We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee: Essays in Memory of Fr. Alexander Schmemann Book Review

As an undergraduate student exploring Anglicanism and the catholic faith, I first came across the work of Eastern Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann while working on a paper for a class on Acts. My paper attempted to trace catholic Christian liturgies as natural evolutions from their Jewish predecessors in light of the coming of the Messiah. Deep within the recesses of the Liberty University library, I stumbled upon Fr. Schmemann’s Introduction to Liturgical Theology. While an invaluable resource at the time, I only discovered Schmemann’s full significance as a liturgical theologian par excellence later in my journey. Because of the impact Schmemann had on my own personal development, I was thrilled to learn Fr. Porter Taylor, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and a PhD student in liturgical theology at the University of Aberdeen, edited a festschrift in honor of Fr. Schmemann. We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee: Essays in Memory of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, released earlier this year by Wipf & Stock, is both an incredible tribute to Schmemann the scholar-priest while simultaneously functioning as an exordium to Christians, particularly from non-liturgical or low-church backgrounds, to the work of Fr. Schmemann. Contributions to the volume are made by a wide-ranging and heavy-hitting cast of scholars including Kimberly Belcher, David Fagerberg, Steve Guthrie, Todd Johnson, Paul Meyendorff, William Mills, Bruce Morrill, Timothy O’Malley, Don Saliers, Eugene Schlesinger, Dwight Vogel, John Witvliet, and Joyce Ann Zimmerman. Essays are divided into four sections: Schmemann in Context, Schmemann and Ecumenism, Schmemann and Liturgical Theology, and Schmemann and Sacramental Theology.

The first section seeks to provide a fuller explanation of who Schmemann was by looking at his life, legacy in the United States, and the impact of ressourcement theology on his work. The first essay is a reproduction of William Mills’ “Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World: A Retrospective,” initially published in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. In his contribution, he focuses on the historical, religious, and cultural context of Schmemann’s most renown work, For the Life of the World, which was produced from a talk he gave at the 19th Quadrennial Ecumenical Student Conference in Athens, Ohio in 1963. The follow-up essay is “Alexander Schmemann’s Liturgical Legacy in America” by Paul Meyendorff which initially appeared in SVS Quarterly. Meyendorff traces the expansive impact of Schmemann’s work, specifically in promulgating a sacramental worldview. The final essay of the section is “The Question for Liturgical meaning: Schmemann, Ressourcement, and Scholasticism” by Eugene Schlesinger. During his education at L’Institute de Théologie Orthodoxe Saint-Serge in France, Schmemann encountered the ressourcement movement, a French phenomenon aimed at returning to the formative sources of Christendom. When placed in conversation with scholasticism, Schmemann’s work achieves a goal of setting forth “the authentic meaning of the new life given by God, through Christ, and realized in the church by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The second section of the book is a collection of ecumenical essays featuring voices from across Christianity’s denominational spectrum. Honestly, some entries in this portion of the book were surprising to me at first, particularly when reading Reformed and Free Church thinkers enthusiastically engaging with Schmemann, but that is part of what makes this volume unique. My personal favorite was John Witvliet’s essay which places Schmemann in conversation with Reformed Kuyperianism in “Schmemann among the Kuyperians: Christian Worldview, Sacramental Worship, and Discerning Cultural Engagement in Ecumenical Conversation.” Witvliet compares his tradition to the various orders of the Roman Catholic Church; just as there are Benedictine and Jesuit orders with different charisms and institutions, so Kuyperians have their own charism guided by the telos of “Kuyper’s all-encompassing vision of the world as created good by God, distorted by sin, and redeemed by Jesus Christ.” As a result, Schmemann is more popular with this group than one might assume because he emphasized the concept of a Christian “vision” of the world, sharing sursum corda rhetoric about God’s work in the world. Further, both Kuyper and Schmemann harbored suspicion of Platonic dualism while utilizing a creation-fall-redemption paradigm to describe salvation-history. Both theologies encourage adherents to view creation as sacrament and connect faith to everyday life. Following this essay is Todd Johnson’s daring engagement of Schmemann from a Free Church perspective in “Liturgical Theology as Ritual Congruence.” Johnson works to cast Schmemann’s contributions to liturgical theology as an ecclesial concern more than an exercise in academic or historical theology and places those concerns in conversation with broader, non-liturgical churches. Don Saliers’ essay, “The Impact of Alexander Schmemann on Protestant Liturgical Theology” concludes this section. He begins with the classic Schmemann claim that “the purpose of worship is to constitute the church.” Saliers is concerned with contextualizing this liturgical and ecclesiological synthesis in light of Protestantism’s more expansive definition of the Church.

Schmemann and Liturgical Theology is the meatiest portion of the book featuring five essays. Joyce Ann Zimmerman’s entry “Toward an Understanding of Pastoral Liturgical Theology” reiterates what was established in the opening section: Alexander Schmemann’s identity as a scholar needs to be understood in light of his priestly role. It is important to remember that he was bestowed the rank of protopresbyter and, as a result, liturgy was not just an intellectual exercise of the mind but the Church’s mode of “actualizing in the lives of the members of the Body of Christ the content of the liturgy: the paschal mystery.” Heavy-hitter David Fagerberg’s essay “Liturgy Bursting Forth into the World” follows Zimmerman. He discusses the power of liturgy in the shadow of our secularizing age. When liturgy and cosmos become enmeshed, secularization becomes impossible:

our whole life would be made God-like and become God-centered. Then there would be no sector of human activity unavailable to our deification. The wall that stands between liturgy and life would be done away with, and when that happens, we would bring the world with us to liturgy, and the liturgy with us to the world. The world would be taken up in oblation, and liturgy descend as power.

As an aside, Dr. Fagerberg was recently on an episode of Mars Hill Audio discussing Schmemann’s liturgical theology which is well worth hearing. Following Dr. Fagerberg, Fr. Porter Taylor offers his own essay, “The Cosmic Scope of the Eucharist.” His main interlocutor for this essay is Schmemann’s book The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom. He probes Schmemann’s three-fold understanding of the Eucharist—eschatological, ecclesiological, and cosmical—to determine that theologies which reduce the Eucharist to a socio-political act are deficient in light of the “cosmic vocation” of the Church in the celebration of the sacred meal. Dwight Vogel seeks to transpose Schmemann’s theology into daily life in “Feasts: Participating in the Mystery.” The participation in the feasts of the Church is a mode of becoming who we are. The closing essay of this section is another personal favorite: Kimberly Belcher’s “Time and Eschatology, the Week and Shabbat: The Differentiated Unity of Schmemann’s Ordo and Jewish Sabbath.” She discusses the role of time in Schmemann’s conception of liturgy and how the ideal of the Jewish Sabbath finds its eschatological culmination in the eighth day, the Day of the Lord, prefigured in the Eucharistic feast.

If the third section of the book is the main course, the fourth, “Schmemann and Sacramental Theology,” is a dessert to conclude the meal. Bruce Morril’s essay, provocatively titled “The Liturgical is Political,” traces the disruptive elements in Schmemann’s liturgical and sacramental theology. He argues that the Eucharist catalyzes anamnestic change on every level of our lives, radically restructuring everything in its wake. Timothy O’Malley concludes the book by directing his energy towards the Roman rite of marriage in light of Schmemann’s work in “Consent and the Kingdom: Alexander Schmemann and the Roman Rite of Marriage.” The common perception is that Orthodox wedding ceremonies tend to emphasize the transformative aspect of nuptial union whereas the Roman Catholic tends to elevate natural love to supernatural ends. Yet through careful reading of Schmemann’s work on matrimony, O’Malley proposes a synthesis between Eastern and Western emphases that “allow for a personal and ecclesial amount of nuptial transformation in the sacrament.”

We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee is a wonderful addition to the liturgical theology conversation. The treatment of Schmemann gives him the honor he deserves and could act as an aid to a liturgical novice or a thorough engagement for a veteran. The book excellently carries the seeds embedded in Schmemann’s work further, elevating the discussion. Throughout the volume, the reader is energized because it becomes increasingly clearer that liturgy is not dead worship, as one might conclude from reading some works of liturgical theology. Rather, one walks away from this volume understanding Christian liturgy to be Real, the center of all things. If one is not careful, they may walk away from this volume really believing that Christian liturgy is for the life of the world.

Fr. Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team and is working on his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their dog. He co-hosts The Sacramentalists Podcast.

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