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An Ecumenical and Theological assessment of the World Council of Churches (WCC) assembly

The Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches was held on 3 - 14 December, 1998 at Harare, Zimbabwe. I had the privilege of being nominated by His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos to the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as prior commitments prevented him from taking up the offer of the Church to lead this delegation. This role was ultimately filled by His Eminence Metropolitan Athanasios of Heliopolis. The physical surroundings of southern Africa provided an appropriate backdrop for the gathering together of some 1000 delegates representing 336 member churches. Added to this were hundreds of observers, staff, stewards and visitors who transformed the campus of the University of Zimbabwe into a veritable microcosm. The theme "Turn to God, Rejoice in Hope" took on a new meaning for western participants confronted with the pain and suffering of the African people but also with their contagious optimism and hope springing from their faith in God’s presence amongst them. ‘We do not blame God for our suffering,’ one African delegate announced, ‘We know that God suffers with us.’

This theme was introduced to the Assembly by three theologians who gave addresses on the second morning (4/12). His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania spoke on Anamnesis (translated ‘remembrance’) - the need to remember that which defines our Christian identity not as an intellectual function but rather as action. This anamnesis is expressed in all aspects of life and finds fulfilment in the Eucharist which otherwise has the potential to become a simple celebration cut off from life. Wanda Deifelt, a Lutheran professor from Brazil, referred to the need for metanoia (conversion) in all aspects of our personal and social lives. Kosuke Koyama, former professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York, spoke on the last part of the theme -‘Rejoice in Hope’ - and declared that hope is not a time story but a love story and that just as in the case of the Prodigal Son. God runs to the periphery to receive the lost and this periphery then becomes the centre. Grace, he said, causes commotion, not tranquillity.

Reflection on this theme formed the basis for our deliberations and discussions. By its very nature, size and variety of activities and people such an assembly is experienced in different ways by its participants and only in part. This paper presents some of the theological and ecumenical issues which I feel dominated the Assembly deliberations and whose outcomes, from an Orthodox perspective at least, are of significant consequence. It does not discuss major social issues that were debated nor can it possibly communicate the great personal rewards that accrue from participation in such a conference no matter what the official results may be.

The crisis in Orthodox participation

The Assembly opened in an air of impending crisis concerning its relations with the Orthodox Churches. A growing sense of frustration at the direction and structure of the WCC had reached its climax during the Canberra Assembly of 1991 where the Orthodox issued a separate statement (as did the Evangelicals) expressing particular concerns and raising the possibility of reviewing their membership in the future. In order to prepare for the Harare Assembly two meetings of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches took place. The first, held in Thessaloniki, Greece from the 29 April - 2 May 1998, included only the canonical Eastern Orthodox. This meeting reaffirmed Orthodox participation and commitment to the ecumenical movement as a ‘mission of witnessing the Truth before the non-Orthodox world.’ It emphasised the faithfulness of all previous Orthodox participants in the WCC to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church.

Nevertheless it expressed deep concern at some of the developments within the WCC which it felt was making full Orthodox participation increasingly untenable. These included the continued demand for intercommunion, inclusive language, ordination of women, rights of sexual minorities and tendencies to religious syncretism. The meeting decided to request a radical restructuring of the WCC to allow for more adequate Orthodox participation. All Orthodox Churches were encouraged to send delegates to the Eighth Assembly in order to communicate their concerns in the following way:

1. Orthodox delegates participating at Harare will present in common this Statement of the Thessaloniki Inter-Orthodox Meeting.

2. Orthodox delegates will not participate in ecumenical services, common prayers, worship and other religious ceremonies at the Assembly.

3. Orthodox delegates generally will not take part in the voting procedure except in certain cases that concern the Orthodox and by unanimous agreement. If it is needed, in the plenary and group discussions, they will present the Orthodox views and positions.

4. These mandates will be maintained until a radical restructuring of the WCC is accomplished to allow adequate Orthodox participation.

5. The Thessaloniki Meeting sought the creation of a Mixed Theological Commission consisting of an equal number of members appointed by the Orthodox Churches and the WCC to discuss ‘...acceptable forms of Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement and the radical restructuring of the WCC.’4 It was envisaged that this Commission would begin its work after the Harare Assembly.

From the 7 - 13 May 1998 a further Orthodox Pre-Assembly meeting took place at St Ephrem Theological Seminary, near Damascus, Syria. This included the Oriental Churches. This meeting considered the Orthodox approach to the Assembly theme but also tackled the issues posed by the Thessaloniki meeting. Its observations and conclusions were couched in much gentler terms (which had the effect of it being largely ignored by all sides during the Assembly itself) but it basically concurred in all matters with Thessaloniki.

The absence of an Assembly Eucharist on the program was noted and appreciated as more adequately reflecting the current ecumenical situation. It noted further the increased difficulty that Orthodox have in participating in non-sacramental common prayer with other Christians due to increasing internal tensions and the changing character of ecumenical worship.

By the time the Damascus meeting was held the WCC had already acted on the proposal to establish a Mixed Theological Commission but two Orthodox Churches announced their withdrawal form the WCC, namely the Church of Georgia and the Church of Bulgaria.

With the opening of the WCC Assembly in December it became apparent that impending crisis would fail to materialise. The quick response of the WCC in setting up the Mixed Theological Commission, the absence of an Assembly Eucharist and a tightly controlled agenda which did not allow certain controversial issues such as homosexuality to emerge had a general calming effect. The presence of observers from the Georgian and Bulgarian Churches as well as a letter from the Georgian Church expressing its hope of rejoining the WCC as soon as certain internal difficulties had been worked out blunted the edge of their withdrawal and reaffirmed Orthodox ecumenical commitment.

Unfortunately the Orthodox delegations failed to coordinate their positions and took different stances on their interpretation of the Thessaloniki and Damascus meetings. The Ecumenical Patriarchate took a flexible position in light of the compromises made by the WCC as a gesture of goodwill whereas the Churches of Russia and Greece felt themselves bound by their Synods to follow the letter of those agreements. This divergence of opinion was manifestly evident on the floor of the Assembly but may also have had the positive effect of emphasising Orthodox concern while at the same time not breaking all the lines of communication with the Protestant churches.
Both the Moderator of the WCC Central Committee, Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia and the General Secretary, Dr Konrad Raiser in their opining comments recognised the problem of Orthodox participation. The Moderator called on all parties to tackle this problem seriously and for the Orthodox in particular ‘...to move from monologue to dialogue, from reaction to action, from contribution to participation, from being observers to becoming full partners in the WCC.’ But he also recognised this problem not as an Orthodox problem but as an ecumenical problem and challenged all participants to view it as such.

The General Secretary in his report accepted that the Orthodox find themselves in structural minority within the WCC and that this situation will only worsen as more Protestant churches are admitted. He recognised that the Council operates along western parliamentary lines of majority rule and that this model may not be the most appropriate for a ‘fellowship of churches’. It alienates not only the Orthodox but also many of the African churches and other churches of the South.

The crisis in Orthodox participation passed over the Harare Assembly, perhaps too easily. But it has been merely delayed. Unless the processes which have been set up deal with the issues raised, are seen to deal with them and can adequately communicate their deliberations and conclusions to the grassroots, Orthodox participation in the WCC in particular and the ecumenical movement in general may dwindle. The difficulty is that no amount of restructuring of the WCC will be able to reconcile divergent approaches to ecumenicism, theology and, increasingly, morality and ethics. Nevertheless new models of relating to one another, perhaps based on confessional lines rather than nationally based churches and on consensus rather than majority rule, may allow all participants to feel that they are being heard on equal terms.
Towards a common understanding and vision

The meeting of the WCC Central Committee in 1989 commissioned a process of consultation and study in order to prepare a document that could serve as an ecumenical charter for the twenty first century. The text was intended to reaffirm the churches ecumenical commitment and their common understanding of the role of the WCC after fifty years together. The fruit of this endeavour, entitled ‘Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC (CUV)’, was presented to the Central Committee for discussion in September in 1997 and finally brought to the Assembly for debate and adoption.

In introducing the CUV process to the Assembly, the Moderator Aram I, stated that ‘the aim of this CUV process, which began in 1989, has been to give a fresh articulation to the ecumenical vision that is faithful to the gospel message and responsive to the needs and experiences of the member churches; to spell out the decisive importance of unity, mission, evangelism, diakonia, and justice as the basis of any serious articulation of the ecumenical vision; and to sharpen and give more visibility to coherence, integrity and accountability within interchurch collaboration, interchurch relationship and the WCC’s agenda and programmes.’

In commenting on the text of CUV Marion Best suggested that it was a rather conservative document but that it could not be otherwise if it was going to be received by the churches. She pointed out that it presents a number of challenges to the WCC. Firstly, what should be the criteria for membership of the WCC and what does membership imply? There was debate on whether there were forms of participation other than membership which are more appropriate for the WCC and the ecumenical movement? Secondly, she addressed the Orthodox concerns that looked for a form of participation ‘which would allow a qualitative contribution to the fellowship, and which would take into consideration ecclesiological criteria rather than structural rules and regulations.’In continuing on this point she suggested that a model of organisation based on ‘confessional families’ rather than national churches may be more appropriate. It had been suggested and rejected during the formation of the WCC and perhaps needs to be revisited in light of the current problems.

It was noted that the Middle East Council of Churches uses this model. Finally, she reflected on the call for the establishment of a ‘Forum of Christian churches and ecumenical organisations’ as a way of building more significant and inclusive relationships, especially with those churches that are not members of the WCC. We will return to consider this proposal later in the paper.

The reception of the CUV document by the Assembly did not prove to be as smooth as may have been anticipated. Added to the Orthodox concerns about the nature, direction and structure of the WCC and the call for ‘radical restructuring’ were other voices which deplored the theological jargon of the document, challenged the emphasis on common confession rather than common calling and opened discussion for ways in which non-member churches could participate.

It was obvious that by the time the CUV document returned from Policy Reference Committee 1 to the floor of the Assembly it no longer had the momentum to remain the ecumenical blueprint for the next century. It was admitted that no common vision or understanding for the WCC existed amongst the churches at present and that this document needs to be received, clarified, corrected and elaborated in an ongoing process.12 Reception by the Assembly would not imply full agreement with its contents but rather an affirmation that it is sufficiently rich to inspire the member churches’ future life together. The final motion in receiving the CUV document illustrates the ambiguity of its acceptance. It reads thus: ‘The eighth assembly received with gratitude "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches: and urged the WCC to use it as a framework and point of reference as the WCC programmes are evaluated and developed in the future.’

Two significant constitutional consequences for the WCC arose from the CUV process. The first was a proposal to amend the constitution in such a way so that the place of the WCC would be clarified in relation to the churches. Up to this point it was the function of the WCC ‘to call the churches to the goal of visible unity...’ (III,1).

This was changed to ‘The primary purpose of the fellowship of churches in the World Council of Churches is to call one another to visible unity...’ It was felt that this more adequately reflected the role of the WCC as a facilitator and servant of a broader ecumenical movement and was readily accepted by the Assembly. The second amendment was an attempt by the Central Committee to wrest the election of the eight WCC presidents from the Assembly and reserve it for itself as a way de-politicising the election process. In what was a unique moment in this two week conference the Assembly refused to accept the advice of the Central Committee and defeated this proposal in a stunning act of defiance. It was felt that otherwise the collegial presidency would become even more distant and isolated from the grassroots.

The forum

As has been already mentioned a proposal was to establish a Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organisations was raised during the Assembly. This had been based on a consultation convened in August 1998 by decision of the Executive Committee. The conscious decision of a number of churches not to enter the WCC for a variety of reasons led to concerns that the ecumenical movement needed to find new ways of including them. The Roman Catholics and large numbers of Evangelicals and Pentecostals fall into this category. It was envisaged that this body would not become another ecumenical bureaucracy with programs, staff and layers of structure but a meeting place of churches, world Christian confessions, regional and national councils of churches and the WCC where networking would occur and relationships developed.

While the response to this proposal was generally positive, a number of churches expressed certain reservations. Firstly, would the Christological and Trinitarian basis of the WCC be diluted in order to allow churches which did not share them eg Jehovah’s Witnesses to participate. This point was emphasised by the Oriental Orthodox who received assurances that his would not be the case. Secondly, could the Forum become a vehicle for churches who no longer wished to accept the responsibilities and obligations of membership in the WCC to maintain some ecumenical contacts while opting out of the WCC. It was felt that some of the Orthodox Churches might be particularly susceptible to this temptation.

Because of this the Assembly resolved that the matter be referred back to the Central Committee for further consultation and clarification especially regarding the role of the WCC and its member churches in the proposed forum. This process has already begun and the National Council of Churches in Australia has been asked to comment on this proposal. Along with the establishment of the Mixed Theological Commission, action on this Forum might become one of the lasting legacies for which the Eighth Assembly will be remembered. Both these proposals have the potential to change the face of the ecumenical movement in the twenty first century.
Conclusion

The Eighth assembly of the World Council of Churches marked its fiftieth anniversary - its Jubilee. It was intended to reset the course for the ecumenical movement for the next fifty years. To some degree it achieved this. But as one delegate commented, this meeting felt more like the reflection on and completion of an old era and not the beginning of a new one. The Assembly debates were strictly controlled to avoid the emergence of contentious social issues especially homosexuality and abortion. Potential conflicts were quickly diffused by being referred to committees and many delegates began to express frustration at the procedures adopted. Perhaps in a conference of this size and diversity it is not possible to do otherwise. These issues, though, will not go away and will need to be studied and debated in the future.

Nevertheless the Assembly tackled with great honesty a number of underlying concerns which threatened to cripple the WCC from within, always aware of its own limitations. The process of dealing with the Orthodox concerns and the reworking of CUV may be slow but it they are sincerely dealt with then the potential remains for the Ninth Assembly to herald the beginning of a reformed and reinvigorated ecumenical movement. That is certainly our hope.

By Fr Anastasios Bozikis
Parish priest of St. George Brisbane (QLD)

Footnotes:
1. "Evaluation of New Facts in the Relations of Orthodoxy and the Ecumenical Movement" in Fitzgerald, T. and Bouteneff, P. (eds.), Turn to God, Rejoice in Hope: Orthodox Reflections on the Way to Harare, (WCC, Geneva, 1998), p. 137.
2. ibid.
3. ibid., p. 138.
4. ibid.
5. "Final Statement of the Orthodox Pre-Assembly Meeting" in ibid., p. 10.
6. Aram I, "Report of the Moderator" in Kessler, D. (ed.), Together on the Way: Official Report of the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, (WCC Publications, Geneva, 1999), p. 70.
7. Raiser, K., "Report of the General Secretary" in ibid., p. 96.
8. Raiser, K., ‘Report of the General Secretary’ in Kessler, D. (ed.), Together on the Way: Official Report of the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, (WCC Publications, Geneva, 1999), p. 104.
9. ibid., p. 108.
10. ibid., p. 110.
11. ibid., p. 112-113.
12. ibid., p. 157.
13. ibid., p. 158-159.

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