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29 January - 6 February 2001
Potsdam, Germany

1 February 2001

Central Committee members 'optimistic' about work of Special Commission

The work of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches (WCC) is not finished, but most Central Committee members seemed pleased by what they heard in an interim report Wednesday morning (31 January).

"It's late and I need to leave many points aside," declared Archbishop Nifon of Targoviste (Romanian Orthodox Church) toward the end of the plenary session, "but please put me on the list of the optimistic ones".

The Special Commission is composed of 60 persons from WCC-member churches, half of them Orthodox. It was created by the WCC's Eighth Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998. Its mandate is to study Orthodox participation in the Council and to propose changes "in structure, style and ethos" of the Council.

After two meetings - in Morges, Switzerland in December 1999, and in Cairo in October 2000 - the Commission has named four sub-committees to study major issues of concern and is discussing alternative ways in which Council members can worship and function together and make decisions. One proposal already attracting attention - and debate - is that the Council make decisions by consensus rather than by majority vote.

"The Orthodox are a minority in the Council and feel there is not ample space for them to be heard," explained the Rev. Dr Hilarion Alfeyev of the Department for External Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, who serves on the Special Commission. "They are always destined to lose (votes) even if all of them are for a particular point."

The Rev. Mari Kinnunen (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland) asked, "What will happen to the so-called prophetic voice of the WCC? Will the consensus model silence this voice?" Bishop Barry Rogerson (Church of England) pointed out that in the areas of social and political judgement, "The World Council has said things some of our member churches found unpalatable, but we were right, especially on the issue of apartheid."

"As I read the Bible," Archbishop Anastasios of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania noted wryly, "the prophetic voice was not expressed by majority vote."

During the Cold War, Anastasios said, "the church and the ecumenical movement were the bridges between the people, who raised up the suffering of the people under Communist regimes. Instead of bridges today (between the church and the ecumenical movement) there is an iron curtain - or, if you don't like that expression, a nylon curtain."

He added: "But this is not about good Orthodox and bad Protestants, or bad Orthodox and good Protestants. It goes deeper than that. We must approach this issue with fear, prayer and discussion." Anastasios called upon his fellow Orthodox to work constructively with the Special Commission, "We have complained," he said. "Now, make concrete proposals."

Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), compared the ecumenical fellowship to Paul's metaphor of the church as the differently functioning parts of the body (I Corinthians12:12-31).

"When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers together, and when one part is honoured the whole body is honoured," Kirkpatrick said. "It's a powerful statement calling for a new model of Council unity in Christ." He called upon the Special Commission to work out how that model can "stimulate a common witness to overcome racism," have solidarity with the poor and advance evangelism.

One of the sticking points between Orthodox and other members of the Council has been the difficulty in identifying a common ground for worship. The Special Commission suggests that in Council documents, the term "common prayer" be used instead of "worship" to "avoid implications concerning ritual," and that "common prayer" should avoid "syncretistic" elements or inclusive language referring to God. "Syncretism" is the use of pagan elements or symbols in Christian worship.

But several Central Committee members said the Special Commission needs to think through these issues more carefully. The Rev. Ruth Bottoms (Baptist Union of Great Britain) said that WCC worship "has most shaped me and holds me in when things get difficult. We are together in Christ and almost whether I like it or not, I am with brothers and sisters in Christ. I really don't know what would be the difference between common prayer and worship."

Bottoms also asked who would decide what is syncretistic. "In my church we use the Christmas tree that is a gift from Germany... and we find ways in our worship of adding Christian symbolism in all sorts of ways. I wonder if I am being syncretistic or acculturalising, taking English symbols and giving them Christian meaning?"

The next meetings of the Special Commission will be in November 2001 and in May 2002. It will prepare its final report to the Central Committee in September 2002.

The Central Committee will comment formally to the Commission on the last day of its meeting in Potsdam, 6 February.

More information on the Special Commission
Photos from the Central Committee

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, 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.