Meeting with a World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation in Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexis II, has expressed gratitude for actions of "authentic Christian solidarity" by ecumenical organizations during the Soviet period, and affirmed the commitment of his church to full participation in the WCC. However, the patriarch warned that new developments in some churches may undermine ecumenical relations.
Alexis II emphasized how, during the communist period, membership in the WCC had helped the church endure a period of isolation and persecution. "We recall with gratitude those who were in the leadership of the Council at that time. They trusted us, and supported our church. We remember this authentic Christian solidarity," he said during a meeting with the WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, who visited Moscow with a delegation 18-24 June 2005.
Enabling the Orthodox voice in WCC
The patriarch also noted new obstacles facing Christian unity, caused by a "free interpretation" of principles of Christian morality. "We see growing divergences in the teaching and practice of church life. But we should continue the road of collaboration which we have together followed for decades," patriarch Alexis stated.
The patriarch welcomed the results of the Special Commission on Orthodox participation in the WCC, which was set up by the Council in 1998 to address the concerns of its Orthodox membership and enable the Orthodox voice to be more effectively heard.
Patriarch Alexis has been actively involved in ecumenical work since the Russian Orthodox Church joined the Council in 1961, and was a member of the WCC central committee before becoming patriarch.
In response, the WCC general secretary confirmed that "a new institutional culture is emerging. Radical changes had been introduced in more than one area of the Council's life and witness, as well as at the level of its institutional and organizational expressions."
Kobia underlined that the Special Commission allowed the fellowship of churches to go forward "with a new understanding of the necessity and the possibility of praying together and responding together to our common calling."
Ecumenical movement needs "tangible progress"
Concern about how the ecumenical movement can maintain its integrity in the light of growing diversity among churches was reiterated during a meeting with the chairman of the church department for external church relations, Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.
Pointing to a "growing gap" in the area of the churches' theological and ethical teaching today, Kyrill questioned whether the ecumenical movement had achieved tangible progress towards church unity.
Endorsing the results of the Special Commission, he affirmed that, on the eve of the WCC's 9th Assembly, "We can open a new page in the history of the ecumenical movement."
Kyrill and Kobia compared notes with regard to recent developments in the Roman Catholic Church, and expressed optimism on renewed ecumenical perspectives. The visit of the WCC delegation coincided with the presence in Moscow of Cardinal Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Extraordinary transformation and growth
During its time in Moscow, visits to several spiritual, social and educational centres, including the Moscow Theological Academy, the St. Tikhon's Orthodox University, where they met students and faculty, and the social work of the St Dimitri Sisterhood allowed the WCC delegation to witness the revival of these institutions.
Churches' social and educational work was banned or heavily restricted during the communist era. During the visits, particular emphasis was given to the experiences of theological education as a way of transmitting moral values in society.
Commenting on the "extraordinary history of transformation and growth" which the visitors had witnessed, the WCC general secretary underlined that "After difficult years of martyrdom and persecution, the church has lived a concrete experience of Pentecost."
Shared ecumenical concerns
Patriarch Alexis II noted that the Russian Orthodox Church shares the WCC's serious concern at the growth of religious extremism and violence in the world. "Any crime in the name of religion is a crime against religion," he stated. "War is evil and can only be overcome by our common efforts."
The patriarch expressed the Russian church's desire to collaborate with WCC work, notably in the areas of peacemaking, interreligious dialogue, and the protection of the creation. The church leadership affirmed that the work of the Council in proposing alternatives to economic and cultural globalization was of particular relevance in the contemporary Russian context.
Some of the same preoccupations were discussed in meetings with representatives of the Russian Federation, including the minister of culture and communication, Dr Alexander Sokolov, and the first vice-chairman of the Russian parliament (Duma) Mrs Liubov Sliska, who invited the WCC to develop its work in Russia.
In the context of its official visit to the Russian Orthodox Church, the WCC delegation met on 21 June with representatives of other Christian churches, organizations and movements in Moscow, including members of the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal and Armenian churches.
WCC general secretary Kobia presented an overview of the WCC's main priorities and issues facing churches and the ecumenical movement. The discussion covered concerns for religious freedom and tolerance in Russia, developments in world Christianity, and the renewed focus on spirituality in ecumenical life.
For his first official visit to the largest WCC member church, the WCC general secretary was accompanied by Archbishop Nifon of Targoviste (Romanian Orthodox Church), Dr Mary Tanner (Church of England), Dr Robert Welsh, (Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, USA), and WCC deputy general secretary Mr Georges Lemopoulos.
Read this article on the World Council of Churches website (new window will open). This material may be reprinted freely.