The Iconostasis


A recent email suggested to me that I might write about the iconostasis (the icon screen) found in Orthodox Churches. Some Protestants in particular have problems with it, feeling on the one hand that they are “shut out” of the liturgy to some extent or that Orthodox practice is restoring the “curtain of the Temple” that Christ’s crucifixion rent in two.  Those are not surprising thoughts and are worth some comment.

I have to say up front that some Orthodox Churches have a much larger iconostasis than others, and some have a very minimalist iconostasis that essentially obscures nothing. Orthodoxy, as a dogmatic matter, has no demands in either direction. So what we are discussing here is what you will simply find in many Orthodox Churches (doors and curtains and a very substantial Icon Screen) but not necessarily in every Orthodox Church. Thus I am discussing a very common practice, but not a dogma of the Church. And that’s a very important distinction to make when thinking of Orthodoxy.

The development of the “icon screen” in Orthodoxy is itself the story of an evolution. I might add, that one of the earliest written descriptions of such a use of icons is found, in of all places, Britain, where the Ven. Bede mentions the erection of something like an icon screen by Benedict Biscop. This would have been in the 7th century or so. In the West, the Rood Screen (which exists in very few places at all today) came to serve a purpose somewhat similar to the iconostasis in the East.

As my Archbishop says (and I agree), some things existed in Orthodoxy and disappeared for good reasons, while other things developed and came about for good reason. Orthodoxy is alive and does change (not dogmatically) while, we would say, remaining the same.

Having said all that (whew!) I turn to some preliminary thoughts. And they are not first about icons exactly. My first thought is the memory of an Anglican parishioner I had some 25 years or more ago who objected when I placed a very “Spanish” crucifix over the rear doors of the Church (the exit). A family had brought it back from South America. Like most Spanish crucifixes, it left little to the imagination.

This parishioner was deeply upset by my action and attacked the very idea of having a crucifix in the Church, arguing that “Christ is risen and not on the Cross! I do not want my children exposed to such a hideous thing!” I left the crucifix in its place and she never attacked me again (long story).

But she was wrong theologically. To depict Christ on the Cross (as in a crucifix) is no different than to preach: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” What was going on in that particular woman’s mind was something she had been told (incorrectly) about Roman Catholicism and was reacting from incorrect theological information.

In the same manner, to see an iconostasis in an Orthodox Church, and assume that it exists in order to separate people from God is to seriously misread the meaning of the screen and the nature of Orthodox iconography.

The icon screen grew historically and has certainly changed its function over time. Orthodox explanations of the iconostasis have also evolved with that development. The thoughts I offer here are not a dogmatic explanation of the iconostasis (it’s not a matter of dogma) but are common in Orthodox thought.

In some pious commentaries on Orthodox services, the gates of the icon screen are compared to the gates of paradise and their opening and closing to specific actions and moments in salvation history. Thus, the closing of the gates early in the service of Great Vespers is compared to the shutting of paradise to Adam and the priest standing before the gates praying represents our repentance before God.

Such explanations are just what I have termed them, pious explanations. But they are not “incorrect” for being pious explanations. They are ways to think of the actions that are taking place. (Incidentally I could think of nothing deadlier than attending a service and meditating on when a certain practice developed, etc. – that’s not worship – it’s misplaced academics).

Most especially in the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), the doors can have a very profound meaning (as well as the curtain if one is used). But never are they used to “shut us off from God.” They are used to heighten the sense of drama in the Liturgy and to mark certain moments as particularly “holy” if you will. But the end of the “drama” comes with the curtain and doors opening and the gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood being brought forth to the people! Nothing could be more in harmony with the gospel.

Indeed, this liturgical action is a reminder of the nature of our salvation. It is a gift that is given to us, not a right, nor property common to us all. The action of the Holy Gifts being “brought out” to us is very much in keeping with the Gospel itself.

To be more blunt, we in America have imported our sense of “democracy” into our liturgical sensibilities. We believe that nothing should be secret, nothing hidden, nothing marked off as set apart. We are a nation that witnesses people on Jerry Springer saying things that should only be said in confession. We have no shame.

What remains in Orthodox liturgy (and was once present in Roman Liturgies and even some forms of Anglican liturgies) is a deep sense of the Holy. The movement from Old Testament to New Testament has not democratized worship or destroyed the need for priests (Protestants are quick to speak of the “priesthood of all believers” but end up with no priesthood of any believers). Protestant reform movements that utterly destroyed Rood Screens and the architecture of medieval worship succeeded in a drive to declare that “all things are holy.” But just as the Puritan abolition of Christmas did not succeed in making everyday as holy as that day, such iconoclastic actions succeeded only in creating a secular world where nothing is holy and no day a holy day. Here I highly recommend Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars for an amazing look at the actual details of the Reformation in England.

Our nation very likely needs icon screens or things that function in a way to help us know that the One whom we worship is holy. Knowing that, we know much more fully that the Holy One has condescended to our humanity and gives Himself to us in His humility. The loss of such distinctions has created the growing absence of reverence and even worship itself in our churches. The iconostasis does not separate us from God – it may very well be one of the few teaching tools that allow us to be united to Him.

There is so much more to be said on this subject – but this seems enough for one posting.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





22 responses to “The Iconostasis”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is of the iconostasis as well as a few other things – including a crowd of worshippers at St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas, TX. They are being addressed by His Eminence, DMITRI, Archbishop of Dallas and the South (OCA).

  2. EYTYXOΣ Avatar

    Hugh Wybrew, in his book THE ORTHODOX LITURGY: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, writes:

    “It was only in the fourteenth century that the sanctuary came to be completely shut off from the sight of the congregation by a solid screen…. The effect of this development was to complete the process by which the people were cut off both from hearing the central prayers and seeing the central actions of the Liturgy. These became the exclusive preserve of the clergy, who alone by virtue of their ordination could hear, see and touch the mysteries which were too holy for the laity to approach, and which they only rarely received in communion.” (pp. 147-148)

    Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his book THE EUCHARIST, writes:

    “Another aspect of this same tragedy is the gradual degeneration first of the form and then of the meaning of the iconostasis. From an ordo, a ‘framework’ or harmonic system of icons, which naturally required a standing support (stasis), it was transformed into a wall adorned with icons — in other words, the opposite of its original function. At first the icons demanded a wall form, but now the wall demands the icons, and in this manner inherently subordinates them to itself…. We must point out here that this new attitude toward the sanctuary and toward the iconostasis as entailing a division is also false in that it obviously contradicts the Church’s liturgical tradition itself. This tradition knows only the consecration of a temple and an altar table, and does not know any consecration of a sanctuary separate from the nave. Like the altar table, the entire temple is anointed with the holy chrism; the *whole* church is thus ‘sealed’ as a sanctuary, a holy place.” (pp. 21-22)

  3. Jason Avatar

    A thoughtful blogger wrote these words concerning the iconostasis that I found very helpful:

    “This was my mom’s big question the first time that she visited the Cathedral where I became Orthodox, and it is a good, valid, point about something very important to the Orthodox way of thinking about faith and worship: symbolism.

    Note that the curtain was torn in two, it was not torn down. The iconostasis represents just this. The Holy Doors are this opening through which God comes out to us, and not just where the High Priest goes in on our behalf. Christ comes out to us, now, through the Holy Doors in the Gospel which the priest reads there and in the Eucharist that we receive at or immediately in front of the Holy Doors. So, the benefits of the cross – which traditionally always tops the iconostasis over the Holy Doors – are plain for all to see as the Byzantine Rite makes quite a show of both the Gospel and the Holy Gifts (both before and after their consecration). The consecrated gifts are also not normally ‘kept’ behind the altar but are brought out for the purpose for which they were consecrated: for eating and drinking. At the end of a Liturgy, all that remains is fully consumed by the deacon(s) or the bishop or priest who served without a deacon. The Gifts are not reserved as is common in the RCC, though there is a small portion of the Lord’s Body and Blood that are usually kept on the altar for emergencies.

    The Temple worship was not fully abrogated, but Christianized. The Holy of Holies (now open) is now where all those with need to serve are allowed (bishops, priests, servers, etc.) and the Holy Place is now the nave which is the proper place for all baptized Orthodox Christians since they are all now, properly, priests.

    The iconostasis, from a historical POV, is also simply an elaborate altar rail, which is common in the Western Church. I never went up onto the altar unless I had a particular need to do so – just like in the Orthodox Church. The icon’s are not intended to separate the faithful from the clergy – though some/many might mistakenly treat it in such a way, seriously or jokingly. These icons are meant to help us ‘see’ what our sinful eyes are not able to see: heaven. The Divine Services are shadows of the heavenly worship we catch glimpses of in OT prophecies and in Revelations, and yet we materialist sinners see a simple priest, fidgety altar servers and a dowdy church. We do not see Christ offering and being offered, so we have icons of Christ on the iconostasis. We do not see the Mother of God interceding with her Son on our behalf, so we have her on the iconostasis. We do not see the angels ministering to Christ and praising God along with all of the saints, so we have icons of the angels and the saints. These icons help us to see what our sins keep us from seeing, what we refuse to see because we prefer our sin, our material life. Similarly, the consecration normally happens behind a closed iconostasis to help us to mystically see what we are too sinful to actually see – the coming down of the Holy Spirit on the gifts (and us). The priests commune in the same way so that we can better ‘see’ that when they emerge to commune us that it is not Fr. X, but Christ Himself who gives Himself to us.

    Normally, the priest is reads the Gospel though a deacon or a layman may read the Epistle. If a priest is not present, the Gospel portions of the various services are read by the most senior person present by ordination (deacon, subdeacon, reader, and then laymen by age, then laywomen by age I would presume.) These are called Reader’s Services and are often performed in situations where no priest is available – for instance, in convents, monasteries without a priest or when the priest is absent; these were the common services the Native Alaskans served since they did not always have priests in their remote villages. All Christians are encouraged to read the Scriptures at home, though.”

  4. […] Fr. Stephen hits one out of the park. To be more blunt, we in America have imported our sense of “democracy” into our liturgical sensibilities. We believe that nothing should be secret, nothing hidden, nothing marked off as set apart. We are a nation that witnesses people on Jerry Springer saying things that should only be said in confession. We have no shame. […]

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I was fairly careful in writing to note that there is a variety of ways Orthodox speak and even debate the iconostasis. I also cited my Archbishop’s opinion on “developments” some being for good reasons.

    I hold the memory of Fr. Schmemann in great esteem, but think there is more to be said of the Iconostasis than that it is a deformation of the Tradition, and would cite others if I was trying to make an argument. But we continue to build churches complete with considerable iconostases. They do not seem to be necessarily disappearing anytime soon.

    They are a matter for discussion – but they are not wrong nor a devolution of the Tradition in my opinion.

    I am fairly leery of liturgical scholarship itself and will feel more secure if an idea lasts longer than a generation and bears good fruit. A whole lot of the stuff in Western liturgical renewal turned out to be built on faulty assumptions and has yielded a bumper crop of bad fruit.

    We’re Orthodox. Let’s take it slow and see what happens.

  6. Jason Avatar

    Here are some words from my parish priest (a very gracious and bright individual) when I asked him about my Non-Orthodox friend’s objection to the iconostasis that it sends a message of separation or muting of the gospel rather than openingly proclaiming all the benefits accomplished by Christ and His cross.

    “…As you know, Jason, in our parish we don’t even HAVE a curtain. There are churches in our diocese (St. Paul’s in Dayton, for example) which have a new, original orthodox-designed building and don’t even have an iconostasis at all. Russian Old Believers were somewhat like that too, I believe. Certainly, church plants and missions often serve in settings where the iconostasis is minimal or entirely absent. The reason it is most often restored when means allow it is that, for most people adjusted to the worship, it reminds us that “the benefits of Christ and his Salvation” as your friend puts it, though utterly fulfilled in Christ, are manifest to us in a highly controlled, sacramental, prophetic, apocalyptic setting: “in the breaking of the bread”, and not simply because the fact of his salvation is henceforth absorbed indistinguishably into the fabric of the mundane reality in which we live. (Which of course is not what your friend is saying, but that is the extreme…. just witness current inversions of thinking about ‘closed communion’, where in some sacramental churches, Episcopal and Lutheran, the Eucharist has become the sacrament of inclusion and welcome, of initiation, essentially…. and Baptism is reserved for when those people finally decide to get serious. In the context of that kind of thinking, it is perhaps understandable that the orthodox cling somewhat nervously to the implications of our church space, and how and what it delineates).

    Your friend is probably right in saying that the issue is perhaps not so much Clericalism; On reflection I would suggest the issue is more likely Apocalyptic… how is the end-time, the fulfillment of the Gospel, manifest in our midst? To say that this occurs when the Baptized enter the upper room and pray for the coming of the Kingdom is a reasonable way to envision it, and that vision certainly does not require screens and fabrics. The question simply becomes whether further nuances…. Eucharistic discipline, iconostases, curtains, notions of liturgical time, and so on… accentuate or contradict that fundamental sacramental, apocalyptic impulse. The Kingdom that is indubitably Come is one for whose coming we nevertheless are taught to pray daily. It only comes when we ascend to its coming, when we use everything at our disposal to rise to, and demarcate, its coming. Ultimately, we live in Godly fear and anticipation and, penitentially, dread of its unequivocal, final coming.

    Archbishop Job, our Archbishop, likes curtains, and had mixed feelings about our parish church’s losing ours when we remodeled the wall between nave and altar area, but he blessed it, as part of the diversity of mind on the subject I suppose. So it is common in Orthodox churches today to have wide doors, balancing the iconostasis’ function to both reveal and conceal, (we will talk about why later), but it is also common to find churches where the iconostasis is very impenetrable except when, by use of doors and curtain, it chooses not to be.

    Here is an excerpt from the Russian Typikon on how the curtain was to be used in liturgy:

    Here is a literal translation of chapter 23 of the Typikon:
    About the curtain of the holy altar, when it is opened and when it is closed
    The curtain is opened at the beginning of Vespers, and stays open even up to the Dismissal. At Matins likewise, from the beginning to the end. At the Hours, when read apart from Liturgy, it is opened for the Apostolic reading and stays open until the dismissal.(1) At the Dismissal it is indeed closed. At the beginning of Liturgy, though, the curtain is opened, and it stays opened all the way to the Great Entrance. After the entrance, though, it is again closed, until the Priest, or Deacon, exclaims: “The Doors! The Doors! In wisdom let us attend!”. Then it is opened, and it stays opened until the cry: “Holy Things are for the Holy!” Then it is closed again. After the Communion(2) it is again opened, and it stays opened until the end of the Holy Liturgy. After the Dismissal of the l liturgy, though it is closed for good. When a Molieben is sung, the curtain remains open from beginning to end.

    That should give you some flavor of 19th century Russian worship, at very least.

    Here is the claim of the Bishop who included this in part of an encyclical to his priests in an OCA diocese in the last decade or so:

    For example, we surely do not accept the heterodox claim that the iconostasis is a barrier to anything.(6) On the contrary we teach that the icons on the iconostasis, including those on its doors, open Reality to us, open Heaven to us, and do not separate us from anything but join us more intimately to what is behind them, whether it is the Kingdom of Heaven or the Holy Altar of our Temple, where not only our clergy, but the Angels and Saints are serving. To abolish the iconostasis or make it of no substance is to, in fact, put dark glasses or even blinders on the eyes of the Faithful. Not having an Iconostasis makes the Holy Actions LESS accessible and LESS subject to the participation of the Faithful, not more so.

    The above claims about the effect of the iconostasis are reasonable, but they depend on someone “getting it” subjectively, on personal experience, and they are obviously debatable.

    Your friend’s assumptions about the division of holy space are worth examining. I am confident there would be more than a few Orthodox lay people whose tacit assumptions about what was going on were more or less the same as your friends. Namely, that the Laity are sort of in a space that is profane, and the iconostasis separates them from what is considered Holy, the place where “the benefits of Christ and his salvation are held out of reach”.

    So it is worth remembering that pragmatic divisions of space acquired a theology, attracted a theology, after the fact sometimes…. and that most of the thinking around screens and things dates from the mystical interpreters of the liturgy after the sixth century… who left an influence but did not fundamentally altar the shape of the liturgy. What is significant in their view is that the imagery was not simply temple- based. This is consistent with history, where it is in fact the synagogue, not the temple, that shapes early Christian worship space. To this day the Torah is kept in an alcove behind a curtain, and his carried in procession and kissed, in synagogue worship, and clearly there was a resonance for early Jewish Christians about the Word and the Law, here. It should also be remembered, even where the temple is concerned, what the last words of Luke’s Gospel, describing the church after the death, resurrection and ascension, are: “and the disciples continued in the temple, worshipping and praising God”. Nothing that Jesus had taught them had told the disciples that their faith in Him was incongruous with the temple.. all those nuances were historically evolved, and we should not be surprised that Jewish worship played such a defining role in their evolution.

    One of the prominent mystical commentators of the era was Germanos. Even for him, so distanced from Apostolic worship, the nave of the church is already of the Kingdom.. this Kingdom, Salvation element is not the altar’s prerogative. Certainly when we cry “the doors, the doors”, we are referring to the doors to the nave, NEVER to the doors on the iconostasis… for, as sacramental worship was beginning, the church was sealed. (I understand… but I cannot vouch for the historicity of this.. that this dates from the era of worship under persecution).

    According to Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople, a Confessor of Orthodoxy during the iconoclastic controversies (7th-8th Centuries), the church is the earthly heaven where God, Who is above heaven, dwells and abides, and it is more glorious than the [Old Testament] tabernacle of witness. It is foreshadowed in the Patriarchs, is based on the Apostles…, it is foretold by the Prophets, adorned by the Hierarchs, sanctified by the Martyrs, and its high Altar stands firmly founded on their holy remains…. Thus, according to St. Simeon the New Theologian, the [Vestibule] corresponds to earth, the [Nave] to heaven, and the holy [Altar] to what is above heaven [Book on the House of God, Ch. 12].

    This is consistent with early Christian penitential practice, when temporarily excommunicate penitents kneeled in the Vestibule, the world…. until they were restored to communion.

    So, in all this context, there are good reasons for your friend’s impression that “by “putting up the curtain” again, it seems – to us – to convey the subtle message that the benefits won for us by the Lamb of God, sacrificed on the altar (cross) are somehow kept “inside”. But simple candor about our own experience of the liturgy requires us to assert that that is almost a prerequisite for what in fact takes place if we stick with the impression. Namely, that whilst the transcendence of the Kingdom and the extra-historical nature of the sacramental moment (the ‘eighth day’ of the prophets and the liturgy), are insisted upon in the architecture of our worship, the fact remains that the very “otherness” that all that altar, screen and curtain represent, is an otherness that ultimately, deliberately, still gets to be heard, chewed, swallowed and to “enter into my members, my veins, my heart” as the prayer says, and indicates that the “Otherness” of the altar as perceived by the Orthodox worshipper simply heightens the Kingdom nature of what ends up in their blood vessels in the most integral and intimate sacramental and physical way.

    It is really the return to early Christian communion practice that has lead many in our generation to modify the perceived barrier of the Icon screen and curtain… simply in proportion with our renewal of an earlier devout practice of communion. But in general, the sense has been that to loose the features completely would actually undermine that goal.

    My counter critique has always been something that has disturbed me by the pretty thorough-going campaign in western sacramental settings, to “turn the priest around” and to pull the altar table away from the wall. (Not an orthodox problem as it was never against the wall, but our orientation of course remains the same). In my liturgical habit, what I sense is implicit in that evolution is that the place of the priest as a member of the congregation is suddenly erased, as he becomes exclusively a Christ figure opposite the church; that the congregation, which was once assembled as a body of standing priests, is now seated as an audience, and therefore understandable “wants to see what is going on”…. because they no longer understand themselves as participating in the offering on the same terms as the celebrant. Rather as spectators to a meal, much like a cooking show, whose results they will be entitled to come up and eat. Now this reaction of course is provoked by my subjective experience in a particular ritual culture, it is not a serious critique. But if there are concerns about mucking up the way we have access to, and perceive, the benefits of the Altar and of Christ’s cross, I would say we have much greater grounds for concern in this case, than in the case of an iconostasis and curtain. And of course, pews and spectator mentality (any modern Greek American churches are actually raked) has made very daunting inroads into American Orthodox worship space…”

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Here’s one of the problems with an historical/reform approach to Church architecture and liturgy.

    It’s one thing to talk about how Christians in a monarchy saw the liturgy and another thing to think about how Christians in a boundariless democracy see liturgy. Orthodoxy is not protestantism. We do not have an ideal century to which we should seek to reform. We have the living faith, now. How do we best present that faith in the present context so that it is saving and vivifying.

    My experience, here in the South, is that the iconostasis has been a positive good in the proclamation of the gospel and not a liability. What might have happened in the 14th century really isn’t the issue. We’re not in the 14th century.

    Again, some of the assumptions of the liturgical movement, which Fr. Schmemann was certainly part of, were perhaps not as salutary as was thought at the time. The movement has had far more impact within Rome and Anglicanism – to a disastrous effect. Thus, as an Orthodox Christian, I’m going slow. We have a number of Churches with little or no iconostasis. I’ll be interested in seeing how things develop in those situations and how we share that with each other. We have time to talk and no need to argue. It’s never about an argument but about Christ. So we wait a little.

  8. Steve Avatar

    I used to help with the audio/visual element at a small Bible church we used to attend when I was in Dallas. I remember in the meetings we would strive to have nothing go wrong, so people wouldn’t focus on the speakers, or the microphone, or the powerpoint slides with words on them. They can ponder the music and the lyrics and they can hear the preacher.

    This to me seems like an iconostatis of sorts, in that it screens out the distracting stuff, and allows one to focus on worship (or at least that is the intent).

    There are a lot of things that go on behind the iconostasis during Divine Liturgy. Not all of them are important in themselves, and most of them would be distractiing. An iconostasis can sometimes allow those of us on the other side of it to focus on what we need to communally be focusing on: preparing ourselves to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.

  9. Jim N. Avatar
    Jim N.


    Outstanding article. Firm, but not reactionary!


    Forgive me, but as this is Fr. Stephen’s blog, it would be much more polite to simply drop a link to an extended quote rather than quoting entire portions of other people’s blogs in the comments. Just some blogging etiquette, if I may. Forgive me, a sinner.

  10. Mark Avatar

    As a very recent mission plant, we don’t have an iconostasis and probably won’t (until we have a different space to arrange). The icons of the Pantacrator and the Theotokos are on analogia, forming a de facto boundary between the sanctuary and the nave, and they seem to be adequate in our present arrangement.

    Of course, some Orthodox visitors are startled and even put off by the absence of the iconostasis. For them, “seeing too much” is startling and unseemly.

    It’s interesting to compare and contrast an iconostasis like the one at St. John’s in Eagle River, Alaska with the one in the cathedral in Dallas:

    When I first visited there, I was very much caught up in the “liturgical movement.” The openness was very pleasing. Now, I’m not so sure. Both are certainly beautiful and glorify/manifest God.

    I guess I’m less certain of these things than I used to be!

    Incidentally, after I read Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, I was further prompted along the way to the realization that I could not remain a protestant – which made the next seven or eight years extremely turbulent. It’s an important book. Thanks for mentioning it.

  11. EYTYXOΣ Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    Wybrew’s and Schmemann’s books on the development of the Liturgy disturbed me for awhile – i.e., they seemed to counter the claims of the Orthodox Church that it has properly and without change preserved and transmitted the Faith. But like many things that “disturbed” me about Orthodoxy when I, a longtime Evangelical/Charismatic Protestant, began tiptoeing into its waters, the turbulence was only temporary, and the undertow continued to tug at me to where I continued to move in deeper, and I now hope to be received into the Church on Holy Saturday this year.

    And I have no intentions of changing anything about the Church. With God’s grace, the Church will change me.

  12. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I was long in coming to Orthodoxy, for a variety of reasons, but the time it took guaranteed that when I was received I had gotten over any romanticisms about the Church. Orthodoxy has its weaknesses, though, as I’ve written (see my articles on the ecclesiology of the cross) I believe those weaknesses are gifts from God and are inherent to the proper character of the Church.

    When you read Schmemann’s Journals, it’s obvious that his issues ultimately were not liturgical, per se, but a burning desire and vision of the Kingdom of God and he was eager to see anything that impeded that dealt with. He was truly a great man. I think his most lasting contribution to American Orthodoxy (and probably to Orthodoxy worldwide in time) was an increase in the frequency of communion (such that it is common now to received weekly in many Orthodox Churches). Though even this could be abused, I think it an extremely important contribution. There is a paper on the topic that you can find on the OCA website’s pages. I think it’s in the official statement’s section.

    There are other minor reforms which he also was largely responsible for. But as I noted, Orthodoxy is living and these sorts of things are an important sign of its life.

    Your thoughts were much like mine, though, I want the Church to change me, and not the other way around.

  13. […] Part 1 – The Iconostasis […]

  14. Jack Avatar

    “Again, some of the assumptions of the liturgical movement, which Fr. Schmemann was certainly part of, were perhaps not as salutary as was thought at the time.”

    Anybody who has been to a post-Trent, post-VII mass will greatly appreciate the Iconostasis. Saves us from the MC priest performing for us on stage. I agree with the feeling of “unseemliness” in a church without an iconostasis. Liturgical nudity. I like Schmemann’s central vision even if I often strongly shake my head about the particulars.

    “We do not have an ideal century to which we should seek to reform. ”

    Another out of the ballpark. Your batting percentage is looking good, Father.

    “Thus, the closing of the gates early in the service of Great Vespers is compared to the shutting of paradise to Adam and the priest standing before the gates praying represents our repentance before God.”

    Here is one of the places where Schmemann is right even on the details when he talks, somewhat oddly, about “mysterological symbolism” (a less than effective phrase). The liturgy does not take us to some other time in history. It is a visible manifestation of an eternal spiritual reality that is happening here and now. Want to find Noah’s ark. Don’t look on Mount Arat. Get baptized.

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Except that there is a venerable tradition of mysteriological interpretation – St. Maximus indulges in it. It can be a problem, but man’s standing outside the gates of paradise is not a reflection on somewhere in the past – it’s been my present all too often.

    That’s the problem with criticisms of mysteriological interpretation. They are not exactly time traveling. They can be metaphors that assist me to see where I am now – and I think that’s their best use.

  16. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    The pillars of the iconostasis in some of the old churches in Greek have the faces of saints, martyrs and confessors. How appropriate! They are the pillars of the Church. Icons are the windows, reminding us that our family and our God are both here and yet beyond. The icons represent the embodied Word, or in a mystical sense, the Word Incarnate made visible in the lives of His saints. Salvation is not a concept. It is always and only an embodied reality.

  17. Jack Avatar


    No offense, but I think you are repeating what I said, including the essence of my complaint of Father Schmemann’s use of the term “mysteriological.” I don’t like his luke-warm thoughts on Dionysius and Maximus for precisely this point. However, I do like his thoughts on the, shall we say Byzantine, representational-historical “symbolism” of later writers. It is commentary that actually makes liturgy less interesting, as if we were a bunch of civil war re-enactors only with different costumes.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thanks for clarifying that. I indeed agree.

  19. not-son-of-perdition Avatar

    very good, will find out more about.

  20. jOSEF Srebrianski. Avatar

    That was the best explanation of the iconastasis i have ever read. It was clearly explained, And answers all the questions i ever had about this particular subject. Pleased also that you answered the protestant objections to this confusion they have on the iconastasis.

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