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6 December 2000

"The quest for unity is something very essential to our Christian being"

Karin Achtelstetter, Media Relations Officer of the World Council of Churches (WCC), discusses the results of the Jubilee Council of Bishops with the Secretary for Inter-Christian Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, The Very Rev. Dr Hilarion Alfeyev.

Karin Achtelstetter: The document "The Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church to Other Christian Confessions" is now available in an authorized English translation. It is one of several documents issued by the Russian Orthodox Church Council of Bishops, which met in August 2000. Father Hilarion, could you please first of all introduce the issues the Council dealt with as well as the context and situation of the Russian Orthodox Church in which the Bishops met?

Father Hilarion Alfeyev: The Jubilee Council of Bishops, which took place in August this year was, in my view, the most productive council of the Russian Orthodox Church since the famous local council of 1917-1918. This year's Council produced several important documents. One of its major and important acts was to canonise more than 1,000 saints of the 20th, 19th and 18th centuries, including many new martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church. Media attention focused particularly on the canonisation of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, and the fact that more than 1,000 other people were canonised was almost completely overlooked. These canonisations should be considered within the framework of our recent history. Tsar Nicholas II and his family were among those who suffered for their Christian faith and for being authentic representatives of their own nation. This is particularly true for Nicholas II and his family because, although they did not suffer for Christ in the literal sense, they were passion-bearers who suffered for being Russians - for being faithful to their country and to their people. Indeed, among the more than 1,000 newly canonised saints, there are remarkable personalities - both amongst the new 20th-century martyrs and amongst those of preceding centuries like, for example, Archimandrite Makari Gloukharev, who was a missionary in the Altai region and was very ecumenical in spirit. He wanted to organize a joint mission of Christians, Muslims and Jews and even to build a temple where the representatives of these traditional religions could pray together. I know that in some circles of the Russian Orthodox Church there was strong opposition to this canonisation - yet this person was canonised, and I think that it is a very positive sign.

Another important thing done by this Council was the adoption of a document called the Bases of the Social Conception, or of the Social Doctrine, of the Russian Orthodox Church. It deals with very many issues related to the life of a Christian in contemporary society. It touches upon the issue of the church and the state, for example, and constitutes a major breakthrough in the relations between them because it proclaims the complete independence of the church. It also claims that the church has the moral authority and right to influence decisions taken by the state. It further specifies that in cases where the state or government undertakes some action or calls to some activities that go against Christian morality and spirit, the church may call its faithful to protest and even to civil disobedience. I think it is the first time in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church that such a radical statement is made.

KA: Coming back to "The Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church to Other Christian Confessions", why was it so important for the Russian Orthodox Church at that moment to discuss these issues and to adopt a document like this one?

HA: There has been an ongoing discussion within the Russian Orthodox Church, which intensified tremendously after the collapse of the Soviet Union, on Orthodox participation in various inter-Christian activities. Many people within the Church questioned the necessity of such activities - of bilateral dialogues, of the Russian Orthodox presence in the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical organisations. This criticism still exists on various levels. Obviously there are people - those who are influenced by various schismatic groups which use this issue for propaganda purposes. But there are also people who are sincerely preoccupied with the present state of affairs in the ecumenical movement. We see that the degree to which the Orthodox Church is involved and is able to influence the agenda of the ecumenical movement is quite insufficient. There are therefore a lot of discussions and arguments about these issues. And again, people express their private positions, and some are simply confused - they do not know what to think and whom to believe. It was very important for the Church to adopt a balanced official position on why it is necessary to continue to participate in inter-Christian dialogue.

KA: As you said before, this Council was one of the most important ones in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church. What in your opinion is the significance of the document "The Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church to Other Christian Confessions" for the life of your church?

HA: First of all, the document proclaims very clearly what has been the official position of the Orthodox Church: the Orthodox Church identifies itself with the true church of Christ, established by Christ himself. The fact that we participate in discussions and dialogues with other Christian churches and communities does not undermine the importance of this intrinsic conviction of Orthodox Christians. Secondly, the document says that the quest for unity is something very essential to our Christian being and that it would be a sin to underestimate the necessity to work for Christian unity.

KA: Has this never been stated before?

HA: It has all been stated before, in one form or another. However, to put these questions in this theological framework is very helpful. The document specifies that the Russian Orthodox Church has had dialogue with Christians of other confessions for more than 200 years. It also specifies that the Russian Orthodox Church differentiates between various confessions. That means we recognise the baptism of some confessions, we recognise the baptism and Christmation of some confessions, and we accept representatives of some Christian confessions, if they happen to be priests or bishops, in their existing ranks.

KA: What status does this document have within the Russian Orthodox Church?

HA: It is an official document that must be followed by all members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

KA: Until a new document is produced?

HA: There is no provision for a new document. Of course, in the long term, the Church is free to make amendments and adjustments to its own documents. The document was not only written for immediate use. The idea was to write a document which would be useful for years, if not for decades. That is why its authors tried to dissociate as much as possible from the present situation within the Christian world.

KA: The document refers in many instances to the "Orthodox Church". Does that mean that the Russian Orthodox Church speaks on behalf of the whole Eastern Orthodox family?

HA: It is an internal document for the Russian Orthodox Church, and whenever reference is made to the particular role which the Russian Orthodox Church has played or to some historical aspects of Russian Orthodox involvement in inter-Christian activities, the phrase the Russian Orthodox Church is used. However, when a more general statement is made about various theological, dogmatic or doctrinal positions of the Orthodox Church, the phrase the Orthodox Church is used. This does not mean that another Orthodox church could not question these positions, though I think it rather unlikely that an Orthodox church would criticise a dogmatic position of the Russian Orthodox Church. The bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church thought that when they spoke on various theological and doctrinal aspects of our involvement in inter-Christian activities, they represented the Orthodox point of view, that would be shared by other Orthodox churches.

KA: According to the document, the Orthodox Church cannot accept the equality of denominations. Might this not cause some irritation amongst non-Orthodox Christian traditions which are in dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church?

HA: We are not against coexistence of various denominations as legal entities. However, we cannot ignore the fact that some Christian confessions, in our view, are closer to the truth than other Christian confessions. When the document speaks of the equality of denominations, the question is about their equality vis--vis what we consider to be the true tradition of one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We identify the Orthodox Church as being faithful to this tradition, while we would claim that some other Christian confessions have departed in one way or another from this tradition. Therefore, in this respect, there is no equality between them.

KA: Does this position allow for a dialogue with other denominations on an equal footing?

HA: There is always an equal footing in any dialogue, which does not diminish the fact that both partners in the dialogue consider themselves as bearers of truth. At least this is true for the Orthodox Church. There is a special chapter in the document that states very clearly that a dialogue is not a monologue. We therefore are involved not only in order to speak and to see whether what we say is acceptable, but also in order to listen. That does not mean, however, that we are going to adjust our dogmatic positions. It means we are ready to listen or, as the document ends, "our mouth is open unto you; our heart is enlarged". This is a quotation from Second Corinthians.

KA: The document states that the Russian Orthodox Church - or is it any Orthodox church? - cannot be a member of an organisation whose statues, rules or procedure demand the denial of the faith and traditions of the Orthodox Church; in which the Orthodox Church is unable to express itself as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic; in which decision-making does not take into account the ecclesiological self-understanding of the Orthodox Church; as well as in which rule and procedure presuppose the obligatory nature of the majority opinion. What does that mean concretely with regard to the World Council of Churches?

HA: The document says that the Russian Orthodox Church cannot participate in international or inter-Christian organisations with these criteria. I think the statement was deliberately put in hypothetical rather than in concrete terms. It does not state the criteria of an organisation of which the Russian Orthodox Church can be a member. Rather, it describes a theoretical inter-Christian organisation whose criteria do not correspond to the ecclesiological vision of the Russian Orthodox Church. This means that the Russian bishops did not want to point to any particular inter-Christian organisation. The description was meant to facilitate the choice that bishops, priests and other members of the Russian Orthodox Church sometimes have to make about joining a particular organisation or not.

KA: How would this apply - in your opinion - to the World Council of Churches?

HA: I think the answer is very simple. If we discover that the constitution and rules of the World Council of Churches require a renunciation of Orthodox doctrine, if we discover that the Orthodox Church has no opportunity to testify to itself as one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, if we discover that the decision-making does not take into account our ecclesiological self-awareness, and if we discover that the majority opinion has an obligatory nature within the World Council, then we are most likely to withdraw.

KA: The Russian Orthodox Church has been a member of the World Council of Churches for a long time. Do you now have doubts about your membership?

HA: The discussion within the Special Commission is aimed at clarifying various Orthodox concerns. Some Orthodox believe that the World Council of Churches no longer, as it did in the past, represents the positions of the Orthodox Church. Some Orthodox say that it has in fact never represented the Orthodox adequately. For example, there are very strong voices within the Russian Orthodox Church calling for withdrawal. All the Orthodox sense that there is a great need not simply for improvement and adjustments of existing structures, but for introduction of a new structure and a new ethos. Many issues must be revisited, and an ample space for the Orthodox should be created within the Council. We have committed ourselves to the World Council of Churches until the completion of the work of the Special Commission. I think that the decision of our church on whether to remain, withdraw completely, or seek observer or any other status will depend on the final results of the work of the Special Commission.

The interview with the Secretary for Inter-Christian Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church,The Very Rev. Dr Hilarion Alfeyev, is one of a number of interviews, features and background stories on issues related to the relationship between Orthodox churches and other member churches of the WCC.

For further information on the Russian Orthodox Church Council of Bishops please consult their website.

A photo of The Very Rev. Dr Hilarion Alfeyev is available on this site or by telephone : (+41.22) 791.62.95.

Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches (WCC)

The Special Commission was created by the WCC's eighth assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998. Behind the decision to create the Commission were increasingly vocal expressions of concerns about the WCC among Orthodox churches. These had culminated in a meeting of Eastern Orthodox churches in Thessaloniki, Greece, in May 1998. Central Orthodox concerns as summarised by that meeting included some activities of the WCC itself, "certain developments within some Protestant member churches of the Council that are reflected in the debates of the WCC", lack of progress in ecumenical theological discussions and the perception that the present structure of the WCC makes meaningful Orthodox participation increasingly difficult and even for some impossible. In its action approving creation of the Special commission, the Harare assembly noted that "other churches and ecclesial families" have concerns similar to those expressed by the Orthodox.

At its second meeting in Cairo, Egypt, 23-25 October 2000, the Special Commission produced a progress report, to be forwarded to the WCC Central Committee which will meet in Potsdam, near Berlin, Germany, 29 January - 6 February 2001. It also approved a plan of action, which involves concentrated work before the next plenary meeting in November 2001. A final report is expected for the Central Committee meeting to be held in September 2002.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.