number 9, december 14, 1998

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WCC to set up commission with Orthodox churches

By Andrei Zolotov and Stephen Brown

The assembly yesterday agreed to set up a special commission in a bid to resolve the issue of the participation of Orthodox churches in the organisation.

However, only hours after assembly voted to set up the commission, the Russian Orthodox Church delegation at the assembly announced that it was suspending its participation in the WCC's central committee while the "special commission on Orthodox participation in the WCC" conducted its deliberations.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has now officially withdrawn from the WCC (see story, page 3) following the withdrawal of the Georgian Orthodox Church last year.

The special commission will have half of its members appointed by Orthodox churches and the other half appointed by the WCC's executive committee. It will draw up proposals about "necessary changes in structure, style and ethos of the council". The work of the commission will last for "at least three years".

Some of the changes proposed by the commission may be implemented by the WCC's central committee before the next assembly, which is due to take place in seven year's time.

"If we are satisfied with the results of the commission, we will resume our work on the central committee," the head of the Russian Orthodox Church delegation to the assembly, Hilarion Alfeyev, told ENI. "If not, our church will have to withdraw from the WCC."

He added that it was "too early to predetermine the specific model for the restructured WCC because it is precisely what the special commission must decide upon".

However, another senior Russian Orthodox delegate, Vsevolod Chaplin, told ENI that, ideally, the Russian Orthodox Church wanted to see a "forum with no fixed membership" to replace the WCC's current structure altogether, so that the Orthodox Church would bear no responsibility for what was said by others.

"If the whole language, the whole system of the WCC doesn't change, formal membership in this system for our church would be impossible," he said.

The plan for a commission to deal with Orthodox participation in the WCC was first proposed by a crisis meeting of high-level representatives from 15 Eastern Orthodox Churches which was held in Thessaloniki, Greece, in May this year. The meeting affirmed support for ecumenism and the search for Christian unity, but registered strong concern about the policies and programmes of the WCC.

During a debate at the assembly yesterday about the relationships with Orthodox churches, Bishop Niphon of the Romanian Orthodox Church revealed that, two days earlier, at a meeting in Harare of the heads of Orthodox delegations to the assembly, "the Oriental Orthodox brothers expressed their full agreement with that statement [from Thessaloniki]".

(The WCC's five Oriental Orthodox member churches, cooperate with, but are not in full communion with, the Eastern Orthodox churches.)

Bishop Niphon stressed the commitment of Orthodox churches to ecumenism, and referred to a number of positive actions by the WCC, including its condemnation of proselytism (the poaching of church members by another church), but warned that if the WCC's structure was not revised, many Orthodox churches would face "growing difficulty".

Bulgarian theologian Ivan Dimitrov, attending the assembly as an advisor, told ENI that the Bulgarian church's decision to withdraw from the WCC had been taken "not out of anti-ecumenical convictions, but under the pressure from the [ultra-conservative breakaway] Old Calendarist church".

However, although there is pressure from ultra-conservative factions within the Orthodox churches to end all ecumenical ties, many mainstream Orthodox leaders and theologians have serious reservations about the direction the WCC is taking.

Women's ordination, inclusive language in reference to God and discussion of homosexuality by WCC Protestant members as well as Westernised decision-making processes are factors which, the Orthodox feel, marginalise them within the ecumenical movement.

Asked about the special commission, the WCC's general secretary, Dr Konrad Raiser, told ENI that each of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches was expected to send one -- or in the case of bigger churches, such as those from Russia and Romania, two -- representatives to the commission, which will be then matched by the same number of theologians from non-Orthodox member churches. It should meet before next August's meeting of the central committee in Geneva.

"The commission should not concentrate only on the structure of the WCC," Dr Raiser told ENI, "but it should go to the roots of the feeling of marginalisation and alienation of the Orthodox Church. That will be good for the ecumenical movement."

According to Georges Tsetsis, spokesman of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Harare assembly "was much better than we had expected. "Our voice has been heard," he said.

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Read other articles in this issue:

Mandela to WCC: tribute, and the development goal
Four fundamental questions for churches
Experiences people have had: Living the ecumenical connection
Orthodox preachers shares testimony about being lost
Visitors take home gift of a covenant
Bulgarian Orthodox quit WCC
Looking for the vision
WCC to set up commission with Orthodox churches
Trees will be reminder of the 8th assembly
Listen! Children can work
Letters: Provocative, misleading
50 years ago: Report from Amsterdam
Zimbabwe Christians criticise government
WCC celebrates 50th anniversary
Assembly yes to Christian 'forum'

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor