How should the Church relate to the world?

Is our primary relationship one of acceptance or rejection, engagement or retreat, affection or animosity? Is it appropriate for ordained clergy to engage in local or national politics, even from the pulpit? How exactly are we to think of this world, this beautiful gift and fallen mess which we are “in,” but not “of,” as the popular expression goes?

These are important questions, and thankfully many in the Church are devoting themselves to the search for answers. (I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’ve got plenty of “Options,” from Benedict to Augustine.)

But sometimes these discussions, at least at the popular level, are so narrowly focused on individual, hot-button issues that they miss the forest for the trees.

We can’t begin to think fruitfully about issues of social justice, political engagement, or cultural influence until we properly establish our foundations—namely, the nature of the world and the identity and vocation of the Church.

Funnily enough, one of the most important voices in the quest for a renewed vision of the Church’s relevance for postmodern society may very well be an Eastern Orthodox priest who died twenty years before the founding of Myspace.

Alexander Schme-who?

If you have read any of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s work, it is probably his 1963 book For the Life of the World. (And if you haven’t read that one, put it at the top of your to-read list!)

Schmemann’s vision of the Church as the Sacrament of the Kingdom and his stunning depiction of the whole Christian life as a priestly, eucharistic offering of the world to God have led many a young American evangelical down the Canterbury trail (myself included).

But this is not the only book Schmemann wrote. He has more, much more, to tell us. And Porter C. Taylor’s edited collection of essays, We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee, is a wonderful starting point for the Anglican pastor and the “Angli-curious” alike to delve more deeply into the life and mind of this great priest, teacher, and theologian.

Something for every kind of Anglican.

One of the most striking elements of this collection is the diversity of Christian traditions represented in its pages. Lutheran, Anglican, Free Church, Roman Catholic, Reformed, and, of course, Orthodox voices testify to the far-reaching power of Schmemann’s faithful service to the Church and her Lord.

Indeed, there is something for every kind of Christian here—and, more importantly for this audience, every kind of Anglican. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the High Church party or a staunch Anglo-Catholic to appreciate this book.

  • If you are more of the Kuyperian-Reformed persuasion, there is an excellent essay from John D. Witvliet (“Schmemann among the Kuyperians”) for you.
  • If you’re concerned with living on mission or engaging culture, look no further. This theme weaves throughout the volume.
  • If you’re interested in the exploring the Jewish roots of the Church’s liturgy, that’s here, too. See Kimberly Belcher’s essay, “Time and Eschatology, the Week and Shabbat.”

Low or high, liturgical or missional, academic, ordained, or lay—this book is for you.

A laser-like liturgical focus.

But, perhaps ironically, the broad scope of We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee is a direct result of its subject’s singular focus on the activity of the Church that defines what she is: the leitourgia, or liturgy.

Schmemann was, after all, a liturgical theologian. For him, the Church’s reflection on or explanation of doctrine must arise out of her worship. The Christian faith is not a body of doctrine or a set of propositions but a gathered community, the Body of Christ, entering the throne room of God to be transformed by his Word and sacrament into a sacrament herself—the Sacrament of the Kingdom.

This is crucial because it begins to answer the question we raised at the beginning of this review: How should the Church relate to the world? The starting point, according to Schmemann and the authors of these essays, is the worship of the Church.

Maybe the most important thing this book will do for Anglican pastors is open our eyes afresh to the gravity of what we do on Sunday mornings. The unfortunate byproduct of many contemporary approaches to cultural engagement is that they begin outside the Church. The authors of this volume remind us that the only fruitful road to redeeming the world is through the worship of the Church.

Sure, but can we get concrete?

But while Schmemann laid the groundwork, he has been criticized for neglecting to flesh out the concrete how for the Church’s role in the world’s redemption. In this book, Taylor and company pick up Schmemann’s torch and examine some specific ways in which the Church proclaims the world to come in her daily life.

Bruce T. Morrill’s essay, “The Liturgical Is Political,” is especially helpful in bridging the chasm between Schmemann’s liturgical theology and the political theologies he so vehemently attacked in his own lifetime.

Even if some Anglicans cannot in good conscience adopt the popular political theologies of our day, Morrill impresses upon us the necessity of tackling social issues that plague our societies. Schmemann’s own framework requires it, since the goal of the Church is not only to celebrate liturgy but to “live what we celebrate,” as Joyce Ann Zimmerman puts it in another chapter (“Toward an Understanding of Pastoral Liturgical Theology”).

Bottom Line

We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee is a worthy read for Anglicans of all stripes.

Schmemann has rightfully gained himself a spot in the “Theologian Hall of Fame,” and this volume does an excellent job of contextualizing his work, highlighting his relevance for Christians of all traditions, and drawing out the implications of his theology for more effective participation in God’s redeeming work in the world.

It will inspire you to go to the source and read the man himself, and it will give you the tools to do so more fruitfully—something which, I am sure, would mark a definite success in the eyes of its authors and editor.