8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on the Way
7.2. Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople
and Ecumenical Patriarchate

Bartholomew, by the Grace of God Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch

To the beloved participants in the eighth assembly of the World Council of Churches: grace, mercy and peace from our triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

From this holy and apostolic Throne of Apostle Andrew, the first-called disciple, we heartily greet the leadership and the participants of this jubilee assembly, marking the 50th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, with the words of St Paul: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:4-7).

As a church actively involved both in the emergence of the contemporary ecumenical movement and in the formation and foundation of the WCC, we rejoice in the fact that what the Ecumenical Patriarchate foresaw in 1920, namely a "koinonia of churches", eventually became a reality and for fifty consecutive years served the sacred cause of Christian unity, while trying to act as an agent of reconciliation and respond to the manifold needs of contemporary society.

This ecumenical Throne of Constantinople, in its declaration issued on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the WCC (1973), spoke extensively about this constructive contribution of the WCC in the ecumenical scene, underlining its role in the promotion of Christian unity and its involvement in the healing of the sufferings of humanity today. This was reiterated later on by the third Preconciliar Panorthodox Conference (1986) which eloquently stressed that theological studies, undertaken by the Council in the framework of its commission on Faith and Order, were instrumental in bringing churches together, while the Council's "manifold activities in the fields of evangelism, diakonia, health, theological education, interfaith dialogue, combatting racism, promoting peace and justice, responded to particular needs of the churches and of the world, providing opportunities for common witness and action".

A jubilee is a moment for shared joy and celebration in peace. And there are many reasons for rejoicing over the positive achievements of the WCC and its member churches. Indeed, throughout the five decades of its life, the WCC has been a platform where churches, coming from different horizons and from a great variety of traditions and ecclesiological backgrounds, were able to converse with each other and promote Christian unity, in spite of the obvious difficulties of such an endeavour. From their side, the Orthodox churches, through their participation in the WCC, were able to bring into the heart of the wide ecumenical debate their tradition, theology, ecclesiology, spirituality and liturgical life, as a witness to their "apostolic faith within new historical conditions and in order to respond to new existential demands" (third Preconciliar Panorthodox Conference). It was precisely this very reality that was acknowledged by the inter-Orthodox conference of Thessaloniki (May 1998) through the affirmation that "the WCC has been a forum where the faith of the Orthodox church, its mission and its views on a number of issues such as justice, peace and ecology were made widely known to the non-Orthodox world".

It is also evident that many Orthodox churches of the former Eastern Europe, because of their presence in the WCC, overcame the isolation imposed on them by the socio-political conditions prevailing in their countries in the last five or seven decades. On the other hand, the WCC, as an institution called to serve the churches, assisted its Orthodox member churches in many ways, whether in the field of pastoral work or theological education or in the generous area of diakonia by expressing concretely the Christian solidarity between its member churches.

A jubilee is also a moment for critical assessment of shortcomings and difficulties. It should be acknowledged that in the fifty years of the life of the WCC, it has more than once passed through turbulent periods. A significant number of theological, ecclesiological, socio-political, cultural and ethical divergences have been at the very centre of the difficulties member churches have faced within the Council -- difficulties which became even more visible during the seventh assembly in Canberra and took a critical turn afterwards, when a series of liberal theological and moral positions were adopted and brought into the life of the Council by a variety of member churches, mainly from the Northern hemisphere.

The Council is undoubtedly a heterogeneous body. It is constituted by a multitude of member churches of different -- and sometimes diametricaly opposed -- theological, ecclesiological and liturgical traditions. This diversity reflects in fact a double reality. On the one hand, it highlights the great richness of the Christian faith expressed through a variety of theological schools of thought, liturgical practices, expressions of spiritual lives, cultural specificities. On the other, it reflects the tragic reality of Christian division as a historial fact in the life of churches, and a wound in the Body of Christ, the church, which should be healed.

One major task of this assembly is to redefine the nature of the WCC and to reorient its work, continuing the debate on the churches' Common Vision and Understanding of the WCC. It is our strong belief, however, that before embarking on the definition of the nature of the WCC, one should proceed to a theological and ecclesiological analysis of the very term "koinonia" and agree on a clear and unequivocal understanding of the fellowship experienced by the member churches in the WCC. As the Ecumenical Patriarchate pointed out in its analysis of the CUV document in November 1995: "After fifty years of fruitful cooperation within the WCC its members are obliged to clarify the meaning and the extent of the fellowship they experience in it, as well as the theological significance of koinonia, which is precisely the purpose and the aim of the World Council of Churches, and not the given reality." This is in fact the major ecclesiological challenge with which the WCC is faced at this critical juncture of its life.

If the much-commented and indeed often misinterpreted report of the Thessaloniki inter-Orthodox meeting, while affirming the understanding of the Orthodox churches of the need to continue their participation in various forms of inter-Christian activity, asked for a fundamental change of the structure of the WCC, it was because of their feeling that the Council's member churches have so far failed to experience this koinonia due to the fact that they were caught up in an institutional logic which, for a variety of reasons, jeopardized a real and meaningful Orthodox participation in the Council.

It is important to stress that in the restructuring of the WCC the options before the member churches are rather limited. Either they should regard the WCC as a mere organization with an institutional understanding of membership and decision-making processes -- in fact an organizer of conferences and theological symposia -- in which case church unity will emerge through negotiations, always depending as it were on majority-minority relationships between member churches. Or they should work towards the shaping of the WCC as a fellowship in which, through being, working, reflecting theologically and witnessing together, and above all by sharing a common vision of what the church is, they will come to the point of confessing not only the one Lord but also the one Church. The task looks insurmountable, given the radical differences in the ecclesiological understanding of its member churches. Hence the deeper meaning of what this ecumenical Throne has described as an "ecclesiological challenge", and the imperative of an Orthodox participation in the WCC "on an equal footing", as suggested by the third Preconciliar Panorthodox Conference.

We should not be discouraged by the enormity of the task. In the final analysis, our commitment in the ecumenical movement is a response to the Lord's calling to unity (John 17:21) and our participation in the WCC is precisely "to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ through witness and service to the world and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe" (WCC constitution).

As member churches celebrate the jubilee of the WCC at the eve of the third millennium, we look forward with particular attention and great expectations to the outcome of this assembly as far as the nature and the future mission of the WCC are concerned. We are confident that the planned mixed commission on the Orthodox participation in the WCC will be in a position to bring proposals which will enable the member churches of this Council to continue their common journey and to fulfill their tasks within a world which is thirsty for the good news of the gospel.

Our main duty today would be to consider together the ways in which the Christian faith handed down by the Apostles to the undivided One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (325-81), this ecumenical creed par excellence, can be interpreted in our times, in the midst of problems faced by humankind.

In congratulating the WCC on its jubilee, we pray the almighty God to send His abundant blessings upon the participants in this assembly, enabling them to accomplish the enormous task entrusted to them by their churches and thus contribute to the advance of the sacred cause of Christian unity.

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor. 13:14).

Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch, fervent intercessor to God
At the Phanar, 30 November 1998, Feast of St Andrew the Apostle

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