Statement on the Relationship of the Orthodox Church to the World Council of Churches
1. The Orthodox Theological Society in America, at its annual meeting held at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline Massachusetts on June 4-5, 1998, chose to focus its entire attention on the current crisis within the ecumenical movement and especially on the question of Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches. The Society studied the report of the Inter-Orthodox Meeting on “Evaluation of New Facts in the Relations of Orthodoxy and the Ecumenical Movement” held at Thessaloniki, Greece in April/May 1998, the Report of the Orthodox Pre-Assembly meeting held at Damascus, Syria in May 1998.
The Report of the WCC Orthodox Task Force on “Orthodox-WCC Relations” dated 29 January 1998, and the Final Statement of the Consultation held in Iasi, Romania in April 1998 on “The Ecumenical Movement in the Twentieth Century: The Role of Theology in Ecumenical Thought and Life in Romania”, as well as the WCC Policy Statement: “Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches” (CUV) dated September 1997, listened to papers and presentations made by members of the Society involved in the World Council of Churches, and weighed the issue at hand with sobriety and deep concern.
2. The Orthodox Church has been engaged in the ecumenical movement from the outset. The unity of the Church is for us not an option but an imperative, in fact a divine command. The prayer of the Lord to the Father for us: “that they may be one, even as we are one, so that the world might believe,” is not simply a pious desire but reflects an ultimate truth. When Christians are divided, the world is denied that sign that is a witness to the healing offered by God to a world afflicted by the sin of separation and alienation. Thus we cannot repudiate this work for Christian unity but must affirm and embrace it.
3. Moreover, we affirm the progress made toward Christian unity especially since the early years of this century, both in the context of the World Council of Churches and in other fora. This progress is due in no small measure to the courage of Christians from every tradition to step outside of themselves and greet the other as a brother or sister in Christ, to take up the cross of Christ in the quest for Christian unity and to engage the other in a dialogue of love. Differences, schisms and heresies that caused the divisions among Christians were the result of a long process of growing alienation. These divisions will not be healed without effort and even some pain. We all owe much to the ecumenical movement for expressing this process of reconciliation of Christians and the visible unity of the churches.
4. The expectations of the Orthodox Church in this regard were always modest and realistic. While the hope of visible unity was and remains the goal, the practical methodology was simply to lay the groundwork for this through theological dialogue, common life, prayer and working together. We remained patient as long as we were convinced that we shared this common vision with our Christian partners. But this common vision has increasingly been replaced in some ecumenical settings by particular social and political agendas derived solely from human experience and divorced from the Gospel. This has provoked dissatisfaction among us, thus precipitating the current crisis.
5. Criticism of the World Council of Churches (WCC) by the Orthodox has fallen into roughly two categories. On the one hand there are those who spread untruths about the WCC. Either through being misinformed themselves, or in the deliberate intention to misinform others, some extremist groups within or on the fringes of the Orthodox Church, hold that membership in the Council is a heresy in itself. On the other hand, however, there are critics of the WCC who, on the basis of their intense commitment to and involvement with the Council, are deeply disappointed with the directions that it is taking. Just as much as the propaganda of the former groups is to be repudiated or ignored, the criticism of the latter needs to be listened to with care.
6. From our perspective there are two equally important aspects to the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the WCC. One concerns structure or constitution. The current constitutional framework of the WCC mitigates against equitable participation in the governing bodies, advisory councils, and staff by the Orthodox Church because there are two opposite ecclesiologies operative. The number of member churches in the WCC continues to grow, but according to Orthodox ecclesiological principles the number of Orthodox churches will not grow significantly beyond their present number. For the churches of the Reformation, the impulse has been to multiply the number of churches. For the Orthodox, the ecclesiological approach does not easily or quickly allow the creation of new self- governing churches. Simply put, given the constitutional framework of the WCC, the Orthodox churches are not represented commensurate with their place within world Christianity. A number of proposals have been advanced to address this imbalance. None is as yet satisfactory to all parties. But we are convinced that the present structure must be modified.
7. The other concern relates to ethos, to mindset and ways of proceeding. Even more important than the constitutional question is the question of the manner in which priorities for the Council are set. While the “language” of the WCC sometimes has reflected the Orthodox vision and Orthodox concerns, we believe there is a growing tendency towards ecumenical and theological “language” and “ethos” reflecting priorities and directions foreign to the Orthodox, and alienating the Orthodox. Even the classic struggle within the Council between the Faith and Order movement and the Life and Work movement frames the question of unity in such a way that the Orthodox must convolute their tradition *and, we might add, their understanding of the Gospel itself* in order to enter into the discussion.
8. While as part of its general restructuring the Council needs to address questions of church representation, the Council also needs to be held to its foundational principles. This is particularly appropriate as the Council celebrates its fiftieth anniversary and examines itself in the Common Understanding and Vision process — an eight-year study mandated in 1989 by the Central Committee of the World Council in preparation for the Eighth Assembly in Harare. The Council needs to be more accountable to its Basis: “a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The Council needs to be continuously accountable to the 1950 Toronto Statement, where among other things it is stated that “the WCC is not and must never become a superchurch,” by refraining from formulations or liturgical rites which suggest an ecclesial identity which the Council in fact does not possess. Finally, the Council needs to be true to its identity as a council of churches and not of movements or communities of goodwill
9. The value of theological reflection cannot be underestimated. In our ecumenical discussions, it is not enough simply to identify historical reasons for divisions and points of similarity. More than this, the doctrinal differences which contribute to divisions must be identified and, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, overcome. The ecumenical movement in general and the World Council of Churches in particular must provide the opportunities for theological reflection which is rooted in the Scripture and Tradition of the Church. This theological reflection should respond to the critical issues facing the churches today, especially issues related to the reconciliation of Christians and the restoration of the visible unity of the churches. We affirm that the visible unity of the churches requires that we come to a common confession of the Apostolic faith
10. We must also admit that the weakness of the Orthodox voice is not due simply to the WCC’s constitutional framework. Often, it is due to internal problems and disagreements, which hinder our effectiveness. We have not enlisted the number of church people ready, willing and able to participate in ecumenical meetings. We often decline to send delegates to meetings when invited. There are times when we Orthodox are unable to form a common mind, because we ourselves have not settled certain ecclesiological questions. We must adhere to an internal self-discipline that does justice to our own ecclesiology.
11. In recent times some Orthodox have questioned whether praying with other Christians is in fact contributing to the restoration of the kind of Christian unity willed by Christ. We affirm the need for common prayer in order to heal our ancient divisions. Unfortunately, ecumenical worship sometimes has been dominated and driven by issues which not only deflect from the concern for Christian reconciliation and unity but also themselvesbecome the focus of attention. Rather than having communion with the Triune God as its focus, ecumenical worship sometimes has become the platform for particular social and political agendas and causes incompatible with the Gospel. Of course, in worship it is appropriate to lift up our living concerns in prayer. But when these concerns become the dominant element, Christian worship is deformed.
12. Orthodox participation in ecumenical services of prayer has been predicated upon the fact that the fundamental tenets of the apostolic faith continue to be expressed through the Scripture readings, prayers, and hymns of the worshipping community. When these fundamental tenets of the apostolic faith are lacking or intentionally distorted, it becomes difficult if not impossible for the Orthodox to participate. When, however, these convictions are embodied in ecumenical prayer services, that do not have a eucharistic character, and do reflect these fundamental principles, we should rejoice in joining our brothers and sisters in Christ in praise of God.
13. We offer as an illustration of the way in which the unity of the churches can be restored the special relationship that has developed between the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Nurtured by prayer, our churches have been engaged in theological dialogue for over thirty years. Through this dialogue our churches have come to see that we share the same Orthodox faith despite centuries of formal alienation. We have grown closer through cooperation in all aspects of ecclesial life. This Society has for many years included as full members theologians from the Oriental Orthodox Churches. We look forward to the restoration of full communion among the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox Churches in the near future. In order to further the quest for restored communion, we urge the hierarchs of the both the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches in America to establish a bilateral dialogue to address the practical questions necessary to attain this goal. We believe this restored communion to be the obvious and indeed necessary consequence and testimony of our full agreement in matters of faith. This final act will provide an example of the manner in which deep divisions lasting hundreds of years can be healed in the dialogue of love.
14. Finally, we wish to affirm our basic and profound commitment to the struggle for Christian reconciliation and the visible unity of the churches. We call upon people of goodwill within every Christian church to join with us in the call of the Lord, so that the world might believe and God might be glorified.
posted August 27, 1998