The Restoration of Churches Still
Isn’t a Revival of the Church
An American journalist on Orthodoxy in Russia
(Translated from an article appearing in the journal INDEPENDENT on 2.3.10. Read the original in Russian here.)
"Serge Schmemann, an American journalist of Russian descent, is employed by the Herald Tribune and is the winner of many journalistic awards, including the “Emmy” and the most prestigious Pulitzer Prize. He twice headed the Moscow Bureau of the New York Times - in the early 1980’s and then, a decade later. The son of a famous theologian, Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, who was known to many in Russia from his addresses on Radio Liberty and numerous theological works. Serge Schmemann told reporters Anton Kurilovich and Maria Ermachenko of his father’s missionary legacy and his views of the life of the Orthodox Church in the United States, as well as the spiritual state of modern Russia.
- How do you think how your father’s works are relevant in today’s Russia?
- I think that Father Alexander’s legacy is more important now than ever before. It has been 20 years since Gorbachev gave freedom. I well remember that atmosphere, because at that time I was in Russia. To many it seemed that everything that needs to be done for the spiritual rebirth is to ordain priests, to open the closed churches, and the church would be revived. I remember how we lived on Samotechnaya Street in Moscow, and within a short time 5 churches around us opened, after everyone rushed to restore and paint these churches. And I also remember how everybody rushed to be baptised. They were baptized by the hundreds, but after a while it became clear that the temples were restored, the domes were shining, but there was no Church! There was only the external side of churchliness, but no real spiritual life. Unfortunately, some people who initially enthusiastically went to church, did not find there spiritual support and soon left...
This is the time for next phase of Church revival. I think the real Church is now being built. And it is at this time that the legacy of Father Alexander, who bore witness to the existence of Orthodoxy in purely secular, non-Orthodox society, acquires a special significance. His diaries, in which he expressed himself as a Western man while at the same time as a Russian priest, are an example of life in modern society. Interestingly, I have have heard from many clerics that Father Alexander’s notes raised issues which they are only now beginning to face. And I think that, reading his diaries, they suddenly begin to understand that those doubts and problems which they now experience, were experienced by him earlier. And I think that Father Alexander helps them to understand that these new phenomena of modern life should not be feared, but studied and dealt with, that the Church is part of life rather than the parish priest, who serves once a week and gives a twenty-minute sermon.
- You don’t visit Russia too often, so I would like to know how you see it in recent years?
- In religious terms, Russia is in many ways lives in the same way as the entire Christian world. There is a certain percentage of people who regularly attend church, and in this Russia is no different from America and Europe. But these are just numbers. The importance lies in something else. I am sure that Russia must live by a spiritual idea, as it always did. For example, when I was in Russia during Soviet times, I observed that Communists tried to replace everything related to religion by a certain religious surrogate: to create Soviet holidays, rituals externally reminiscent of religious symbolism. After the fall of communism, everyone poured into the Orthodoxy, because they thought that in the Church would find some kind of basis for their life. Some really did find it there, but some still continue to seek it. But, I think, in modern Russia the process of searching for a spiritual idea continues. Sometimes this is expressed in the usual anti-Western sentiments, sometimes in something else, but the important thing is that this process has not stopped. This is why the Church still has the opportunity to play an important role in this quest. But before that the Church itself must understand what it can offer society. And it should not start with a system of prohibitions -- for example, being outraged that a girl comes to church in jeans , and similar other things.
If we return to my father’s legacy, we can see that in all these years, he spoke of the Church as a place where people can find true freedom and the meaning of life.
- You just mentioned this frequently encountered phenomenon of contemporary "churchliness" as a lack of sensitivity and respect for people who may have come to church for the first time. How do you think these these phenomena are linked?
- I think this is primarily due to the fact that in Russia, unlike, say, America, Serbia, Greece, most people come to church as adults, and they did not have a family tradition in church. And these new converts first began to look for external rules in church: how to behave in church, what clothes to wear, etc. At the same time these people have become convinced that the priest knows the answers to everything. It is interesting that during the years of Church revival, the priest has been made into such a fantastical figure who knows everything, does not sin and never does anything wrong. I have often heard from church people: “My priest blessed me for this or that, and, of course, he’s right because he’s the priest.”
And none of these people simply thought that the priest is also a man with whom one can discuss things, and not just listen unquestioningly for his advice and guidance. It is also important to understand that one can pose very specific questions and not merely ask: “Father, bless me, what should I do?” And “How will you bless?” It is important to ask: “Why do you think I need to do this? And maybe this will be better for me while that will not work out?” I think that the priest must also be able to explain his thoughts and motivations. Therefore, in communicating with a cleric there should be a discussion -- not an escape from freedom. I am convinced that people who come to church should not think that truth has already been given to them by some clerics on some plate and that no that no mental effort is required.
- It’s been 40 years since the Orthodox Church in America received autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church. What does this branch of Orthodoxy now represent in the U.S.?
- Time has proved that it is possible to establish an Orthodox Church in America. And although her roots are Russian, she is American. In many cities, Orthodoxy is one of the major U.S. communities, existing for more than one generation, so for Americans there is nothing exotic about Orthodoxy. However, if in America you enter an Orthodox church, then, of course, you will recognize everything: the icons and vestments are the same, the chants are the same; only the service is in English.
It should be noted that in the Orthodox Church in America, the community plays a very important role. After the service, everyone gathers for coffee and discusses any pressing issues; they all organize evening and inter-church events together, they engage in charitable activities and collect money to repair the temple together. It does not happen randomly, from time to time. Lay people choose a council that carries out charitable projects with money that each parishioner contributes monthly. Lay people are also involved in all financial and organizational activities of the parish. The priest is freed from this and is only concerned with liturgical and educational activities, including - to visit parishioners, not only in emergency situations when they are sick or dying, or to bless a new apartment. It is customary for us to invite the priest over,for dinner for example, where he is present at the table as the head of the family. That’s how we establish personal relationships between the parishioners and the priest.
- Are there any unusual features in the parish life of the Orthodox Church in America?
- One of the important elements of the Orthodox Church in America is its missionary thrust. This is largely due to our proximity to the Roman Catholic and Protestant congregations. Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches may be found on the same street. And so people can choose which one they like best, and because people can choose, parishes try to show why you should choose them in particular. Off course, this has an element of competition, but in a good sense of the word.
It should be noted that relations between our Church and the Roman Catholic and Anglican communities are rather warm. For example, in small towns there are always special days when all Christians from neighboring churches come together to socialize; so we do not have any sense of remoteness, we are respect and recognized as our own church.
- How often do conversions take place to the Orthodox faith from other Christian communities?
- Such cases, of course exist. For example, our bishop in Canada was formerly a Lutheran priest and converted to Orthodoxy. Following the recent changes in the Anglican Church, such as the ordination of women and homosexuals, the most conservative converted. Many of those Anglicans were priests, and they were ordained again in our Church. On one occasion, an entire monastic community converted; as well as a whole Roman Catholic monastery. But that does not mean that we are a magnet for all. These, however, are special cases.
- It is known that Father Alexander Schmemann was friends with Solzhenitsyn. Tell us more in detail about the history of their relationship?
- When my father read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, he realized that in the Soviet Union Russian culture is alive, that everything continues. And this was a symbol of the fact that Russia continues to live after the war and the Gulag, and that there still are writers who continue the tradition of great Russian literature. And, it turns out that Solzhenitsyn often listened to my father on the radio, and one day they met, began to commune and see each other very often, discussing everything. But then Solzhenitsyn started working on his project; he was interested only in Russia and was not at all interested in America, and my father served in the American Church, was strongly associated with U.S. life ... and they began to diverge slightly. This point is often discussed in my father’s diaries: Solzhenitsyn began to live some purpose of his own, only his own Russia; neither Orthodoxy in America, nor America itself interested him. My father invited him to the Seminary, but the suggestion did not arouse any interest. So they parted, but still, despite all this, their mutual respect remained forever.
- For many years, Father Alexander was the rector of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in the United States. What was he able to accomplish as rector?
-He educated several generations of Orthodox priests in the United States. They imbibed the spirit that is now living in the Church. He was not only a professor and confessor, but also a very strict teacher. He was, one might say, a good manager and was able to choose people who can be trusted to look after matters. Today in Crestwood near New York, where St. Vladimir’s Seminary is located, you can see a whole complex of buildings with a large library and a beautiful temple - that my father was very proud of ... And what is very important, is that now there are people who continue his work. To this day, St. Vladimir’s Seminary is a famous American theological school. And, it is not of little importance that it has Russian roots, for it was established by Russian emigrants, among whom was my father."