8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on Holy Ground
Visible Unity: Struggling Towards an Elusive Goal

Member churches do not always agree, but at least they are talking to each other and taking steps to enlarge the WCC umbrella.

The founders of the World Council of Churches in 1948 vowed to demonstrate to the world the visible oneness of the Christian community. But 50 years later church unity remains an elusive goal.

From the beginning, deep theological differences over baptism and the eucharist have complicated attempts to worship together. Unrest among the WCC's Orthodox member churches cast a particularly dark shadow over preparations for the eighth assembly. During the year prior to the assembly the Orthodox churches in Georgia and Bulgaria withdrew from the WCC. The Russian Orthodox Church, the Council's largest member church, reduced its assembly delegation from 25 to 5 -- none of them a bishop. The 960 WCC delegates arrived in Harare wondering if their fragile fellowship could weather the tensions.

"The situation is indeed critical," declared central committee moderator Aram I, catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Cilicia), in his report to the delegates soon after the assembly opened. "Unless the assembly takes this present situation seriously, I fear that the Orthodox participation will steadily dwindle."

His Holiness Aram I

Photo by Chris Black/WCC. Click on the photo to order (ref. 7078-02)

The moderator is the primate of one of the WCC's five member churches from the Oriental Orthodox family These ancient churches did not accept the theological definitions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. While significant steps towards reconciliation between these churches and the so-called Eastern Orthodox churches have been taken in recent years, it is the latter church family which has been most vocal in spreading its unease and dissatisfaction with the WCC.

While Aram refused to label the Orthodox-WCC tensions a "crisis", others present at the assembly were less hesitant about using the term. "Yes, it is a crisis," insisted Livingstone A. Thompson, a minister in the Moravian Church in Jamaica. "It is clear that the Orthodox community is in a state of deep concern, which requires immediate action."

Aram said Orthodox concerns centre on "the controversial nature and perceived irrelevance of some of the Council's programmatic activities to the life of Orthodox churches". Many of the Orthodox, he explained, "have come to regard the Council as a Western, Protestant and liberal movement..." Orthodox members also express discomfort with the WCC's style of decision-making, preferring dialogue and consensus to majority vote. The current style of operating, Aram said, is "essentially a model derived from political life and is not necessarily the best way to express the self-understanding of a ‘fellowship of churches'".

Orthodox leaders insisted that in spite of their criticisms of the WCC they remained thoroughly committed to ecumenism. Leonid Kishkovsky, a delegate from the Orthodox Church in America, praised the WCC for bringing together for the first time two branches of Orthodoxy, the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox churches, to discuss open communion. "At its best the World Council of Churches has been a place where Eastern and Western Christianity have met," he said.

"We want the WCC to be radically reformed, so it becomes a true home for Orthodox in the 21st century," said Hilarion Alfeyev, leader of the Russian Orthodox delegation. His remarks came during debate on a document entitled "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC" (CUV), designed to focus and give new direction to the work of the WCC.

The CUV document has already provided the basis for a major restructuring of WCC staff and operations, but the changes do not go far enough to satisfy many Orthodox church representatives. They would like to see the Council transformed so that it becomes representative of the main "church families" rather than of individual churches. Unless that happens, they say, the Orthodox churches will remain a minority voice in the Council, drowned out by the more numerous Protestant church bodies.

Some of the Protestant church representatives grew impatient with debates over structure and representation. "Just what is the problem?" asked Rose Hudson-Wilkin, a minister in the Church of England in a riveting address to the assembly that prompted prolonged applause. "Brothers and sisters, surely this is about power. Let's be honest and name it for what it is -- instead of wrapping it up in theological and ecclesiological language."

What the assembly did

* backed continued consultation regarding the creation of a "Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations", which could extend the WCC's ecumenical contacts far beyond its 339 member churches. The proposed forum could potentially bring to a single table nearly all of the main Christian churches and organizations in the world, including the Roman Catholic Church and major Pentecostal and evangelical churches. Opponents of the forum proposal argued that it would create a "parallel" ecumenical framework and divert attention away from structural unity within the WCC. Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the WCC, who had floated the idea several times over the past two year, insisted the forum was intended "to open up dialogue between people who do not normally talk to each 7other";

* set up a special commission to study and analyze issues related to the participation of Orthodox churches in the WCC. The commission will work for at least three years and will draw up proposals about "necessary changes in structure, style and ethos of the Council";

* endorsed a major policy statement, titled "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision for the World Council of Churches" (CUV), which affirms the primary understanding of the WCC as a "fellowship of churches" and attempts to position the organization for renewed vitality and unity as it enters its second half-century;

* affirmed a suggestion by moderator Aram I that Eastern and Western churches move towards a common celebration of Easter, taking advantage of the fact that Easter falls on the same date (April 15) in the year 2001 in both the Gregorian and Julian calendars;

* affirmed a progress report from the Joint Working Group which monitors relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC;

* approved the formation of a WCC-Pentecostal Joint Working Group;

* encouraged the WCC and its member churches to continue the search for new forms of relationships with evangelicals, drawing on the many evangelicals in WCC member churches.

Others appeared more sympathetic to concerns of the Orthodox churches. "As we respond to the pain of the world, we dare not ignore or neglect the pain that is visibly present within our own life together," declared Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. The concerns voiced by the Orthodox members, he added, have "been expressed by many Protestant member churches" as well. "These are not questions which divide Orthodox members from the other churches of the WCC."

Summarizing the issues facing the assembly, Granberg-Michaelson called for an "ecumenism of the heart" to supplement traditional WCC emphases on doctrine and social issues. Such an ecumenism, he said "requires an honest confrontation with our painful divisions over communion, baptism and our worship life together".

Granberg-Michaelson also urged renewed efforts to "enlarge the tent" of the WCC by reaching out the Roman Catholics and to "those fastest-growing churches in Latin America, Africa and Asia -- often evangelical or Pentecostal in character -- which will shape the future face of Christian faith in the world".

Roman Catholics and the WCC
The Roman Catholic Church, which has been in dialogue with the World Council of Churches for more than 30 years, sent a 23-member delegation of official observers to the Harare assembly.

One of them was the ecumenical veteran Thomas Stransky, a Paulist priest from the US who heads the Tantur Ecumenical Institute outside Jerusalem. He told journalists at a press conference that it was not out of the question that his church would one day join the WCC. According to Stransky, "times may have changed" since the Vatican decided in 1972 not to seek membership in the Council. The Catholic Church is already a full member of 56 national councils of churches throughout the world, and has contributed members to WCC commissions on Faith and Order and World Mission and Evangelism.

Fr Thomas Stransky

Photo by Chris Black/WCC
Click on the photo to order (ref. 7116-25a)

One concern now, said Bishop Mario Conti, leader of the Catholic delegation, is that "our entry might alter the balance of the Council and have a destabilizing effect". The Roman Catholic Church, with more than 900 million members around the world, is over twice the size of the combined Protestant-Orthodox membership of the WCC.
A strong evangelical presence
Several Roman Catholic and Orthodox church leaders observed that when it comes to moral and doctrinal issues, they often find more common ground with evangelical Christians than with the liberal Protestants who typically shape the Council's agenda.

Evangelicals, a well-organized presence in Harare, worked eagerly to form alliances with a broad range of church representatives who shared their concerns. Before the assembly began, a North American group called the Association of Church Renewal issued a "Jubilee Appeal" to the WCC. Members of the group, many of them long-time critics of the WCC, prepared position papers on topics ranging from Christian unity to mission work to sexual morality.

"This is the first time evangelicals have been united in coming to an assembly," said Thomas Oden, a United Methodist theologian and professor at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. The WCC has made attempts to reach out to evangelical and Pentecostal non-member churches, he added, while often excluding the evangelicals among its members. "What we're talking about are faithful Methodists, faithful Presbyterians, whose churches contribute to the WCC but who feel marginalized" by some of the organization's emphases and rhetoric.

At an afternoon Padare session on "Evangelicals and the Ecumenical Movement" about 100 people listened as Oden and a panel of evangelical leaders from nearly every continent called on the WCC to return to an emphasis on the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ.

In one of the most surprising messages, a Baptist leader from the former Soviet republic of Georgia reported that a "healing movement" between Baptists and Orthodox Christians has begun in his country. Orthodox churches have often had little to do with Baptists and other evangelical groups in their countries, accusing them of proselytizing in the name of evangelism.

Evangelicals and others who shared their concerns met informally throughout the assembly. Near the end of the final business session, they presented a letter they had drafted to the WCC, once again urging delegates to "take seriously the call to mission and evangelism".

Hope for the long haul
With slow, sometimes fumbling steps, those gathered in Harare struggled towards the goal of a unity in Christ which transcends human-erected barriers.

Newcomers to the ecumenical quest may have been encouraged by the moving personal testimony of a veteran, Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania. "To be ecumenical means to be ready for suffering," he said at a press conference early in the assembly. "I came to the World Council of Churches as a young deacon, and now I am an old bishop. I've seen how slowly change comes..."

Anastasios admitted that he had not always felt comfortable in the WCC, but said he has stayed with it because he "sensed a common longing" among its members. "I am optimistic," he declared, "because I know God exists, Christ is here, the Holy Spirit is at work."

Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania

Photo by Chris Black/WCC
Click on the photo to order (ref. 7076-11)

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