Likvintseva, Senior Research Fellow at Alexander Solzhenitsyn House of Russia Abroad (Moscow), 
Yulia Balakshina, Academic Secretary at SFI and Senior Lecturer at the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia (St Petersburg), 
Georgios Basiudis, Priest in Greek Orthodox Metropolia of Germany (Manheim, Germany), 
Dmitry Gasak, First Vice Rector of SFI (Moscow), 
Victoria De Haan (Oxford, UK), 
as well as other researchers and clerics from Russia, Germany, the USA, Greece and the UK.

The conference was concluded with a panel discussion under the rubric “The Heritage of Fr Alexander Schmemann in Contemporary Liturgical and Pastoral Practice”.

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