Reflecting on an Article of Father Alexander Schmemann

by Archbishop Peter (L'Huiller) of New York and New Jersey


Recently I read again an article written in 1964 by the late Father Alexander Schmemann on the canonical problem of Orthodoxy in America* and have been asked to make an assessment of the evolution of the situation on that issue thenceforth. To begin, let us notice that in such an enquiry one must consider two categories of factors, viz. the factual changes and the evolution of awareness among the Orthodox both in this Country and overseas.

In his article Fr. Alexander straight away affirmed the uncanonical character of the prevailing situation noting however that "the existence of such a problem is seldom admitted." He showed that this anomaly resulted from a questionable presupposition regarding the concept of canonicity reduced to a simplistic idea: an ecclesial entity constituting an extension of a Primatial See located in the Old World. In such a perspective the territorial principle of episcopal jurisdiction ceased to be considered as essential since unity is essentially realized at the Patriarchal level. The very fact that this ecclesial model is completely at variance with the Orthodox Tradition observed faithfully during nineteen centuries is downplayed or merely ignored. Let us notice that this situation is not only theologically wrong but also creates manifold practical problems which of course find no answers in written canon law.

What kinds of change have occured since the mid-sixties? We should regard as positive the reconciliation of the Metropolia with the Patriarchate of Moscow which then granted a status of autocephaly to the former. This action was legitimate since the Church in Russia had initiated missions in America and set up hierarchical structures. Jurisdictional plurality was brought about as a side effect of the Bolshevik revolution. I do not intend to describe here the negative relation to the granting of autocephaly in some parts of the Orthodox World; moreover as Fr. Alexander has addressed the subject in an article entitled "A Meaningful Storm" ["A Meaningful Storm, SVSQ, 1971, 15,1/2 pp. 3-27]. Needless to say that it would have been preferable to get a general consensus among the Patriarchates and involved autocephalous Sees about a comprehensive agreement both on accession to autocepahly and the canonical unity in America. Suffice to bear in mind that the first issue has been on the agenda of a panorthodox council for at least forty years! Obviously, America is only a part of a more general problem.

How has the perception of canonical unity progressed among Orthodox in America during the last few decades? To be sure, the remark made in the mid-sixties that the existence of such a problem is seldom admitted is no more completely true. This was proven by the resolution adopted at Ligonier in 1994 when the overwhelming majority of the bishops in America solemnly affirmed the necessity of establishing canonical unity on a local level. The Assembly underlined that such an endeavor should be accomplished with the approval and cooperation of the "Mother Churches." Recently at the OCA All American Council in Pittsburgh, Metropolitan THEODOSIUS strongly underlined the significance of canonical unity. About the same time, Metropolitan PHILIP, head of the Antiochian Archdiocese, in his survey of Church life addressed directly the identical topic. Significantly enough, he delivered that message at the Archdiocesan convention held at Chicago and presided over by Patriarch Ignatios of Antioch.

The resolutions made at Ligonier were ill-received by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Errors of protocol, suspicion, fear? Perhaps a mixture of all these. Be that as it may, it brought about the feeling among many Orthodox in America that a psychological gap existed between the first See and the Church in this Country. The political crisis and the intervention of the Western Powers in Kosovo shed light on the lack of influence of the Orthodox in America in spite of their numerical importance because they were rightly or wrongly perceived by our government as a loose agglomerate of various ethnic groupings.

Restoring the proper canonical order is more than a desirable goal because it primarily involves fidelity to the genuine Orthodox understanding of the catholic unity of the Church according to the patristic Tradition dogmatically stated in the Constantinopolitan Creed. I am very aware of the various obstacles existing and that this endeavor can only be accomplished step by step; be that as it may, I think that it is time to initiate the process.



*[Fr. Schmemann's article, "Problems of Orthodoxy in America: The Canonical Problem," was published in St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1964, pp. 67-85.]

This article was first printed in Jacob’s Well, Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, Orthodox Church in America, Fall/Winter 1999-2000. Reprinted with permission.