From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Future direction of WCC in question as Orthodox and Protestants

Date 01 Feb 2001 05:30:28for <,>; Thu, 1 Feb 2001 05:31:46 -0800 (PST)

Note #6365 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


Future direction of WCC in question as Orthodox and Protestants differ

by Edmund Doogue
Ecumenical News International

POTSDAM, Germany -- Protestant and Orthodox members of the governing body of
the World Council of Churches (WCC) today argued -- politely, but
passionately -- over the future direction of the world's biggest ecumenical

Dr. Hilarion Alfeyev, a Russian Orthodox priest and senior official in the
Moscow Patriarchate's department for external church relations, told the
WCC's central committee, meeting in Potsdam, near Berlin, that as "the
Orthodox churches are in a minority [in the WCC], they feel there is no
space for them to express their concerns. When a vote is taken they are, as
a minority, always destined to lose, even if they agree amongst themselves."

Dr. Alfeyev outlined a number of radical solutions, some of them proposed by
his church, which are being considered by a "special commission on Orthodox
participation in the WCC". The commission, which submitted its interim
report to the central committee today, has 60 members, 30 Orthodox and 30
non-Orthodox, and has met several times since it was set up in 1999. It will
meet twice more in the next 18 months and present its final report to the
next central committee meeting late in 2002.

Dr. Alfeyev said his church was committed to the WCC, but at the end of his
speech he hinted that unless changes were made, the Russian Orthodox Church,
the biggest member of the WCC, would leave the organization. "The Russian
Orthodox Church sees its future in the WCC as directly dependent on the
results of the special commission," he told the central committee.

The Orthodox churches represent a small minority of the WCC's 342 member
churches and believe that their views are swamped by the Protestant majoriy.
Dr. Alfeyev also complained that as the Roman Catholic and most Evangelical
churches were not WCC members, "we cannot say the WCC truly represents world
Christianity". Dr. Alfeyev's comment surprised some central committee
members as his church has poor relations with both Catholics and
Evangelicals in Russia.

He mentioned several of the proposals put before the special commission,
including representation in the WCC by "families of churches", a plan for a
second voting chamber in which churches would be grouped by confessions, and
the creation of a new "observer" status for churches. All are seen by his
church as possible replacements for the present Western parliamentary system
which guarantees the non-Orthodox churches an overwhelming majority.

He also supported the "consensus model" in the interim report, which is
likely to replace decision-making by majority vote for many, though not all,
aspects of WCC governance.

While many Protestant and Anglican members of central committee praised the
interim report and thanked the special commission, some were clearly alarmed
by the proposals in the report before them, even though it is far from clear
which proposals will be adopted.

John H. Roberts, a Methodist pastor from Aotearoa/New Zealand, singled out
some of the major differences between the Orthodox churches and the more
liberal of the Protestant churches in WCC membership -- policies regarding
"homosexuality, the ordination of women, and the use of inclusive language
in speaking about God". (According to the interim report, Pope Shenouda III,
head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the special commission last year
that these issues "threatened the unity and fellowship of the churches".)

"The Orthodox churches have difficulty with these issues," Roberts said,
"but for some other [WCC] member churches, they are at the cutting edge of
theological expression." He said that the WCC needed to become a "place of
genuine dialogue" about these matters.

He also complained that moves to change representation at the WCC into
confessional groups or families of churches would stifle the voices of
smaller churches like those in his country, where five denominations are
members of the WCC. "The small churches should not be dominated by bigger
churches. Size should not be a consideration for participation in the WCC."

Some Protestant central committee members also expressed concern about
sections of the interim report which suggest that religious services at WCC
events, particularly during its central committees and its assemblies, held
every seven or eight years, will in future be much more subdued. (In the
past some conservative Orthodox Christians have suggested that key WCC
liturgies, incorporating elements of local beliefs in various parts of the
world, were heretical.) The interim report suggests that in future the WCC
should hold services of "common prayer" rather than "worship" and its that
services "must avoid syncretistic elements and the use of inclusive language
in relation to God".

Bishop Margot Kassmann, of the Evangelical Church in Germany, described WCC
liturgies as "unique" and enriching. Ruth Bottoms, a pastor with the Baptist
Union of Great Britain, also defended the WCC's worship services: "It is the
worship that has most shaped me [at WCC gatherings]. It holds me in when
things get difficult. We get together in Christ, and, like it or not, I am
with my brothers and sisters."

Other Protestant delegates worried that consensus would threaten the ability
of the WCC to take courageous actions. A Church of England bishop, Barry
Rogerson, said the interim report was a "good piece of work", but he worried
about the possible loss of the organization's "prophetic voice". "In the
past the WCC has said things that the churches found unpalatable, but they
[the WCC] were right," he said, referring specifically to the WCC's Program
to Combat Racism (PCR) which helped those campaigning against apartheid and
other racist systems in Africa. The PCR, Bishop Roerson said, "helped change
the face of southern Africa. It would be sad if that [prophetic voice] was

A leading Orthodox archbishop, Anastasios of Tirana, Albania, pleaded with
both sides of the debate. In a clear plea for a change in structure to allow
greater influence for the Orthodox, he told the central committee that "the
New Testament was not written by majority vote. It is the work of the Holy
Spirit." And in a message intended to keep the Orthodox within the
ecumenical movement, he said that "in a world where two thirds of the
population have no relationship with Christianity, we cannot become an

Bishop Rolf Koppe, head of the department for ecumenical affairs and
overseas ministries of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), gave a
similar message to the central committee. Bishop Koppe, co-moderator of the
special commission, expressed optimism about the future of the commission
and of the WCC itself, adding: "Everyone is on board, and together we have
something to say to the world."

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