ECUMENISM — THE MOVEMENT OF LOVE
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:
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.
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?
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:
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