Holy Work

The Orthodox Churches, the WCC, and the Upcoming Assembly

Unlike Peter Bouteneff’s articles about Orthodox ecumenism for In Communion, the essay below is meant to act as both an article for broad and non-specialized readership and a media briefing for press who will be attending the WCC Assembly in December 1998. It describes both Orthodoxy and the WCC in basic terms, for people who may know little or nothing of either.

by Peter Bouteneff

There from the Start

In 1920, long before the formation of the World Council of Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate addressed an encyclical “Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere.” This was a call from the senior patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church to all the Christian churches to overcome mistrust and bitterness, and to explore together the fellowship that exists between them even in spite of doctrinal differences. The encyclical called for several practical steps to be taken to bring churches into a closer relationship, including the inauguration of new relationships and exchanges across a broad spectrum of church life. Among these practical suggestions was that a “league” or “fellowship” be set up, following the example of the recently established League of Nations.

The Orthodox were thus a central part of the “ecumenical stirrings” at the beginning of the twentieth century, and helped to encourage the formation and continuation of the movements which would combine forces in 1948 to form the World Council of Churches.

Only seven years after the encyclical, the Orthodox delegation submitted an official statement to the First World Conference on Faith and Order, at Lausanne in 1927. At this inaugural conference of the Faith and Order Commission, the “theological wing” of the ecumenical movement, the Orthodox said that while they came and participated “inspired by a sincere feeling of love and by a desire to achieve an understanding”, they regretfully found that the bases of the official reports were inconsistent with the self-understanding of the Orthodox Church. For this reason, they felt compelled to abstain from voting at the conference.

From the very beginning, then, the Orthodox have had a relationship with modern ecumenism that is characterised by enthusiasm and by discomfort, by encouragement and criticism, by joy and sorrow. To begin to explain this paradox, it may help for me as an Orthodox Christian to introduce who we are.

Who Are the Orthodox?

The word “Orthodox” — which comes from the Greek word for “right belief” or “right glory” — has come to describe two large families of local autocephalous (self-governing) churches,often called “Eastern” and “Oriental”, which see themselves in an unbroken continuity with the early Church established by Christ and his apostles. The two families severed communion with each other in the fifth century over issues that involved a blend of theological, political and cultural factors. (And if full reconciliation is imminent, as we can hope it is, this is in no small part due to what we have learned of each other through our participation in the ecumenical movement.) The “Eastern” Orthodox are historically based in Asia Minor, Greece, Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East; the “Oriental Orthodox” are historically located in Armenia, Asia Minor, the Middle East, India, Egypt and Ethiopia. Yet, particularly with the increase in the movement of peoples in the past century, the Orthodox presence is felt worldwide, with significant communities and thriving missions on all five continents.

The ancient beginnings of the Orthodox Church are important to us, and not only because they are ancient. We Orthodox believe in a continuity of faith, of teaching, and of community which has existed from the establishment of the Christian Church, and we believe furthermore that this continuity is tangible and locatable. When we confess in the Nicene Creed our belief in “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” we see ourselves as that Church. It isn’t that we limit all truth, all church reality, or all activity of the Holy Spirit, to the Orthodox Church. But we do believe that the historical splits, because of which world Christianity is now so visibly divided, were splits from the ‘right beliefs’ of Orthodoxy. More needs saying on this point, for it undergirds some of the greatest difficulties in the encounter between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, and between Orthodox and ecumenical institutions.

The Church, the Churches, and the World Council of Churches

The word “ecumenical” derives from the Greek “oikoumene”, which means “the whole universe”. Ecumenical therefore means universal. But although the word “oikoumene” dominates WCC language, not to mention the WCC logo, the member churches interpret it indifferent ways. To put it perhaps a little too simply, for many people the Christian churches of all the traditions in which they exist today — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — together constitute the “Universal Church”. We Orthodox on the other hand identify the Orthodox Church with the Universal Church. Therefore, the broad consensus within the Orthodox Church on matters of faith and church life is something which needs to be shared by the other churches if there is to be greater unity. (The Roman Catholics perceive their church, and church unity, in the same way.)

However, once again, the Orthodox do not limit all truth and grace to their own church. And it is precisely the joyous discovery of the great deal which we hold in common with other Christian traditions (such as faith in the One Trinitarian God, faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour), together with the constructive identification of what it is within our faith and life that also divides us as Christians today, which is the raison d’etre of our participation in the ecumenical movement. Yet the tension between the two basic understandings of the Universal or “ecumenical” Church cuts to the heart of the enterprise of modern ecumenism. While it has been carefully addressed in the policy documents of the WCC since its inception, there continue to be misunderstandings, insensitivities, not to mention disinformation (on the part of Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups that are outwardly hostile to the WCC), surrounding that tension.

Critical Times

These are critical times in the encounter between the Orthodox churches and the WCC. A painful sign of the tensions which seem to be increasing in current years was the withdrawal from WCC membership of the Orthodox Church of Georgia in May 1997. Without exception, all Orthodox churches today are in the process of serious reflection among and between themselves concerning the nature and purpose of their participation in institutionalised ecumenism. What are some of the tensions being experienced?

The Orthodox situation

Many difficulties arise out of recent dimensions on the political sphere. The fall of Communism has resulted not only in a sudden increase of religious liberty and opportunity which has led to a renaissance of spirituality and church life, but also a rise in nationalism and xenophobia which impedes receptivity to ecumenical endeavours. Among Orthodox in the West, other considerations can conspire to foment suspicion or hostility towards inter-Christian cooperation: emigrants from predominantly Orthodox countries, and also converts from non-Orthodox churches, sometimes define their Orthodox identity by emphasising what they are not, as much as by stressing what they are. To all of this one can add also the increase of fundamentalism which is felt worldwide and across confessional lines.

The problem of proselytism

Some Orthodox identify ecumenical involvement with a condoning of proselytism. They believe that since ecumenism implies receptivity to different Christian churches it also implies approving the practice of sending missionaries to chiefly Orthodox countries to “steal sheep” or convert them from Orthodoxy. In fact, as proselytism is by nature an overtly anti-ecumenical endeavour, the WCC has repeatedly and in detail condemned the practice.

The WCC climate

More generally, many Orthodox have increasing difficulty aligning themselves with what they perceive as the character and agenda of the WCC. When theological, socio-political or moral/ethical themes are discussed, some feel that there appear to be virtually no limits to the diversity that is tolerated. To many, although the WCC does not draw up or dictate policies of its own, there is a de facto tendency to place more conservative moral or theological positions on the defensive. Worship services in ecumenical settings can tend strongly towards a character that is quite foreign to Orthodox sensibilities. In all, Orthodox participants in the WCC feel that, thanks to a number of factors, they are a minority, sometimes even a special interest group, among a large Protestant majority.

(For balance, it needs to be said that from the perspective of non-Orthodox in the WCC, we Orthodox ourselves can come across as frustrating, if not baffling. Our self-identification with the Universal Church can seem arrogant, our working style can appear inconsistent and irrational, our ways and thought arcane and unprone to self-criticism. And sometimes it isn’t difficult to see how this impression can perpetuate itself.)

None of the tensions or discomforts I have described is experienced uniquely by the Orthodox. But the Orthodox are the most clearly-definable body of member churches which to some extent are experiencing them all, and furthermore, experiencing them to the degree that, in the case of many churches, their very membership is under threat.

A Critical Assembly

If these are indeed critical times in the Orthodox encounter with the WCC, then the upcoming Eighth Assembly of the WCC, to be held later this year in Harare, will be a critical event. Together with the opportunities for fellowship and discovery presented by a happening such as this, all of the concerns set out above will have an opportunity to be aggravated. As at past Assemblies, the worship events will alternately invite and alienate. There will again be no joint celebration of the eucharist — the Orthodox understanding of the sacrament of communion (seeing it as the highest expression of unity in faith) forbids the sharing of that sacrament with non-Orthodox — and this will again be a focus of pain for all sides.

The Harare Assembly will feature an open forum called the “Padare” (the Shona word for “meeting place”), and many of the concerns on display are liable to be difficult for many Orthodox to comprehend or appreciate. While the WCC officially is not aligning itself with the Padare offerings, the distinction between Assembly visibility and WCC policy will not readily be grasped. The difficulties in this area have begun already: certain churches, for example, have reacted strongly against the WCC’s sanction of Padare offerings presented by openly gay groups.

On the hopeful side, the WCC’s most recent policy statement, “Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC”, is a careful and thoughtful piece which reflects also a process of restructuring affecting all levels of WCC activity. This process of taking stock and taking action, which will be discussed and adopted at the Assembly, could bear the fruit of a more mutually fulfilling relationship between the Orthodox churches and the rest of the WCC.

Conclusion: Joys and sorrows

The upcoming Assembly in Harare will be attended and observed by Orthodox with a blend of hope and apprehension, acceptance and criticism — that paradoxical blend of enthusiasm and consternation which we now know is nothing new. But we also now know that the tensions are running at an all-time high.

Why remain?

From the somewhat bleak picture I have painted, one could reasonably ask whether I think that the Orthodox should remain members of the Council. The answer is yes. The work for the full visible unity of Christians is holy work. Even as we Orthodox locate the Universal Church within the communion of our Church, it would be impious not to look outside our church boundaries to see, to affirm, and to engage with all that is real and true and beautiful there –all that is of Christ. We all share a responsibility before God to seek to discern what in our Christian disunity is due merely to misunderstandings and historical-cultural factors, and what needs addressing on the level of theology and life. All of this can be done to some extent without the World Council of Churches. But the WCC is a unique instrument, the most comprehensive global fellowship we have.

Orthodox who are ambivalent to the ecumenical endeavour often forget how much their churches benefit materially from assistance rendered by or through the WCC. Aside from this prosaic but significant fact, our encounter with other Christians assists us in the much-needed renewal of our church life today. When we come before inter-Christian forums preaching our glorious theology, we know that our failures to live up to it are under full view. And much as we hate to admit it, many items that are squarely on the socio-political and moral/ethical agenda of WCC activity need to be placed more centrally on our agenda as well.

The relationship between the Orthodox and the World Council of Churches has its hopes and problems stemming from all sides. But may this relationship continue, boldly, courageously, with all honesty and goodwill!

Dr Peter Bouteneff is a member of the Orthodox Church in America (Eastern) and on the WCC staff as an Executive Secretary within the Faith and Order stream.

text released by the WCC Press Office April 7, 1998

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 332, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the Assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

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