We Give Thanks Unto Thee: An Interview with Fr. Porter C. Taylor
I had the privilege to sit down with Fr. Porter Taylor to discuss his new festschrift We Give Thanks Unto Thee: Essays in Memory of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Fr. Taylor is currently doing his doctorate at the University of Aberdeen and serves as a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh (ACNA) where he is the Theologian in Residence at Church of the Apostles in Kansas City. An extended version of this interview can be heard on my podcast, The Sacramentalists next month. You can find Fr. Taylor at his personal website, Twitter, and Facebook.
WW: Fr. Porter, thank you for joining us today.
PT: Well thank you. I’m excited to be here and talk.
WW: I’m very excited. I’ve been following the developments of your book and have been thrilled to see that you’ve been able to get Schmemann out there for those who aren’t quite as familiar to him to get some exposure to him. Could you start by telling us a little more about yourself? Who are you? Where are you from? Things like that.
PT: My social, I’ll give you everything. I’m kidding. I’m a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and I live in Kansas currently with my wife and our three things. I’m working on the PhD at the University of Aberdeen and I’ve got just over a year to go before that’s complete. In order to have the time and freedom to do the PhD program, I also started my own interior painting company, so I paint houses 40 hours a week and spend the rest of my time reading and writing. If you want to know something about me, I’m all things liturgy, all things Anglican, and all things Manchester United. I’m just kind of an eclectic mix.
WW: That all sounds great except the Manchester United part. We’re West Ham United supporters here.
PT: Well that’s okay, I mean there’s plenty of room for the bubbles of West Ham in any household. I was looking at somebody online today, a priest, and he’s a Manchester City fan and I was undone.
WW: That’s right. They’re sort of the loveable losers so it’s okay. So you wrote this book about Alexander Schmemann and since he’s going to figure pretty prominently in what it is that we’re talking about would you tell us a little more about the life of Alexander Schmemann.
PT: Absolutely! So, I really love Fr. Alexander because he came to America by way of Paris of immigrating from Estonia and was part of the earliest wave of Orthodox Christians who would ultimately become the Orthodox Church in America. So, he was writing and teaching in America in New York in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. He was on staff at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary. His entire focus for his scholarly research was birthed from his experience as a priest and pastor and it was the meaning and experience of the liturgical tradition for his church. I think that we often miss his significance because we write him off as being Orthodox. Most Evangelicals or most Christians in North America don’t have a framework for Eastern Christianity but if we see him as someone who committed to the liturgy and worship of the Church, then he’s somebody who makes sense for everybody.
WW: So as a liturgical scholar and theologian, I imagine Schmemann is an important figure in the field overall but what made you choose him as the subject of the book and, I assume, is your dissertation about Schmemann as well?
PT: It is. He’s my main conversation partner for the dissertation and I am seeking, in that, to riff off of him and answer some of the critiques that have been leveled against him but also carry his research forward in an ecumenical context. But the reason this book came about was really out of the experience that I had at Fuller Theological Seminary when I was taking a directed study on the Eucharist and I was one of the two students who were able to choose our own textbooks for the class and we both agreed that Schmemann should be on there. We got For the Life of the World and The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom. It was not For the Life of the World but The Eucharist that really did it for me. It really set me off on a path that I’ve been on now for eight or nine years. It was the first time I had read a theologian discussing the liturgy and Eucharist of the Church that I, as an Anglican, could fully appreciate and see clearly and it was something I wanted to continue doing but I had no idea I was going to do a PhD at that point. So, I got into the PhD program, started working, and I was sitting there, I can remember the day vividly, in January about four years ago and I was painting a room, and thought to myself, “No one in the Evangelical or Protestant world ever wrote a festschrift or a book honoring Schmemann’s contribution to the field. All of the stuff that has been produced has been predominantly Orthodox. I think maybe I should just put some feelers out there to see if there’s something we can do.” My wife had a childhood friend who was good friends with Bruce Morrill. He offered me the introduction to Bruce via e-mail and we were off to the races. The project just unfolded organically in front of me and I had nothing to do except watch it grow. It was a right place, right time kind of thing but also with all the research and reading I’ve been doing in liturgical theology, everybody has to deal with Schmemann but not everybody knows what to do with him. So, I wanted to have a volume that honored his work but also sought to move it forward and engage from other angles and perspectives. That’s really, I hope, what you would find in the volume.
WW: That’s awesome. This may be the toughest question I ask you, although you may have already answered it. Schmemann wrote a number of important books in his lifetime, and I, unfortunately, haven’t read nearly as much of him as I’d like to, but if you were on a desert island with only one of his books, which one would you choose?
PT: The Eucharist. It’s not even a debate. I love his books. I get a little weary of hearing all of the excitement and accolades thatFor the Life of the Worldto the detriment of The Eucharist: The Sacrament of the Kingdombecause that is the purest liturgical theology that he offers. So if I had to take just one, I’d take The Eucharist, but obviously, I’d probably try to smuggle all his books on the island if I could.
WW: That’s right. So, what do you see as problematic about modern treatments about Schmemann and how do you seek to rectify this in your volume?
PT: That’s a big question. The whole thing started for me when I read a two-part essay that was published in The Journal of Worshipin 2006 and 2007 by a Lutheran scholar. He was trying to delineate the various camps of liturgical theology. He saw Schmemann as the head or primary figure of one school. I liked that but then this theologian went on to argue over the course of the two essays that that was the wrong school and the future of liturgical theology was probably in a different direction. I remember reading that, I have several copies of the essays, I was underlining them very angrily and making copious notes in there and arguing and arguing and arguing until I finally realized, “Hey, maybe I should turn this into a dissertation” and then “Hey, maybe this should become a volume and we should tackle some of these head on.” So some of the biggest claims about Schmemann are the claims that he wasn’t perhaps the most historically accurate or responsible when it came to liturgical texts. Eugene Schlesinger has written an essay in the volume trying to deal with that main question but from a different perspective. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water and saying, “Oh well, Schmemann still thinks that Hippolytus is the author of The Apostolic Traditions and so he’s got to be wrong.” No! We’ve just got to read Schmemann in his context which was 50 years earlier than where we are now and there have been a ton of developments in historical-critical research. So was he wrong on some things, like his research? Yes. But can we fault him for that? Not really, I don’t think you should. That’s one main issue I wanted to deal with.
Another one was just trying to get his work in the hands and minds of very ecumenical scholars outside of the Orthodox Church, outside the usual suspects of the Roman Catholic Church and even Anglicans, trying to get him in the hands of Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, and you name it, to see what it would look like for Schmemann’s liturgical theology to rub shoulders with the Free Church tradition. So, Todd Johnson has written an essay to that end. Don Saliers has written an essay basically covering the past 50 years of liturgical theology, of which he has firsthand experience and knowledge, and be able to say, “This is how Schmemann is being received and recognized within Protestant circles.” I think that’s a huge value that we haven’t really had in print up until now.
WW: Yeah, I thought that was something super impressive about the book was the breadth of traditions that you had engaging with Schmemann. I really enjoyed the essay about Kuyper and Schmemann. I thought was pretty cool to put those streams in conversation with each other. I thought it was interesting.
PT: Yeah, it was a fun project because again, it was right place, right time. Looking back, I don’t think I’d be able to do it again because I was a first year PhD student who was writing all of these scholars saying, “Hey, do you want to contribute to this volume that I’m working on and putting together?” For some reason, they all said, “yes.” I just had a list in my mind and on paper of my dream team and who I would want to participate and 90% of the people on that list said “yes” and those who said “no” it was because of other writing obligations, etc. I really wanted something that was going to be representative who have done work with Schmemann over the past however many years. So Bruce Morrill wrote Anamnesis as Dangerous Memoryand he got to revisit it. Bruce and Don Saliers wrote the little entry in Dwight Vogel’s book Primary Sources of Liturgical Theologyon Schmemann and they got to be part of this. We could move beyond just the Orthodox conferences and symposiums, all very good with fabulous lectures I might add, but we could get some other people involved and I think that’s really what got me excited about the whole thing and now I’ll stop talking about it.
WW: So, help us see how the sausage is made a little bit. For a project like this, do you have to pitch it to the publishers first and then recruit your scholars to be on board with the project or do you recruit your scholars and then use that to pitch it to the publishers?
PT: That is a fabulous question. I’m working on a second volume right now and I have twenty-three scholars signed up for this one. I feel like I have a little more business savvy, if you will, in terms of how to handle it. The first time around, I was flying around in the dark. I was building the plane as I was flying it, praying I wouldn’t crash. For the first few months, everything seemed to be good. I knew that I needed to have this slate of scholars before I could really go forward with the publisher. I was fortunate enough to have a friendship, or at least a budding friendship, with Fr. Chad Hatfield from St. Vladimir’s and also Hans Christoffersen from Liturgical Press and so I had reached out to the two of them about the project. They read my short proposal and invited more work to be put forth. Ultimately, obviously, the project didn’t end up at either of those institutions but that was a helpful bit at the beginning. I really just relied on the quality of the scholars attached to get momentum. The second Bruce Morrill said yes, I slapped his name on everything as I was writing people and said, “Hey I’m working on this volume, but Bruce is attached to it!” And then when it was Bruce and David Fagerberg, I did the same thing and said, “Guys, it’s Bruce and David Fagerberg!” Then the snowball just kept rolling and rolling and rolling. We got to a point when I had pitched the volume with a complete slate of scholars to five or six publishers and every single one of them had said no. They were all for good reasons, marketability was one of them, you know edited volumes don’t really sell that well. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact the contributing editor, myself, was a no-name. I also think St. Vladimir’s obviously loves Fr. Alexander but I think they wanted to give someone else a chance to publish. So, I was very discouraged. I actually threw in the towel; I wrote to all the contributors to the volume and said, “Guys, I’m out. I think I’ve hit a brick wall here. I love this idea, maybe we’ll pick it up at another time a few years down the road but I can’t do this, I’m out.” That was where I was for about four, five, maybe six months. Then randomly, four or five of the contributors all wrote me independently within a week or two period and they all said the exact same thing: “Have you tried Pickwick? Wipf and Stock is a great publishing house, Pickwick is their academic imprint, have you tried them?” And I wrote to all them, “No, I haven’t tried them, but guys I’m done.” But every time I got a new enquiry about Pickwick, it got harder and harder to ignore until finally, I responded to Todd Johnson and said, “Okay, if you think this is where we should go, then if you could kindly provide me the introduction to the powers that be, as it were, then I would have the conversation.” Then I think it was a week or two later that we had the contract in hand. I just needed to set it down for a while and get my head straight, get my head clear, and then pick it back up with a fresh set of eyes and a fresh excitement. Then by that point, it was all academic. The contributors had a year to write their essays and send them to me. I edited all of their words, I wrote my own, put them all together, read the book three or four times through, and then it’s sitting in people’s hands or sitting on their bookshelves now. That’s a really long and rambling way to say, “that’s how the sausage is made.” I just hope I can make the sausage better next time, at least more efficiently.
WW: That’s a great story though. It’s sort of a eucatastrophe.
WW: So, you say in your introduction that one of your goals is to expose Evangelicals and low-liturgical Christians to Schmemann. I think that’s a cool goal. My background is that I went to Liberty University for both my undergraduate and Master of Divinity and I even remember using Schmemann’s Introduction to Liturgical Theologyin a paper on the book of Acts that I had done a few years ago and it not being very well received by the professor of the class. So, in your experience, how does that audience react when they first encounter someone like Schmemann?
PT: So, my experience is that they are fine as long as you’re quoting For the Life of the World. Everybody gets excited about it; it is everybody’s jam, if you will. That’s what everybody quotes. But the second you move into Eucharistor Introductionor Of Water and the Spirit, which is his book on Baptism, chrismation, churching of women, etc., then people start putting up, at least in my experience, Evangelicals start putting up the walls of, “That’s just school theology. That’s just a different denomination. That doesn’t have anything to do with us. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s antiquated. He’s fill in the blank.” What my goal has been, and I’m borrowing from Fagerberg, because, when in doubt, borrow from Fagerberg, my goal is if we see the corpus of his writing as a house, For the Life of the Worldis really just the entryway into it. Don’t treat it, in my opinion, as the climax or pinnacle of his writing, treat it as the intro. Treat it as the Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trailsort of thing where you’re being immersed into a different, older, bigger world and get out of the entryway pretty quick and go see the rest of the house because that’s where the riches really are. As I was working on the introduction, Karen B. Westerfield-Tucker, who endorsed the book, had a note when she responded to me after reading the intro and basically asked me if I was okay differentiating between high church and low church or high liturgy and low liturgy because it can across a little negative or pejorative. I said to her, and I put a footnote in the book to give her credit as well because it helped clarify my thinking, I’m not using terms like “Evangelical” or “low church” or “low liturgy” in a negative sense whatsoever. It is more trying to recognize that all churches are liturgical one way or another. I hope that this volume can invite those who are part of churches where perhaps that liturgy is a lower into a deeper experience and conversation, if that makes sense.
WW: Absolutely! It’s a noble goal, I think, and done well throughout the book, especially in the way you do give a voice to those traditions in their engagement with Schmemann instead of speaking down to them, which could be how some of the works about Schmemann are perceived by that particular audience. So, you have a number of awesome contributors. I was wondering if any of them, in particular, were surprising to you or taught you the most?
PT: [silence] Man, I had to think about that because I have read each of those essays five or six times. Part of it was just for pure personal excitement and curiosity and obviously part of it was for editing. I knew from the beginning of the book, the vision in my head, I knew that I had to have Bruce Morrill and David Fagerberg participating. When they both said yes, you could have picked me up off the floor, it was so surreal. Especially to have Dr. Fagerberg on board because he is my living link to Aidan Kavanagh and Alexander Schmemann. He is the guy who has taught me more in his writing than any other living scholar outside of perhaps Tom Wright, I think that’s just natural.
Now, from the actual essay standpoint, outside of Bruce and David Fagerberg, because their essays were fabulous, I was most excited about the essay that Kimberly Belcher from Notre Dame, the one that she provided about Sabbath and liturgical time because I thought she nailed it. She took a topic that’s not very accessible and just hit it out of the park. I was overwhelmed by Tim O’Malley’s essay on the sacrament of marriage and the connection between East and West. I was really excited about that. He introduced me to scholars I had not been reading at that point. If I had to pick one other just to round it out, honestly, Gene Schlesinger’s essay was a gift and I’ll say this on the record: I pitched the essay to him because I needed it for my dissertation research. It was a whole that needed to be filled and I couldn’t do it myself and I knew that he could and do a fabulous job with it and he exceeded expectations on it. He provides a lens for interacting with Schmemann’s liturgical theology that has been missing for a great number of years. But again, I kept telling people, there isn’t a bad essay in the entire lot. It flows together. I guess I can be biased because I didn’t have anything to do with it except ask people to contribute. The tone of voice, the quality of the research, and the engagement with Schmemann, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It flows better than I could ever wished or dreamed.
WW: Well you heard it here first: if you’re a PhD student or you want to be a PhD student and you hit a wall with your research, publish a book that’s a collection of essays on your subject and have someone write the essay that you need, and there you go!
PT: I mean it’s foolproof. Surely it will happen for everybody. I don’t even know if I told Gene that but now he’ll know.
WW: I love that. So, to familiarize our listeners with the book, and given that there are a lot of moving parts here with the various essays and different contributors, I thought we could just go section by section through the book and you could give us an elevator synopsis of each one and what’s going in those various sections. There are four sections in the book. The first one is “Schmemann in context.” What’s going on there?
PT: Well, I knew that to deal with Fr. Alexander, we were going to have to do it in his context. You cannot avoid the fact that he is somebody who was coming from the East by way of Paris where he is rubbing shoulders with those great theologians engaged in ressourcementand he carried some of that with him. We can’t miss that. Having Gene do that essay was extremely important. I was also really blessed to have Will Mills and Dr. Meyendorff contribute essays which they had already published elsewhere that provide great context. 20-22 pages on the background of For the Life of the Worldis priceless in my opinion because people have read the book but very few realize that it was an ecumenical gathering of college students with 3,000 who were there hearing Fr. Alexander speak and teach and talk about liturgy, not just liturgy on a Sunday but what the Passion and liturgy of Christ means for the world. So, I knew that had to be there. Dr. Meyendorff’s essay engages with some of the challenges that Fr. Alexander experienced in his work at St. Vladimir’s but also in the earliest days of the Orthodox Church in America where he’s trying to get people not to do private baptisms anymore, where he’s trying to increase the joy and participation in the Eucharist on a Sunday. It was a huge blessing to have that in there because you can’t separate the priest from the scholar and I think sometimes we miss that. So, that was my goal for the first section.
WW: That’s awesome. So in the second section, you go on to talk Schmemann and ecumenism. What’s that about?
PT: I knew some of the essays weren’t going to fit neatly or nicely into prepackaged boxes. So, I thought we have enough people in this volume coming from different angles. Why not just let them do it from their own tradition and just see where it ends up. So, John Witvliet’s essay on Schmemann among the Kuyperians, I was stunned when I read it. I didn’t cast much vision for that essay when we first started talking about it. He just came up with it and ran with it and nailed it. So I really wanted to be able to say, “Here are the various non-Orthodox, non-Catholic corners of the Christian tradition as they are engaging with Schmemann’s liturgical theology and let’s just see what happens.” So that, Todd Johnson, Don Saliers, I just wanted to see what it would be like if you put Schmemann next to another tradition and just let them sit there for a while.
WW: So, you have which traditions engaging him? There’s a Kuyperian stream of Reformed theology, there’s Free Church, and then is there one or two more?
PT: There are. I really just wanted to see what people could come up with in a way that would really honor Fr. Alexander’s work but not just echo it or parrot it but take it in another direction. The other essay in that section is Don Saliers His essay is fabulous because it is the link between where we are right now and where things were when Introduction to Liturgical Theologywas first published in the 60s. That is a vast history and Dr. Saliers has been there for all of it. So, being able to say, “this is how it’s being received in the Protestant community still” is priceless.
WW: The next section, Part 3: Schmemann and Liturgical Theology, has one or two more essays than the other sections. It felt a little meatier and you contributed your essay in this section. So, what are some of the highlights there?
PT: I really knew from the beginning that this section, for me at least, was going to be the main course, if you will. It’s not that the other sections are any less important but you can’t talk about Schmemann without talking about his liturgical theology. I wanted to make sure we had four or five essays engaging it and that’s what we ended up with. Joyce Zimmerman, with her essay on Schmemann’s pastoral liturgical theology, was a fabulous way to argue what I’ve been saying in this conversation that you cannot separate the priest from the scholar, you cannot separate the liturgical theologian from the liturgical worshipper. She was able to capture, with her own unique giftedness, what it would look like or mean for us to read Schmemann as the proto-presbyter that he was and the professor of liturgical theology.
Outside of that essay, you just give Fagerberg free reign. I wrote to him and told him he could write whatever he wants, and he did it. This idea of liturgy bursting forth into the world, I think he used as he wrote his next book which came out while this book was in production, Liturgy after Liturgy, it’s all about what does it look like for Schmemann’s liturgical theology to move beyond a Sunday morning, and not just Schmemann, it’s all of Christian worship, the actual mission of God, the liturgy of Christ in the world. It has so much more meaning than “here are the things we do for 90 minutes on a Sunday morning.” I think that’s really the heart of what Fr. Alexander was writing about and probably would have been able to write about had he not died so early.
My essay was birthed out of a paper that I wrote at Fuller. I had a million topics in my mind but I really wanted to hone in on the cosmic scope of the Eucharist because that is a key component to Schmemann’s liturgical theology and the use of the liturgical coefficient is something that, outside of Gordon Lathrop, I haven’t seen referenced by anybody and I think that’s why we misread Schmemann so often. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read a book, or a paragraph, or essay where the author assumes they know what Schmemann is saying when they’ve missed the point completely. I know that sounds super arrogant for a fourth year PhD student to say but I think it’s the definitive characteristic of what he was working on. I just worked through the 79 Prayer Book liturgy of the Eucharist and try to expound on that where I can.
After that, Dwight Vogel came up with this idea of talking about feasts and what it means to participate in the mystery. I felt like it was a perfect companion for Joyce Zimmerman’s essay and that’s why they’re in the same section, being able to look at liturgical participation and what that means. Obviously, given the fact that he compiled the primary sources reader for liturgical theology, I couldn’t think of anybody better for this section.
And then Dr. Kimberley Belcher from Notre Dame on the liturgy of time and sabbath. Liturgy of time is a massive component of Schmemann’s liturgical theology. If you look at his Introduction to Liturgical Theology, everything has to be tied with the Eucharist because there can be no liturgical theology or Christian worship apart from the centrality of the Eucharist. But after that, you start moving into the liturgy of time. You start moving into the daily office, the Church calendar, so Kimberley Belcher’s move to put that into conversation with Jewish prayers and liturgy was something I did not see coming and it overwhelmed me to be able to have that kind of depth. It wasn’t just that we were going be moving forward as a field with Schmemann’s research but also moving backwards historically and showing how it all works and makes sense. I wanted to have a section that was purely meat and potatoes of what Fr. Alexander was all about.
WW: The book closes out on a discussion of Schmemann and sacramental theology. For the layperson who is listening who may not understand the difference, how would you distinguish between liturgical and sacramental theology?
PT: How much time do we have? [laughs] I’m laughing because, as I was putting together the sections, Bruce Morril gave an address somewhere and he talked about “liturgical-sacramental theology” and those two being joined together. I really prefer that as an overall structure but that would have given me one really big section at the end with 8 essays and that didn’t work so I had to separate it somehow. So I thought the section on liturgical theology is dealing with concrete liturgy and liturgical celebrations but the section on sacramental theology is dealing specifically with the sacramental nature of worship. So, for Tim O’Malley’s essay, it’s obvious because it’s the sacrament of marriage. For Steve Guthrie and Bruce Morrill’s essays, it was a little bit harder to figure out how I was going to fit them in there but I think at the end of the day the idea that the liturgical is political is very much part of this concept of being a walking sacrament, of no longer having this distinction between sacred and secular or holy and profane, I think that’s what I was seeing as being the underpinnings to what Bruce Morrill was up to and the political aspect is what puts it in the sacramental category instead of the liturgical theology category. Honestly, it probably could have been its own section. Then Steve Guthrie’s essay to close it out was a really solid way to do it because sacramental imagination is something everybody can get on board with. Steve Guthrie isn’t Catholic, Orthodox, or Lutheran. He’s somebody who speaks the language of the Evangelical Protestant community and he’s able to hit on a phrase [“sacramental imagination”] that I think we all have, even if it’s taken for granted in more liturgical or traditional corners of Christianity. So, I thought to have him close out the entire volume was something everybody could be on board with, framing it in a way that says now we can move forward into doing more of this. I didn’t want this volume to be the end after his essay. I wanted it to be more of an invitation for us to see what other avenues we can explore together.
WW: Thank you so much for being with us today, Father!
PT: Thank you for having me! It’s been a blessing!