Church People Clergy and Monastics Deacon Andrei Psarev Other Orthodox

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

A Man Who Wanted to Make a Difference

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann passed away on this day in 1983.

Last week at the graduate canon law class I teach in Jordanville, a student asked about major problems in the Russian Church Abroad. My answer was quick: communication. Based on the Internet reactions in our church circles on various issues, I think that we often make assumptions without finding out whether the facts we are reacting against are accurate, whether we understand the matter thoroughly, and whether our attitude is “part of the problem or part of the solution.”

These points come to mind when I think of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Even though he lived in a time of bitter polemics between representatives of the Russian Church Abroad, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Paris Exarchate along with the North American Metropolia, Fr. Alexander succeeded in fostering, after World War II, productive discussion about the canonical organization of the diaspora.

I believe there was potential for such a discussion with another protopresbyter: Fr. Michael Pomazansky, a faculty member from Jordanville, who wrote his “Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann.” It was unthinkable during Fr. Alexander’s life in America to come to Jordanville and talk to Fr. Michael. At the same time, Fr. Alexander was perceived as an ideological enemy of the Russian Church Abroad, and the only article Fr. Michael could have written was a negative review.

There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with Fr. Alexander. However, a dialogue when one listens entails not just refuting an opponent’s argument, but considering his points and, if convinced, changing one’s own opinion. It is a pity that no such dialogue took place.

Fr. Alexander would agree with the position of the Russian Church Abroad on various occasions. For example, he believed that Metropolitan Philaret, the ROCOR’s first hierarch, had a point when he objected to the unilateral decision of Patriarch Athenagoras to remove the anathemas against the Latins. He disagreed that Metropolitan Philaret did not call for an Orthodox council, but also unliterally condemned Patriarch Athenagoras as non-Orthodox.

The regulation of the canonical status of the North American Metropolia was of essential importance for Fr. Alexander. He expected that with time, all Orthodox would join in this autocephaly. However, his optimism did not materialize. The сhasm between the understanding of autocephaly in the Ecumenical Patriarchate and in the Russian Church was more unbridgeable than he could have realized.

In his diaries, Fr. Alexander comes across as an honest person who is not afraid to ask questions and think “out loud.” He was a person of faith. And a person of faith is grateful. No wonder that the last words in his diary, written in the summer of 1983, were: “What happiness it all has been!”


References to Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s works posted on Historical Studies of the Russian Church Abroad:

“The Church and Church Structure: Regarding the book by Archpriest Polsky The Canonical Position of the Supreme Church Authority in the USSR and Outside Russia.”

“On The “Sorrowful Epistle” of Metropolitan Philaret.”


“Protopresbyter George Grabbe’s Correspondence with Archpriests Georges Florovsky and Alexander Schmemann.”

Leo Grabowski, “Good Ecumenism and Bad Ecumenism According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann.”

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