The End of “Conservative Ecumenism”

by Will Cohen

Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Not all critiques of secular liberalism over the past fifty years have involved flirtations with fascism, but in the apocalypse (literally, the unveiling) that Putin’s war on Ukraine has been, we can see more than ever the horrific consequences of not clearly separating the two. 

In January 1975, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, dean of St. Vladimir’s seminary at the time, signed the Hartford Appeal, initiated by the future founder and editor of First Things, John Richard Neuhaus. The declaration named thirteen “pervasive, false, and debilitating” trends its signatories considered characteristic of the age, among them the idea that in comparison to “all past forms of understanding reality,” “modern thought is superior” and “normative for Christian faith and life.” The Hartford Appeal was an early instance of what Andrey Shishkov has called “conservative ecumenism.” It was a joint statement of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians critical of liberalizing, secularizing trends in society and religion.

Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had yet to be formed in 1975. Among the 25 religious leaders who signed the Hartford Appeal were Peter Berger and Stanley Hauerwas, names little if at all associated with Christian conservatism today. Also notable in light of ascendant anti-democratic tendencies of Christian conservatives of recent years is Schmemann’s great gratitude for the freedoms afforded by liberal democratic society. In this he differed from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose worldview Schmemann in his Journals described after their first meeting in 1974: “Absolute denial of democracy. Yes to monarchy” (p. 43).

As is well known, Schmemann’s Radio Liberty talks transmitted into Soviet Russia had stirred Solzhenitsyn profoundly. They are also recalled with deep feeling by someone of a later generation who also came of age under Soviet oppression and who, since the early 2000s, has spearheaded a more proactive and muscular “conservative ecumenism” linking Russian Orthodoxy and Catholic and Protestant conservative Christians in Europe and the United States, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the External Affairs Department of the Moscow Patriarchate. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’s current Lenten Season 2022 Catalog, which arrived at my house in mid-March, features, on its first inside page, Metropolitan Hilarion’s words endorsing the newly released Volume 2 of A Voice for Our Time: Radio Liberty Talks, Schmemann’s collected addresses into the USSR. Metropolitan Hilarion’s words are strange to read in view of his silence about the war in Ukraine since it began.

Father Alexander’s talks on Radio Liberty were a breath of fresh air for all of us who were living in a country where every effort was made to erase God from people’s memory.  Always clear, powerful, profound, faithful to the truth of the gospel, his voice broke through the iron curtain and changed people’s perspectives on human and divine realities.    

Any clear, powerful voice that dares to make itself heard in today’s Russia in faithfulness to the truth about the war whether in reporting, preaching or protesting incurs serious personal risk.  Yet not a word of support or praise of such voices has come from Metropolitan Hilarion, nor of course from Patriarch Kirill who has infamously justified the war as necessary to resist Western decadence epitomized by gay pride parades. Last year, Metropolitan Hilarion disparaged protesters decrying the arrest of political opposition leader Alexei Navalny and said nothing against the shuttering of Memorial, the human rights group dedicated to archiving Stalinist atrocities; and his public silence about the war against Ukraine has remained unbroken, as when he traveled this month to Syria to meet with Patriarch John X, who also voiced no criticism of the Russian invasion

The Orthodox author and blogger Rod Dreher recently characterized the decision of Switzerland’s University of Fribourg to sever ties with Metropolitan Hilarion for his unwillingness to condemn the war as one of the “insane things” people are doing, “bonkers,” a function of “moral panic.” One can only hope that St. Vladimir’s Seminary might also soon see its way to being “bonkers” enough to cease aligning and identifying itself so closely as it has both with Patriarch Kirill, after whom it recently named a biblical studies endowment, and with Metropolitan Hilarion, whose name and books appear not just once but, by my count, seven times in the current SVS Press catalogue (a number exceeded only by the names of Schmemann and St. Sophrony); yesterday’s encouraging statement from the OCA Synod for the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross may give reason for such hope. To this point, however, St. Vladimir’s has been so far from hitting the moral panic button that it has issued no statement of its own on the war and has only referred those wondering about its stance to Metropolitan Tikhon’s statement of February 24, and this it did not do until March 11. Its president, Fr. Chad Hatfield, in a recorded Lenten meditation emailed to seminary alumni also on March 11, makes no mention of the war at all.

Dreher was the seminary’s invited speaker for its annual Alexander Schmemann lecture in 2021. He was also chosen to write the foreword of Volume 1 of Schmemann’s Radio Liberty Talks. So it is that a significant segment of Orthodox Christianity has been encouraged, by the most world-renowned Orthodox educational institution in North America, to suppose there is a kind of alignment between Schmemann’s cultural commentary and Dreher’s.  In fact, between Dreher’s Manichean construal of Christianity’s relationship to secular liberalism and Schmemann’s there is an immense distance. Schmemann, unlike Dreher, was able to critique the liberal West discerningly and without being drawn toward autocratic alternatives even a little. 

These days, when nobody in the U.S. but the Madison Cawthorns and Marjorie Taylor Greens of the world have not taken the side of Ukrainian Western-oriented democracy against Russian autocracy, Dreher and other unreconstructed critics of Western liberalism like Patrick Deneen have been walking back their views, yet not without still taking their usual swipes at liberalism’s depredations as they go. Just two days into the war, Deneen, a Notre Dame professor of political science and a conservative Catholic, retweeted a photo whose caption merely reported that Ukrainian “men escort their women and children to Poland before returning east to the front,” and couldn’t resist commenting (lest gender theory culture war issues be lost sight of even for a moment): “Pronouns are luxury items.” Dreher, for his part, wrote self-consciously the week before last, “I was never pro-Putin, in the sense that I saw him and his government as any kind of model for Americans, though when he said something of which I approved, I praised him.”

To illustrate the high esteem in which Dreher and Deneen respectively held Putin-friendly Russian intellectuals and religious leaders before the current hell broke loose, a brief quotation from each will suffice. In an August 2019 piece about Moscow’s schism with Constantinople over the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Dreher pled ignorance, describing the details that led up to it as “so, well, Byzantine, that I honestly don’t know what to think of it all” and noting meanwhile that “[a]s a general rule, I tend to sympathize with the Russian church on internal Orthodox matters, and am especially grateful to Russian church leaders for speaking out clearly on moral issues about which Western church leaders have seemingly lost their voice.” He described the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew within Orthodoxy as a “liberalizing, Westernizing force” against whom “Kirill, the current Moscow Patriarch, has pushed back.”

Deneen, for his part, stated in a 2020 interview: “I suspect Russia will remain a ‘bogeyman’ in a Biden administration, a convenient enemy to present to the American people.” When asked whether a dialogue between Russian and American conservatives could be fruitful, he observed that Russia, “having tested . . . Western liberalism . . . and recognized its pitfalls . . . is now working on how it moves into a post-Communist, non-liberal political and social order. For those of us in the West similarly working on how to move into a post-liberal political order, there are fruitful areas of discussion.”

Sohrab Ahmari has complained that since the outbreak of the war “the liberal establishment sees fit to cashier misery into point-scoring against their domestic political opponents.”  In a Christian context, does not charity require that our many Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters who were too attracted for too long to Putin and the currently configured Moscow Patriarchate (MP) be allowed to admit their mistake and move on, a grace we all hope to be given in matters where we’ve been slow to see? Yes, if they really do acknowledge the mistake, and by more than a swiftly passing “sorry” on the way to continuing their same behavior. Dreher, it is true, now says that “all of Putin’s rhetoric over the years about the greatness of Russian Christian civilization . . . was a phony cover story for raw power.” He does now belatedly ask “How can [Patriarch Kirill] possibly remain silent?” and observes, “Unless, of course, all of his Christian preaching and teaching was just a cover for the acquisition and maintenance of power too?” What he doesn’t do is say that his own prolonged failure to see all this has mattered. In fact, he continues to reference proudly, as if it was prophetic, his 2020 book, in which, although it’s all about heroic Christian resistance to totalitarian lies in Eastern Europe, he never once names Putin nor critiques Kirill or Hilarion, an unthinkable omission unless one saw them as Christianity’s protectors and Western liberalism as Christianity’s greatest global threat. 

The church must be a space where real questions may be worked through in authentic freedom. And for this to happen there must be healthy critiques of forms of secular liberalism that would discourage disagreement in good faith and impose ideological conformity. Yet as soon as the freedom of the gospel, which certainly includes elements not readily heard as good news in our secular world today, is imagined as something maintainable or advanceable through coercive means it has already destroyed itself from within. As the attack on Ukraine confirms and as Dreher acknowledges, that only yields “the suicide of [one’s] reputation as a defender of Christianity.”

Cyril Hovorun has spoken of a necessary “deputinization” of Orthodox Christianity. This obviously will require as well a “dekirillification” and a “dehilarionization.” And of course it speaks to a problem and a need that extends well beyond Orthodoxy, as the trajectory of the MP-led “conservative ecumenism” of the past fifteen years has shown. All the more important, then, is it that St. Vladimir’s Seminary engage as soon as possible in this process of reexamination and reorientation. The sooner it does, the sooner it may help begin to restore a space for critiques of secular liberalism that are credibly disentangled from fascism, rooted in an authentic Christian vision remotely worthy of the spirit of Alexander Schmemann.   


Will Cohen, former president of the Orthodox Theological Society in America and a St. Vladimir’s Seminary graduate (MDiv, ’02), is Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.