number 3, december 7, 1998

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Vision paper triggers debate

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 council’s structure and the position of the Orthodox churches to the advisability of having a parallel ecumenical forum.

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 power."

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 we’re 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 understanding.

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 document’s 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 committee’s 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 WCC’s role in the ecumenical movement.

This is the obvious consequence of the WCC and its member churches being centred in Jesus Christ.

It may seem there are several threatening question marks being placed concerning the WCC’s life and future.

Responses from Orthodox Christians vary from rumblings of discontent to open challenges to Geneva to "change or we’ll 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 Christ’s 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, complains another.

It is not fanciful to entertain the idea that yesterday’s 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 of England).

What’s 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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Related documents & articles:

Common Understanding & Vision
Common Understanding & Vision Plenary

Read other articles in this issue:

Vision paper triggers debate &
On the back of a tiger
Abolition 2000
CNN president wants delegates' views
They went on a visit
Gays' criticism about WCC integrity rejected
Help stop slaughter in Sudan
You're in the deadly centre
WCC has eight new members, and one deferred

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor