By Mitch Odero
A significant document, Towards a Common Understanding and Vision (CUV), triggered an
intense debate today among assembly delegates,
Opening the debate during a deliberative plenary, WCC moderator His Holiness Aram 1
explained that the document was expected to give a " fresh articulation" to the
ecumenical vision which should remain faithful to the gospel message and be responsive to
the needs and aspirations of all.
Delegates responded with views ranging from criticism of the councils structure and
the position of the Orthodox churches to the advisability of having a parallel ecumenical
One delegate received sustained and tumultuous applause when she responded to the various
contributions by offering a critique of the debate itself.
"At the risk of sounding naive," said the Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Church of
England), "What is the problem here? ... It seems the road we have gone down is,
My church is bigger than yours, or, I have more money than you,
or, My church has this long and important tradition. But this is really about
She referred to Orthodox speakers who had preceded her. "An earlier speaker said,
Your story is not my story," she said. "At the Festival (Ecumenical
Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women), we said just the opposite: Your story
is my story.
"If were going to listen to each other, we cannot do it from a distance. That
means walking side by side with me, even if you are uncomfortable."
Earlier, Bishop Zacharias Mar Theophilus (India) stressed that a new millennium demanded a
new vision. He noted that the human race was facing the third Christian millennium with a
growing despiritualization, when transnational corporations and information technology
"are forging unity at the cost of human values".
He said that giving expression to common vision can be as difficult as articulating common
Fr. Thomas Stransky, a US priest based in Jerusalem, pointed out that the Catholic Church
has been involved in the ecumenical dialogue and that, at community and national levels,
there had been a "tremendous shift" toward belonging to the ecumenical movement.
Dr. Agnes Abuom (Kenya) said that many member churches have not been engaged in the CUV
process. She asked, "What does it mean to talk about Christian unity when we ...
churches ... are breaking up? What does it mean in a broken world?
She stressed that "some of us are still on the periphery and not at the centre. We
have to create space that will accommodate youth, women and open spaces for established
churches which are on the periphery."
A number of delegates recommended what they described as Christ-centredness, saying it
should be represented in all issues before WCC.
The Rev. Dr. Hilarion Alfeyev (Russian Orthodox Church), who said he represented the
largest church in the WCC, expressed doubt about the CUV documents ability to bring
Orthodox and other WCC members closer together.
"The Orthodox cannot affect the agenda of the WCC because they are a minority,"
he said. "What about the veneration of Mary or of icons? These cannot be discussed
because they are divisive. But what about inclusive language and the ordination of women?
Are these not divisive?"
Archbishop Anastasios (Albanian Orthodox Church) suggested the dialogue that once existed
between Orthodox and other members of the WCC had all but disappeared. He cited the
dialogue on the Holy Spirit that took place during the 7th assembly. "(Now) we did
not have a single line about it," he said. Orthodox "will say, keep your Common
Understanding and Vision. We will go out."
Even so, Anastasios said, "I speak out of a deep desire that we must go together and
that the Holy Spirit will guide us as we go together."
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On the back of a tiger
By Noel Bruyns
The World Council of Churches, wanting to broaden its ecumenical scope through its
proposed Common Understanding and Vision (CUV), finds itself in the same daunting position
as the Roman Catholic Church when it decided to dialogue with Protestants and other faiths
in the mid-sixties.
The WCC can understand the picture painted by Fr Tom Stransky, one of the panelists at the
CUV hearings yesterday: When you step on the back of a tiger, you think very hard before
you make your next move.
The reaction of the plenary to the WCC central committees already adopted document
presages a kairos phase in the future life and self-understanding of the council.
Some harsh words were spoken at the plenary yesterday, some the painful naked truth, some
encouraging and some giving credit to the positive contributions and hard work of the
council and its staff.
It is a given that all these words were spoken with love and out of genuine concern for
the WCCs role in the ecumenical movement.
This is the obvious consequence of the WCC and its member churches being centred in Jesus
It may seem there are several threatening question marks being placed concerning the
WCCs life and future.
Responses from Orthodox Christians vary from rumblings of discontent to open challenges to
Geneva to "change or well go our own way" a cry of pain of those
who no longer feel they have a home in the WCC.
The plan for a new forum for greater ecumenical participation with bodies who are not
members of the WCC may need to go back to the drawing board.
There is a strong argument for deepening existing relationships before broadening
relationships with new partners. The tensions between the Eastern Orthodox Christians and
Christians in the West may, not inconceivably, derail the commitment "we shall stay
together" made 50 years ago in Amsterdam. The continuing acceptance of new churches
or splinter churches into the WCC inspires little confidence that the WCC and it member
churches are getting it right to transform into reality Jesus Christs desire that we
may all be one.
Clearly, serious work needs to be done to get our own house in order before we build a
second house (the ecumenical forum) to accommodate others.
Creating a "second chamber" for non-members may well entice existing members
away from the WCC with its membership obligations and sometimes cumbersome structures.
"You have stepped on the back of a tiger;.think hard before you make you next
move," assembly delegates are saying.
The CUV document proposal has raised many structural questions, not only about its
relations with the Orthodox churches but also about its way of doing things.
Being asked to accept a document already passed without the opportunity of making
amendments "smacks of supreme soviet style", one delegate concludes. Ecumenism
starts with lay people, but the CUV document is not formulated for ordinary people,
It is not fanciful to entertain the idea that yesterdays plenary may go down as
historic in the life of the WCC. Not only for the litany of where we have gone wrong in
the past 50 years, but also for the prophetic words of the Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Church
Whats is the problem, she asks. You complain that you are the bigger member, or that
you are the richer, or more important, or less seriously taken. In the end, it is all a
power game, dressed up in theological and ecclesiological language.
She encourages us to find a way out in sharing in "our separate stories",
finding unity because we have searched for it side by side, even when it hurt.
Those are truly words spoken by someone rejoicing in hope.
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