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Orthodox Church in America (OCA) considers withdrawal from the NCC

Orthodox Church in America

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Read the NCC resource page for critiques of the NCC and Orthodox involvement in it.

The following is an excerpt from an OCA position paper Orthodox Relations recently published on the OCA website.

Relations with Non-Orthodox -- Looking to the Future

Perhaps the only simple thing about formal Orthodox relations with non-Orthodox Christians (usually called "ecumenical" relations) is their goal: the canonical reconciliation to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of those bodies and groups that have been separated from her for reasons of doctrine or church order. Indeed, the duty and responsibility of Orthodox Christians to work in a genuine and committed way for the healing and resolution of the innumerable schisms in Christian history is universally acknowledged throughout the Orthodox world, and throughout Orthodox history. This duty is a direct corollary of our claim to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It is an essential part of the Church's continual work of mission and her witness to the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That we must work for the reconciliation of non-Orthodox Christians with Orthodoxy is thus clear. Precisely how we must accomplish this work, however, is a subject of much greater controversy. Nevertheless, we can identify a number of fundamental principles and criteria that must guide any proposal:

  1. Inter-Christian relations and the work for unity is essentially a pastoral task, analogous to and working on roughly the same principles as any other pastoral ministry of reconciliation: one leaves the ninety-nine and searches diligently after the one lost sheep, and one joins the Father in welcoming home the prodigal son with honor and dignity (see Lk 15). In short, one strives to imitate and manifest the very love and solicitude of Christ for His People and for ourselves. It requires, in particular:
  • An unflagging commitment to the truth of the Gospel, especially as pertains to the canonical and ecclesial organization of the church, and her institutional life; also, a willingness to suffer alienation and rejection for this truth; An ability to communicate this truth in a manner that can be understood and appropriated by our dialogue partners; this assumes a deep respect and love for the people for whom one is ministering, and, above all, a keen and genuinely-felt desire for their reconciliation with the Church. Arrogance, condescension, impatience, fear, rudeness, or any type of passionate behavior is unacceptable -- dialogue must be built primarily upon the building of real relationships among persons and not simply in the propagation of impersonal formulas or theories;
  • A deep knowledge of and interest in our dialogue partners, their history, and their lives; this implies a commitment to continual learning, reading, and studying; A long-term commitment to truly listening and to trying to understand the perspective and historical memory of other Christians, and to discern, given this reality, the next realistic steps towards reconciliation; The understanding that effective ministry implies as much "walking with" as "preaching to"; and "walking with" implies a long-term commitment, through both ups and downs;
  • A humble acknowledgement that personally and corporately we Orthodox often fall short of the truth ourselves, tainting the credibility of our message; thus our dialogue is above all a joint process of repentance before our Lord and the reality of His Church that we strive to witness to;
  • A recognition that in all pastoral praxis the minister is often ministered to as often as he or she ministers; A recognition that long-term relationships are built on only respect, patience and friendship; "the rod" is only employed very rarely and very carefully (and usually first to oneself!).
  1. Inter-Christian relations are not optional. Formal inter-Christian ministry demands a serious, credible and concerted effort on our part. Because of our identification with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, in all of Her fullness, the onus of ecumenical engagement falls heaviest on us (in this sense, ecumenism is very much an "Orthodox problem"). Thus, while temporary withdrawals from dialogues or organizations may be appropriate as pastoral measures, long-term disengagement is impossible. There must always be a concrete, viable, and active policy in place to further inter-Christian relations.
  2. As an international task, the ecumenical ministry is a pan- Orthodox ministry. The local Churches must act in concert. This means that local Churches, especially young local Churches, to say nothing of individual hierarchs, must be very slow to act on their own in either engagement or disengagement. Consultation and consensus are the norms of Orthodox action, and deep respect and deference for conciliarity must be shown.
  3. How can an OCA parish directly participate in strengthening the Orthodox Church in America's ability to witness in the arena of inter- Orthodox and ecumenical activities and organizations?
  4. Participation in ecumenical activity does constitute a civic responsibility in most modern secular societies. Faith groups are expected to cultivate reasonably tolerant and friendly relationships among themselves, especially if they have pretensions to a credible public voice. While this concern is not a determining factor in ecumenical engagement, it is a contributing factor to decisions about the form, intensity and type of ecumenical participation.

Translating these considerations into institutional realities can be difficult. It is above all a careful pastoral process of seeking forums that provide extensive long-term contact with other Christians -- so that relationships can grow -- as well as opportunities for the clear and convincing articulation of the ecclesiological principles of the ancient and undivided Church -- so that these relationships can have real content. In short, they demand long-term, collegial dialogue and education-oriented institutions in which Orthodox participation can be seen to lead, even if gradually, towards the substantial furthering of the canonical reconciliation of non-Orthodox Christians to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The mainline institutions of ecumenical engagement (the World Council of Churches, the Faith and Order Conferences, the World Mission Conferences, and the various national Councils of Churches) are subject to regular and often harsh critiques by the Orthodox -- even by those sympathetic to them. In light of the principles elaborated above, however, it is not difficult to see why the local Orthodox churches have been consistent in their support for participation in such organizations. These institutions have provided the necessary -- and so far the only -- infrastructure for sustained contact, discussion and study among Christians, as well as common work. They have provided critical space for Orthodox to gather and come to consensus on numerous issues. They have taken most churches from positions of almost complete mutual ignorance to regular and informed contact, and they have fostered the development of numerous personal relationships of trust and respect. They have been the focus of incremental, but definite, growth in awareness among other churches of the Orthodox world and Orthodox ecclesiology.

These organizations, however, have not been without their shortcomings. There has always been a tendency for Protestant ecclesiologies of denominationalism and ecclesial relativism to dominate the ethos, procedures, and languages of the councils. The councils have often been tempted to see themselves as somehow "super churches," above and beyond their members. Similarly, the very politically-oriented theologies of many Protestant denominations have often threatened to derail the agenda of the councils away from dialogue and unity, and towards political advocacy and activism. Concerns for practical cooperation in the short term have sometimes diverted attention from long-term rapprochement, and public positions have been taken that are inappropriate to the nature of such councils. These tendencies have at times threatened to obscure the meaning of Orthodox participation, even to the point that the Churches have almost felt it no longer productive to be a part of these organizations.

To date, however, the advantages of participation -- contact, commitment, dialogue -- in fulfilling our pastoral obligations of inter- Christian dialogue have been judged to outweigh the disadvantages, and no viable alternatives have been proposed. Further, many of the most heated conflicts have ultimately served as opportunities for some of the best dialogue, focusing in a very genuine and clear way where our dialogue partners are "at" in their understanding of the Church, and how the Orthodox must respond to this reality. Viewed in the long term, many of these problems can be seen to be inevitable, necessary, and ultimately productive.

Nevertheless, it is clear that these organizations are still far from ideal venues for inter-Christian dialogue. As we look to the future, two options present themselves: a) a focused and intentional program to improve these organizations and our participation in them, and/or b) the development of viable alternatives to these organizations.

Whichever option is chosen, however, two observations are relevant. First, over the last 15 years the ecumenical world has been undergoing a distinct internal transformation. Many of the more problematic trends in conciliar ecumenism are losing momentum, and councils around the world are re-inventing themselves along lines much more congenial to Orthodox understandings of inter-Christian dialogue, including greater focus on mutual pedagogy and doctrinal dialogue, decision making by consensus, and a much clearer understanding of the member churches themselves as the prime agents of the dialogue (and not the councils). In many cases these changes have led to profound shifts in institutional structures, procedures, and ethos, and the Orthodox have played critical roles in these changes (for example, in the Special Commission of the World Council of Churches, or the remaking of the Canadian Council of Churches as a "forum," or the development of Christian Churches Together in the USA).

Unfortunately (and our second observation), this shift has not generally been embraced by the Orthodox in a substantial, dynamic way. The principles articulated above should incline the Orthodox not only to take an active role in these changes, but a leadership role. However, despite the fact that the ecumenical movement is today more open to Orthodox leadership and vision than it has been since at least the 1950s, there is little evidence that the Orthodox are able to assume this leadership, or even sustain increased participation, despite a certain consensus that this is desirable. While individual Orthodox have shown themselves to be capable of providing serious leadership and vision (and the Orthodox Church in America has in particular provided more than its fair share of competent personnel!), as a whole we are rarely able to sustain leadership and strong participation on a long-term institutional level. Therefore, objectively, whether we wish to increase our participation in existing councils, with the goal of transforming and improving their operation, or whether we wish to set up entirely new structures or means of dialogue, there is very little evidence that we have the wherewithal either way.

This fact -- that even under relatively "ideal" situations the Orthodox are unable to pursue the type of participation they desire -- points to a reality that is quietly, but widely, recognized by many Orthodox ecumenical professionals: that the principal difficulties in ecumenical dialogue are not essentially external ones (problems with structures of councils, agendas of other churches and councils, theories of ecumenical engagement, etc.). Rather, they are problems internal to the Orthodox world itself, and of a fairly basic nature: lack of time, personnel, coordination, and, above all, finances. Given the resources, the Church has always been fully capable of addressing any given set of inter-Christian relations and circumstances with grace, dignity, and vision. But, practically, we are constantly stymied and slowed by systemic problems in sustaining regular representations, meeting financial obligations, and developing coherent pan-Orthodox agendas, projects, and ideas.

As we begin the 21st century, then, it is time to reorient our ecumenical thinking less around external realities ("them") and more around internal commitments and consolidation ("us"). In particular, there is a need to:

  1. Build stronger consensus on the basis and ideals of inter- Christian engagement;

  2. Build a credible financial base for the funding of this work and institutions involved;

  3. Cultivate more personnel for this task;

  4. Build coherent, focused strategies of ecumenical engagement among the Orthodox (through inter-Orthodox conferences, symposia, etc.) that are realistic to our means. In the end, we have no option of truly "withdrawing" from inter- Christian engagement. As long as we believe "in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church," engagement with our estranged brothers and sister will remain a part of our very life and work as the Church of Christ. We are perfectly capable of doing this work in an effective, meaningful and productive way -- we just have to do it.

An Alternative Solution -- Should We Withdraw?

In the current Christian setting, both in the United States and globally, there are more Protestants and Pentecostals outside the ecumenical organizations such as the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) than there are within these organizations. Furthermore, neither the NCC nor the WCC can count the Roman Catholic Church among their member churches. It should be noted, however, that the Catholic Church does hold membership in such ecumenical organizations as the Canadian Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches, as well as participates in some aspects of the work of the NCC and the WCC, such as the commissions on Faith and Order, which engage in theological dialogue. It should also be noted that the majority of the Orthodox Churches participate in the WCC and the NCC.

Nevertheless, for the most part the Orthodox Church in America participates in ecumenical organizations which represent a minority of Christians. Furthermore, the ecumenical organizations in which we participate, in their theological and social views, are oriented towards policies which are not in harmony with Orthodox views. Thus our participation and the participation of other Orthodox Churches lend credibility and legitimacy to ecumenical organizations which, in the public perception, are espousing beliefs often antithetical to theOrthodox convictions.

The most advisable course for the Orthodox Church in America would be eventually to withdraw from the NCC and the WCC. This movement towards withdrawal should not be motivated by any "fundamentalism" or "anti-ecumenism." To the contrary, the announcement of our withdrawal should be framed in the context of a defense of the proper and necessary ecumenical vision. Those ecumenical streams or contexts which hold theological promise -- for example, the Faith and Order streams of the NCC and the WCC --should be affirmed. And ecumenical Christian relations should be sought with conservative Christian bodies.

The Orthodox Church in America's withdrawal from the NCC and WCC should also be done in consultation with the other OrthodoxChurches which are members of these ecumenical organizations. The purposes of such consultation would be to discern the common mind of the Orthodox Churches. This means that some Orthodox Churches would continue to hold membership in the ecumenical organizations, some would withdraw, but the respective positions and motivations would be respected.

While such a policy by us would be seen by some as a voluntary" marginalization" of the Orthodox Church in America, it is important to remember that marginalization is a matter of perspective and interpretation. Another perspective would show us acting responsibly, with care and concern for the other Orthodox Churches, yet adhering firmly to principle and a realistic assessment of the prevailing ecumenical reality.

In following a policy of distancing itself from the ecumenical organizations and their liberal advocacy role, the Orthodox Church in America will need to exercise similar caution with regard to conservative Christian groups and movements. Political agendas are obviously present in conservative Christian organizations.Conservative Christians in the USA are similar to liberal Christian organizations in one specific quality -- both can be politically-driven. For Orthodox Christians, this means that our alliances need to beformed on an issue-by-issue basis. Withdrawal from groups which are liberal advocacy groups, rather than religious bodies, should not be a pretext for joining organizations which are conservative advocacy groups, rather than religious bodies.

There are conclusions and implications to be drawn from the above recommendations. First, the Orthodox Church in America will need to expend considerable resources, time, and energy to maintain relationships of consultation and common action with other Orthodox Churches. Second, we will need to dedicate resources to discern in other Christian bodies, whether conservative or liberal, those persons and convictions which are in general harmony with Orthodox beliefs and convictions, in order to find a basis for common action in society.Third, the Orthodox Church in America will need to find the resources and people to do serious thinking about ethical, social, and political issues, so that the specifically Orthodox witness and perspective can be well-articulated, thus ensuring that the agendas of other Christian bodies, whether conservative or liberal, do not co-opt the Orthodox. Fourth, we will need to be in the fore front of Orthodox theological thinking on Christian unity. It is not enough to be "against" the distortions we see in the present ecumenical environment. It is important to present a vision of Christian unity we are "for."

If the Orthodox Church in America fails to follow the recommendations enumerated above, it will indeed slide into a passive role, accepting a "marginalized" existence in Orthodox and ecumenical settings. This will mean the slow but sure re-orientation of the Orthodox Church in America towards a "sectarian" way of thought, and an abdication of the "catholicity"

Read this article on the Orthodox Church of America website (.pdf file) (new window will open).

Read the NCC resource page for critiques of the NCC and Orthodox involvement in it.

Posted: 14-Jun-05

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