The Orthodox at the Harare Assembly

by Peter Bouteneff

From 3-14 December 1998, the WCC held its eighth assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, a meeting which brought together over 4,000 persons from around the world. This came at a time when the local Orthodox churches have been debating their involvement in the ecumenical movement perhaps more hotly than ever before, and a time when relations between the Orthodox churches and the WCC — the world’s most visible and most global ecumenical fellowship — were particularly strained. The statement emerging from the May 1998 meeting of Eastern Orthodox delegates at Thessaloniki on Orthodox-ecumenical relations unequivocally affirmed the importance of maintaining ecumenical involvement and condemned the destructive anti-ecumenism of Orthodox fringe groups. But in a manifestation of acute dissatisfaction with the way in which ecumenism was being done by the WCC, the statement recommended unanimous but sharply limited participation in the Harare assembly on the part of the Orthodox churches. In the light of this context, what happened at Harare?

The Orthodox Presence

The size and nature of church representation varied widely: for example, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church sent large official delegations that included their respective primates, while the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the right to send twenty-five delegates, sent just five — none of whom were hierarchs. The representatives from the churches of Bulgaria and Georgia were not official delegates but were under the category of “advisors”. But, significantly, all of the canonical Orthodox churches without exception were represented at Harare, including the two who had withdrawn membership from the WCC.

The character of Orthodox participation at Harare testified to what was a markedly uneven reception of the Thessaloniki Statement. The closing recommendations of that document, which suggested that delegates participate in a reduced way at Harare (for example by not attending worship services), were an attempt at voicing Orthodox dissatisfaction with the WCC in a united, pan-Orthodox way. What happened in fact was that a handful of churches chose to obey the recommendations more-or-less to the letter, while the rest felt that the most constructive means of effecting the desired changes in the WCC was to participate more fully, particularly in view of the fact that the WCC itself had been signaling a willingness to act on Orthodox concerns as never before. Add to this picture that the “Oriental” or “Non-Chalcedonian” Orthodox churches had not been invited to the Thessaloniki meeting, with the result that these churches, while sympathetic to the ideas of the Statement, did not feel particularly bound by the recommendations.

The result of the mixed approaches to Thessaloniki was that the Orthodox boycott of ecumenical worship services was only partial, and a sizeable proportion of Orthodox participants (indeed, often the ones with the most visible headgear) were present at the major worship services. Orthodox absence from worship as, for that matter, from the voting procedure, went largely unnoticed by the assembly, or was ascribed to apathy.

Yet this does not mean that the Orthodox were unheard, nor does it mean that the Thessaloniki Statement had no effect upon the assembly or the life of the WCC. In fact, Orthodox concerns with the WCC underlay virtually every component of the assembly from the reports of the Moderator and General Secretary that began it, on through the policy documents that concluded it; and surely the Thessaloniki Statement — whose issuance came as a blow to the ecumenical world — had something to do with this. Furthermore, and perhaps most significantly, the assembly saw the official creation of a Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, a commission with 50/50 Orthodox-Protestant participation which will discuss sweeping changes in the structure and work of the WCC in order better to accommodate Orthodox ecclesiology and ethos. This commission results directly out of the final recommendations of Thessaloniki.

Orthodox Concerns

The concerns the Orthodox have with the WCC, with which readers of this publication are largely familiar, fall into several categories. The ecclesiological tension which has dogged WCC-Orthodox relations since the beginning, while resolved on the policy level in the first years of the WCC, persists among Orthodox particularly since the Council from time to time finds it difficult to restrain itself from talking or behaving as if it were somehow a church-like body.

Then there is the issue of representation. The Orthodox are as a rule given 25% of the seats in the Council’s governing and advisory bodies, which means that decisions taken about the life and work of the WCC will inevitably reflect this proportion. Representation on the staff of the WCC is only around 12%. To the extent that these figures are within the control of the Council, they are a major bone of contention.

The representation problem leads directly to Orthodox dissatisfaction with the agenda and ethos of the WCC. The Protestant bias — the character of which represents in fact only a limited proportion of Protestants — is felt in the Council’s programmatic work and governing style, not to mention the worship services which take place at WCC events.

Of the concerns broadly outlined above, the ecclesiological did not receive great weight at the Harare assembly. The main concern in this area was that while the Council should not perceive itself or act as a church, its membership should be comprised of bodies who at least perceive themselves as “churches” rather than as organizations — churches who “confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour… to the glory of the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” as the Council’s “Basis” states.

The main concerns put forward by Orthodox at Harare focused upon the representation problem. And while various solutions were put forward to address this issue, these were left to the deliberations of the Special Commission mentioned above. But in addition to the policy debates, the Orthodox at Harare contributed to important statements on the WCC’s updated policy statement on human rights, and on the status of Jerusalem.

Waiting to Explode

The timing, location and context of the assembly, together with the situation of the churches today, led people to anticipate the Harare meeting as a series of explosions just waiting to happen. People — informed and uninformed alike — predicted Orthodox walk-outs, eruptions (across denominational lines) over ethical issues such as homosexuality, public demonstrations at the visit of President Mugabe, and scandalous rituals performed in the worship tent. In fact, the assembly ran without any such apparent blow-up. Orthodox dissatisfaction with the WCC was in effect deferred to the work of the Special Commission. The question of human sexuality barely showed itself, other than through the recommendation that study on this issue needs to take place within the context of a broader theological study on the human person. A few shabby placards were held up when Mugabe entered the plenary hall, made invisible by the wall of his security forces. The worship life of the assembly, if judged according to reasonable expectations for ecumenical worship, was relatively sober, and featured nothing particularly eye-catching for the video cameras of detractors, nor any of the confusing “assembly eucharist” events of the past.

A new feature for this assembly was called the “Padare” (drawing from a local word meaning “meeting place”). This drew together over five hundred workshops, lectures, presentations and discussions during several days of the assembly programme. Here again, there were fears that those workshops which were explicitly to deal with issues of human sexuality would be sites of violence, but nothing of the sort arose. This could be interpreted with a degree of cynicism: firstly, a significant number of assembly participants, Orthodox strongly among them, chose the Padare portion of the programme as the perfect moment for local tourism and shopping. Secondly, the Padare could, at its worst, be viewed as the quintessentially post-modern phenomenon: a shower of information presented with no ranking of importance, where people would go to hear what they wanted to hear, and leave satisfied but unmoved.

But cynicism aside, the Padare — where it was successful — gave people a chance to raise and discuss issues of meaning to them, and make contacts with other like-minded people around the world. It was a place neither of landmark ecumenical breakthrough nor of scandal. (I might add that the Padare offerings connected with Faith and Order, the explicitly theological wing of the Council’s work, were particularly successful in that they were well-attended and produced numerous opportunities to address the most difficult problem faced by Faith and Order and the rest of the Council: the reception of its work.)

The Future

The WCC assembly in Harare was not the site of anything earth-shattering, positively or negatively. One of its greatest effects on the Orthodox was in fact simply to gather us together in one place — unfortunately a great rarity these days. But as far as our relations with the WCC go, the effects of Harare lie squarely with the future. For one, the assembly gave the go-ahead for further discussion about the creation of a new ecumenical structure, a “Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations”, a somewhat nebulous concept — perhaps in fact deliberately so in order to be more inclusive than the WCC. One of the intentions of the Forum is to draw in the Roman Catholic Church and many Pentecostal groups which are not now members of the WCC. Orthodox will have to watch the development of this concept with care and attention.

But of more immediate and tangible importance is the creation of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC. This commission, in which Orthodox and Protestants will be in a relationship of parity in number, will have the potential to achieve a great deal in addressing the concerns which Orthodox have been bringing before the Council with increasing urgency. Among Protestants involved in the Council’s life, one could sense at Harare both a sincere willingness to listen to the Orthodox and reshape the Council, as well as a certain fatigue, an impatience at hearing the same old concerns, often expressed in ways that sound clumsy or inconsistent. In its overall character and in its policy decisions, Harare has shown that the present moment is a critical one, that this is the moment for the Orthodox to draw on all of our resources to present and articulate an assessment of the problems and potential of the WCC.

published by: Service Orthodoxe de Presse (in French), March 1999.

Peter Bouteneff is Executive Secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. He received a degree in music from the New England Conservatory in Boston. Following two years in Japan where he taught English and served in the Osaka Orthodox parish, he traveled through Asia and visited monastic communities in Greece. He received a master of divinity degree from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and a doctor of philosophy degree from Oxford University under the direction of Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia. He is editor of Daily Readings in Orthodox Spirituality (Templegate, Springfield, IL).

text posted: February 6, 1999