ECUMENISM — THE MOVEMENT OF LOVE

by Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Ephesus

 

Thessaloniki, Greece, May 1998

 

The purpose leading to the creation of a Special Commission composed of representatives of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches on the one hand and of the Protestant member churches of the WCC on the other, in order to confront the difficulties faced by the Orthodox churches with the goal of their unimpeded presence and participation in the life and the activities of the WCC, has been defined and gradually promoted until its fulfilment.

The Eastern Orthodox churches, through the Inter-Orthodox Meeting held in Thessaloniki in May 1998, formulated their desire and proposal for the creation of such a Commission to review those aspects of the WCC that in their view need revision and reconstruction. The WCC itself, through its eighth assembly held in Harare, Zimbabwe, and the decisions of its Central and Executive Committees, has also taken appropriate steps. Thus both sides journeyed together in the creation of the Special Commission.

The purpose of this Commission is to study, create and put into action those possibilities, occasions and presuppositions that would (1) allow the Orthodox member churches of the WCC to feel and to act comfortably within the Council, (2) prevent them from having problems of conscience and other anxieties and (3) avoid any problems or circumstances which would lead to an alienation from the ecumenical idea and the ecumenical movement, notwithstanding their estrangement from the institutional expressions of this movement, especially from the WCC, which constitutes its privileged institutional expression and instrument.

Before entering into direct dialogue with their counterparts in the Special Commission — that is, the Protestant members appointed by the governing bodies of the WCC — the Orthodox members had the opportunity to hold a preparatory encounter and to formulate their proposals for the next steps, in order to undertake responsibly the task that was entrusted to them.

The following reflections constitute a first recording of Orthodox proposals for determining the prerequisites for an unimpeded participation of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches in the WCC.

The methodology adopted here suggests a number of specific "areas" or "circles" of homogeneous thoughts and proposals. Presented in an appropriate manner, these ideas could form the framework for Orthodox proposals on those decisions and actions which, from an Orthodox perspective, should be undertaken and put into action by the WCC and its decision-making bodies.

At a first stage, one could envisage five such specific "areas" or "circles". Accepting them, further elaborating them, and putting them into action would certainly facilitate the work of the Special Commission, which is called to pave the way, in the form of "circles of interests", towards any decisions or actions that may lead to a new structure of the WCC. These are the following:

 

I. Towards a new structure of the WCC.

Referring to a new structure, one could obviously think immediately of drafting a new constitution for the Council. It is clear, however, that the exercise of drafting and voting for a new constitution, especially within the present institutional mechanisms and procedural systems of the WCC (mechanisms and systems that require extremely careful, very precise and certainly time-consuming processes even for simple amendments to the present constitution) is almost impossible.

Therefore, it would be preferable to speak here of some fundamental amendments to the present constitution and consequently, of certain modifications to the rules and By-laws of the WCC.

The purpose of the proposed amendments focuses on the following points:

 

  1. to broaden the structure of the WCC, so that in the spirit of a true "fellowship of churches" a presence and participation of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox in the WCC "on equal footing" is guaranteed.
  2. to pursue the necessary merging of churches, confessions and communities of the wider Protestant family, so that their presence in the WCC could be united and not fragmented. Indeed, this could guarantee a co-existence of "equal footing" of the Orthodox and other member churches of the WCC and reinforce the character of the Council as an institution serving unity and not the preservation of Christian fragmentation.
  3. to determine the objective criteria for the major issue of membership. Those communities which did not and do not fulfil these criteria should merge with the "trunks" they came or they come from. Otherwise, their artificial self-sufficiency and independence not only distorts the initial character of the Council as a "council of churches" but also prevents the Orthodox side from the possibility of feeling that its participation in the WCC is grounded on a correct ecclesiological basis.
  4. to determine rational voting procedures in the WCC, which should be applied by all its decision-making bodies, especially its Central and Executive Committees and assemblies. This would be another way of ensuring Orthodox participation "on equal footing" and avoiding fundamental problems of identity and ecclesiological self- understanding for the Orthodox.
  5. to give the Executive Committee (this important, small and flexible instrument of decision-making, elected from within the Central Committee) the possibility of being composed of an equal number of Orthodox and Protestant members, so that in whatever falls under its responsibility (and practically all matters do fall under its responsibility) and in important current issues, a process of "filtering" could be inaugurated, and any common decision and common action would be undertaken after a consensus reached on the basis of "an equal footing".

 

I am afraid, however, that under the present circumstances in the WCC this last suggestion exceeds the limits of improbability. I think therefore (and I dare suggest) that it is not only desirable, but also feasible to create a small ad hoc committee, with an equal number of Orthodox and Protestant members, parallel to the Executive Committee, with the following broad mandate: (1) to determine the agenda of all ecumenical processes and meetings; (2) to consider the necessity for the study of any subject, proposal or situation to be faced, of whatever origin and nature, according to clear ecclesiological presuppositions; (3) to have the right of rejecting (veto) any proposal or subject that cannot be accepted for reasons of conscience; (4) to obtain an a priori consensus among all sides for any specific matter on the agenda of the WCC.

 

  1. in the course of the study of each subject, as well as in the process of its final formulation, or in the stage of final decisions with regard to that study, to record the eventual different points of view of one or more churches (including the Orthodox whenever they would have such a point of view) with acute objectivity and not in a covert or impersonal way that would lead to misinterpretations and reactions within the churches;
  2. to take into consideration and to assess anew the ecumenical documents of a fundamental significance and weight on which the consensus of our churches has already been expressed (e.g. the Toronto Statement of 1950, the BEM document and the written reception of it, the CUV document and the responses to it).

 

2. Evaluation of the reasons that led some Orthodox churches to withdraw from the WCC

The reasons are certainly manifold. Independently of what the Orthodox churches involved are doing, these reasons should be examined also by the WCC with objectivity and sincerity. In other words, the WCC should ask itself: what is the degree of its own responsibility in those cases and what should and could the Council do to heal this situation?

 

  1. Each church may have its own reasons, arising from the conscience of its hierarchs, clergy and flock. In this case, the Council should ask itself whether it has a certain responsibly for such a struggle of conscience within the local Orthodox church, whether the difficulties have reached the point of erosion and whether or not the situation can be healed. If there are ways of healing the situation with the understanding and contribution of the WCC, then our reflections and proposals for its restructuring should be taken seriously into consideration, in the hope that this could constitute a healing process.
  2. The reasons may be of a different nature from case to case, and they may derive from internal situations in an Orthodox church. Ideas, tendencies, movements, streams and reactions nurtured by various internal rivalries can provoke an immediate echo in the relationships of a local Church with other organizations, including the WCC. In such case the Council should be extremely careful and sensitive, so that detrimental tensions and confrontations within this Church would not be created.
  3. There are reasons provoked by conservative and mainly fundamentalist currents and tendencies within the churches, a phenomenon that is very common the last few years. Fundamentalism, as a harmful and reactionary phenomenon and element, needs to be examined by the WCC. The WCC should adopt the most accurate position vis-à-vis this phenomenon, in order to limit evil and irreparable consequences on the life of a particular Orthodox church.
  4. Given these various reasons (which we have put in an hierarchical order), which directly or indirectly lead an Orthodox church to withdraw from the WCC, the Council should pay particular attention to all the cases observed and should find ways to approach them positively. The Council should avoid negative situations that provoke or nurture withdrawal from the Council. There are many such situations today, considered as serious faults or unacceptable institutional deviations. In particular, under the influence of conservative and reactionary circles, common prayer of the Orthodox with other Christians, including all the canonical implications of this practice, is being presented as a sinful and completely unacceptable act. In addition, there is the use of the WCC platform by some partners in order to project their syncretistic tendencies and practices (e.g. Canberra assembly); extravagances during worship services or eucharistic celebrations; the whole issue of intercommunion in its many forms at various levels, creating questions and problems of conscience; practices that are alien not only to the Orthodox tradition but also to some parts of the Anglican and Protestant traditions (ordination of women, use of inclusive language in theology and worship, ambiguous theological positions taken by leading figures of the movement, moral and social positions provocative to the Orthodox tradition and ethos yet adopted and promoted by certain instruments of the ecumenical movement). These gradually accumulate, broadening the spectrum of reasons forcing the Orthodox to withdraw from the Council, and causing many problems to the churches.

 

There is no doubt that the Council should seriously review its positions on all these matters. Courageous and decisive decisions ought to be taken; and this is what the Orthodox side rightly seeks.

 

3. Possibilities for the creation of parallel ecumenical movements

For fifty years it has been undisputed and indisputable that the ecumenical movement is rooted in the conscience of the wider Christianity as an institutional and existential reality, and that the WCC is the certified expression and the main instrument of this movement.

Beyond this affirmation, however, one should admit that there is outside the WCC a veiled tendency - even a movement - and therefore a dangerous orientation towards two very dubious deviations of the ecumenical movement. These tendencies worry the Orthodox churches and disturb the conscience of their faithful. The Council should avoid the temptation of following these tendencies, which we could describe in the two following forms:

 

  1. The possible universalization of the ecumenical movement through an openness to other religions, other ideologies, secular organizations, with a predisposition to syncretism, doubtful connections, interests and forms of cooperation that are alien to the nature and character of the Council as a "council of churches" and as a space of encounter for promoting together the purposes and the actions defined by the member churches which seek to serve unity, reconciliation and fellowship. These doubtful tendencies could not only become detrimental to the Council but also strengthen the alienation of its member churches, including the Orthodox. The universalization of the ecumenical idea could be far more dangerous than any even fanatical withdrawal from the ecumenical movement.
  2. The globalisation of the ecumenical idea and the ecumenical movement. By this I mean the concentration of all forms of conscious functions, reflections, tendencies, convictions, traditions, teachings and even essential dogmatic beliefs within a large "melting-pot", with its own mechanisms, co-ordinated by visible and invisible centres of power without any accountability and beyond any control. Within this "melting-pot" the identity and particularly the self-consciousness of the churches is either distorted or entirely lost.

 

In view of such a very likely siege of the ecumenical idea and reality, we need to consolidate and affirm our determination to stick to the ecumenical movement, which we have created and participated in, the movement we have already experienced, which can nevertheless be improved through healthy means and criteria.

 

4. The WCC and parallel structures

Together with the proposed steps for the restructuring of the WCC in order to ensure an unimpeded participation of the Orthodox churches, there are proposals being developed which focus on the creation of some parallel structures, commonly known under the term "Forum". The eighth assembly in Harare dealt with this idea. From the Orthodox side some "proposals for discussion" (Russian Orthodox Church) are being elaborated which suggest the creation of a structure parallel to the WCC, a structure called "Forum".

The suggested proposals are worthy of study. The purpose of the Special Commission, however, is to determine the possibilities of an unimpeded Orthodox participation in the WCC. It should thus be made clear that, although any alternative proposal is welcome and should be taken into consideration, in-depth study of such proposals should take place only if it will contribute to the main purpose of the Commission.

 

5. Theological clarification of terms in use in the WCC, with specific reference to the Orthodox participation in the Council

To a very large extent, negative impressions and negative positions in the Orthodox Churches vis-à-vis the WCC are undoubtedly created by a deficient theological understanding of theological and other terms used in the ecumenical movement. This is an old issue. It has its own history. It has drawn the attention of both the Orthodox churches and the WCC.

Indeed, the issue of terminology — the deeper meaning of terms used, their correct interpretation and their application — has been on the agenda of both the Orthodox churches and the WCC from the very beginning (the very first constitution of the WCC, the Toronto statement, the documents of Faith and Order and more recently the CUV).

The fellowship of "churches and confessions" in which we participate, the visible and invisible unity in the church and among the churches, the council of churches or the council of "families" of churches, the church, the churches and the WCC, churches and schisms, co-existence and cooperation of churches — all these and many other formulations, expressions, terms and slogans are coming back today in the contemporary development of relationships among the churches and between the churches and the WCC.

These terms should therefore be included among the specific areas which the Special Commission is called to clarify.

If the Special Commission is created to undertake theological work as well, it should take into account this area too, with the certainty that it will contribute greatly not only to a clarification of the relationships between the Orthodox and the WCC, but to a further deepening of the broader issue of the common understanding and vision of the World Council of Churches (CUV).

© 2001 World Council of Churches

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