Should St. Vlad’s Campus Be Relocated, or Stay Where It Is?

 by Very Rev. Dr. Michael A. Meerson | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Српски

St. Vladimir's Seminary

The Board of Directors of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and, especially, its President, Father Chad Hatfield, must be commended for their constant labor to make the ends meet and thus to maintain the seminary. We must remember, however, that their seminary belongs at large to the American “eleven jurisdictions” and to the world Orthodox who entrust their students to it, and, last, but not least, to the entire Orthodox Church in America. So, it is perfectly natural to decide the seminary’s future in a conciliar manner. The most natural venue would be the OCA’s forthcoming Twentieth All-American Council this summer. There are reasons to believe that relocating this seminary might be a wrong move. After all, the seminary’s history and geography are tied to its mission.

Since the time of Einstein, physicists have known that time and space are a continuum. The Orthodox have figured this out from another angle, aware that their geography is firmly tangled with their history. Otherwise, how can we explain that the Greek Patriarch has remained in Istanbul as the head of a community consisting now of a few thousand “turkified” Greeks, while maintaining the title of the Patriarch of Constantinople? It is well known that his main flock abides in America. Why not then relocate his see from the environment so unfriendly to the Orthodox Christians to the well-disposed US southern states, let us say to New Orleans, where the first Greek parish, Holy Trinity, had emerged, upon which the Ecumenical Patriarchate claimed its jurisdiction in the US?[1] So far, the Ecumenical Patriarch has not considered this option. The symbolism of locality develops gradually, as a fruit of history, but once it develops, it starts shaping history itself.

This is also true about St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

It came into being as an impoverished theological school in the provincial Slavic-speaking Metropolia, adrift in America. But by the strength of God’s Providence, it was turned into a higher theological school, which was accomplished through the work of Russian professors who, in the course of their lengthy exile, fled the devastation of postwar Europe and found for themselves what was now a third harbor in America. And then, through the efforts of a Russian-European-American, Father Schmemann, it acquired an impressive campus outside New York City. From there, this theological school started spreading the light of Orthodoxy in English, the lingua franca, faithful to our Lord’s words, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Mt. 5:14-16) While being unsettled and degraded as newcomers, the Russian theologians treasured their Orthodoxy and were not afraid to display it before the face of both the American society and the entire Christian world. This light turned out to be so illuminating that the émigré Metropolia, spread out all over the continent, became convinced of its obligation to become the American Local Church.[2] This ambition was enhanced by America herself with her sweep and religious freedom, as well as by the English language, and, mainly, by its New York location. Moreover, this light was so convincing and obvious that the Russian Church herself, suppressed as she was by the atheistic regime and deprived of her voice in her own internal and external matters, took a heroic step by proclaiming this provincial metropolitanate as the American Autocephalous Church. We recall that before taking this step, the elderly Patriarch Alexis I, unable to convene a council, conducted a telephone survey of all the hierarchs in his jurisdiction and received their unanimous approval. A mere few days before his repose, the Patriarch signed the act recognizing the independence of the American Metropolia, and the Russian Church became its Mother Church. On the world’s religious stage this tomos of autocephaly caused a shock. The player was the least expected to make such a move by queening a pawn, causing a controversy which affected the whole dormant microcosm of world Orthodoxy. Those who have forgotten about it can read Fr. Schmemann’s article “Meaningful Storm.”[3] Of course, just as any school, dependent on charity, St. Vladimir’s Seminary had its ups and downs, but it has continued to symbolize that light with which Orthodoxy keeps on shining, attracting even today, in time of COVID, students “from eleven Jurisdictions and eight different countries.”[4]

The decision to move it to any other locale, inevitably provincial compared to New York, signals both the consignment of its history to oblivion and a significant narrowing of its mission. In our day, considerations of economic liquidity and profitability call the shots. It was this financial argument that the Board of Directors presented as the only decisive factor, leaving no word to God. Of course, lack of faith is not just a sickness of modern age Christianity —the Apostles had known it as well. We may recall how they worried that they hadn’t taken along enough bread into their boat, and how the Lord rebuked them: “’Why do you reason that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ So, He said to them, ‘How is it you do not understand?’” (Mk. 8:16-21)

This conversation regains its relevance in view of the theology at St. Serge Institute in Paris and St. Vlad’s in Crestwood that led to our eucharistic renewal, the main source for the birth of our Church. Time and place were recognized as Providential by those who became apostles of Orthodoxy in our day. It was this Providence and their faith that were the decisive factors. Moreover, compared to  the OCA’s fiscal conditions today, its founders were marginalized beggars. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann told me, comparing the situation of his emigration after the Revolution to those of us emigrating from the Soviet Union to America, “We turned our long johns. You don’t turn your long johns, do you?” In France, Metropolitan Evlogy regarded the creation of the Saint-Serge Theological Institute with its guarantee of a spirit of freedom for theological research, in the conditions of a devastated postwar Europe, as one of the main accomplishments of his life.[5] “I attached great significance to the creation the Theological Institute,” he testified himself. Its very location in Paris, “in the center of Western European culture, which is not Russian, but Christian,” was likewise providential and significant. “It foreordained an ecumenical orientation for our higher theological school in formulating certain theological problems and practical religious tasks, in order that Orthodoxy would no longer be hidden under a bushel but would gradually become the inheritance of all Christians.”[6] Thus the world-wide ecumenical movement arose, in whose formation the Saint-Serge Orthodox Institute played a decisive role, a movement now far transcending the Protestant narrow initiative.

St. Sergius emerged but of Metropolitan Evlogy’s audacious faith. He and his assistant Ossorguine went to an auction at which a recently nationalized neglected estate of a German Lutheran organization was up for sale, having on hand a meager and purely nominal sum taken from the Metropolitan’s Welfare Fund. They purchased it without funds or prospects for obtaining them. Yet the Lord provided: various donations helped make the necessary deposit by the fixed date. Evlogy borrowed the amount for the loan from a Russian-Jewish banker, who handed it over right away without interest or a receipt. Later Evlogy was proud of this purchase and St. Sergius Institute that was established there as both one of the main accomplishments of his life and one of the most significant manifestations of his faith in God’s help. Many years later, a similar act of faith, in the form of a risky purchase, was performed by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Evlogy’s former subdeacon, admirer, and follower, now a professor at the beggarly St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, a school which depended totally upon the Episcopal Church. Father Alexander bought the property for the seminary from a Catholic monastery located in one of the most expensive suburbs of New York City, on credit, miraculously finding the needed sum for down payment. Compared to that penury in which the seminary had been subsisting like a freeloader sponging off the Episcopalians, this purchase was insanity, or a miracle, for there were no funds to pay off the debt. But again, thanks to the faith of one person a campus arose in which an American graduate Orthodox theological school matured, becoming a cradle for the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. Of course, all this is well known, but let us recall it now, when the decision was made to sell this campus.

Before it is done, we must reply to Jesus’ question as applied to the abovementioned stories—how many “baskets of theology” have we gathered from these two seminaries? Twelve, seven? We could reply that there would be even more, if the numbers twelve and seven did not signify fulness in biblical numerical symbolism.

It is true that the following consideration arises: why not remove the seminary from the temptations and decadence of New York and the East Coast with their heterodox churches and diluted pluralism and take it somewhere into the midst of evangelical fundamentalist religion? Let us recall that Metropolitan Evlogy, perfectly aware of exile’s degradation found this to have the most providential possibilities for new growth of the Orthodox witness precisely through freedom and dialogue in conditions of pluralism. “Thanks to our misfortune, our émigré existence, the Russian Church, finding itself in contact with the heterodox element, was obliged by life itself to associate with that element and in this way to overcome its own torpor and aloofness.”[7]

This is why the decision to create a theological school precisely in capitals was not only guided by practical considerations having to do with the fact that Orthodox immigrants were streaming there, but was a direct response to Our Lord’s parable of placing a lampstand in a spot where it can be seen. Crestwood became such a visible spot, located close to New York City. The seminary became a place of encounter for various Christian figures, who in that way had the opportunity to become familiarized with Orthodox services and theology and look for common ground with it.

It was for their openness to contemporary civilization and the diversity of Christianity that both schools, the one in Paris and the one outside New York City, were subject to attacks from “traditionalists,” especially the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which stood up “for the purity of Orthodoxy.” But here is what Father Alexander Schmemann, who was from that same milieu himself and knew it intimately, had to say about that: “The purity of Orthodoxy for them in an ‘orthodox daily round’—no thought, no problems. On the contrary, they are organically repelled by them, they deny them…whereas the crisis of Christianity consists precisely in the collapse of the daily round to which Christianity found itself bound and submitted, since it was painted in Christian tones.”[8]

For Schmemann the so-called “traditionalism” of Christianity signified merely its crisis. “And we have to recognize,” he writes, “as the first symptom of the crisis, a deep schizophrenia which has slowly penetrated the Orthodox mentality: life in an unreal, nonexistent world, firmly affirmed as real and existing. Orthodox consciousness did not notice the fall of Byzantium, Peter the Great’s reforms, the Russian Revolution, it did not notice the revolution of the mind, of science, of lifestyles, forms of life…In brief, it did not notice history. This denial of the significance of the historical process did not serve the cause of Orthodoxy. Instead of understanding change, and therefore dealing with it, Orthodoxy found itself crushed by it. Actually, it is defined, colored, and suppressed precisely by those ‘changes’ which it denies.” This is the source, in his view, of the fear before new theological ideas, the panicky clinging to the “Fathers,” to “Byzantium.” “We are engulfed in many jurisdictions, all of them brandishing various canons. We try to conquer the West with what is the weakest and most ambiguous in our heritage. This arrogance, self-satisfaction and pompous triumphalism are frightening. Perhaps most frightening is the fact that few people see it, feel it, know it,” and that there is a great deal of unbelief that Christ and the Holy Spirit, who are not afraid of anything, dwell in the Church.[9]

It appears that this fear of history is what has driven the decision to sell the campus and to escape to another location, one that is “safer” and “more successful.” But this would in fact be an escape from freedom and responsibility. Father Alexander saw this danger, and not among cradle Orthodox, but among Americans converting to Orthodoxy from their denominations or unbelief: “In America, in the “diaspora,” Orthodoxy, for the first time after many centuries, obtained freedom. Freedom from empires, from governmental rule, from an agrarian ghetto, from an ethnic ghetto, and so on. And then, having tasted this freedom, it spontaneously darted back into the ghetto and prefers to live the way it did under the Turkish yoke, under Peter’s reforms, under all kinds of slavery. Shut all the doors and windows! They’re causing a draft! And they shut them gradually, while young Americans rush with delight into this ghetto, into obscurantism, discussion of canons, vestments, and where real Athonite incense can be purchased.”[10] Alas, the decision to take this seminary, a child of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, out of its visible location, and to make short work of its legacy and scatter it to the winds, smells of such an escape from history.

[1] “The first Orthodox parish to be established in the United States was founded in the year 1864 in New Orleans, Louisiana by Greek merchants.” Thomas E. Fitzgerald, ch. 3, “Early Parish Developments,” in The Orthodox Church in America, Praeger, Connecticut, London.

[2] The professors of St. Vladimir’s Seminary developed and carried out the plan of an American Local Church. See Alexander Bogolepov, Toward an American Orthodox Church: The Establishment of an Autocephalous Orthodox Church, Crestwood NY: SVS Press, 1963; 2001, 2nd ed.

[3] Alexander Schmemann, “Meaningful Storm: Some Reflections on Autocephaly, Tradition, and Ecclesiology” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 15:1 (1971) 3-27.

[4] See the address of its President, Fr. Chad Hatfield, in the beginning of this academic year.

[5] Metropolitan Evlogy (Georgievsky), My Life’s Journey, A. Lisenko, trans., (Yonkers NY: St. Vladimir’s’s Seminary Press, 2014), part 1, p. 10.

[6] Op. cit., part 2, p. 513.

[7] Ibid, 651.

[8] The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann ,Crestwood NY: SVS Press, p. 23.

[9] Ibid., p. 28.

[10] Archpriest Alexander Schmemann, Dnevniki, 1973-1983, (Moscow: Russkii Put’) p. 550.

Fr. Michael A. Meerson, the Rector of Christ the Savior church in New York City, the OCA, a graduate of St. Vlad’s seminary and PhD in theology from Fordham University, is the author of several books in English and Russian and numerous articles. His main theological book is The Trinity of Love in Modern Russian Theology, (1998).

A version of this essay was originally published in Russian at Credo Press.