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Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: Orthodox Participation in the Ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches
In the opinion of Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima (Patriarchate of Constantinople), the Ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was an “Orthodox assembly”. Metropolitan Gennadios, one of the leading activists of the ecumenical movement, voiced this opinion at the inter-Orthodox meeting which took place during the course of the assembly.
In comparison with the Eighth Assembly of the WCC held in Harare in 1998, the number of Orthodox participants this time was significantly larger. In Harare representatives of the Georgian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches were absent since they had left the WCC not long before the assembly’s beginning. Also absent were representatives of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Moscow Patriarchate, the largest among the members of the WCC, was represented by a delegation of three people headed by a hieromonk. The assembly in Porto Alegre, however, saw the participation of a full-fledged delegation of the Jerusalem Patriarchate headed by an archbishop, as well as two metropolitans from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as observers, while the Moscow Patriarchate sent a delegation of 21 persons headed by a bishop.
The assembly in Harare coincided with the height of the Orthodox Church’s dissatisfaction with the activities of the WCC. This discontent was caused by the fact that the WCC’s agenda was dominated by topics which were unacceptable for the Orthodox. For example, many Protestant churches wished to discuss the subject of female priesthood, speak of discrimination against women in churches without female priesthood, and were overly concentrated on the question of sexual minorities. The very atmosphere in the World Council of Churches, its very “ethos”, were dictated to a significant degree by the Protestant churches of the North, where a systematic liberalization of doctrine and morals has been in motion over the past decades, with the rejection of theological and ethical norms based on centuries-old Church tradition.
The Orthodox were always a minority in the WCC and never comprised more than 25 per cent in any of the Council’s structures. With the old system that existed until recently, according to which serious decisions were made by a simple majority of votes, the Orthodox always found themselves in the minority. This was one of the problems proposed for discussion to the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, which was created through the initiative of the Russian Orthodox Church and which met from 1998-2002. The Orthodox comprised one-half of the Commission’s members, and all debates were carried out on the basis of parity. It was in this Commission that the Orthodox received for the first time the possibility not of defending themselves as a minority, but of leading a calm and enlightening dialogue with the non-Orthodox. It seems to me that as a whole this work was successful since all proposals suggested by the Orthodox were accepted.
In accordance with the recommendations of the Special Commission the WCC, firstly, abolished the practice of voting, and now major decisions are made on the basis of consensus. Above all this concerns fundamental decisions regarding theological and moral questions. Only questions of finances and personnel are still resolved by voting. Now the Protestant majority cannot force any kind of decision upon the Orthodox minority.
Secondly, a Permanent Committee on Consensus and Collaboration was established. Like the Special Commission, its membership would also be one-half Orthodox, one-half non-Orthodox. The Committee’s tasks include the monitoring of the WCC’s agenda in order to identify ahead of time matters whose discussion would be unacceptable for the Orthodox.
Thirdly, the Orthodox expressed serious dissatisfaction with the manner in which inter-Christian prayers were organized. At previous assemblies, especially in Canberra, unabashed syncretism was introduced into the so-called “ecumenical prayers”, which shocked many Orthodox participants. The Special Commission worked out guidelines for the holding of prayers during inter-Christian events, according to which these prayers should take place according to the confessional principle. For example, on one evening the Orthodox vespers is taken as the basis, on the next day an Anglican service, etc. If the participants belong to a confession that does not wish to take part in some prayer, these guidelines enable them not to do so.
Fourthly, the WCC allowed for the possibility of participating in the work of the Council in two ways. The first is full membership, the second is the status of a “church in association” with the Council. If a particular church does not want to be a member of the WCC due to ecclesiological or other reasons, it can still take part in its work.
All of these decisions received a positive response from the Orthodox. It is obvious that for the first time in many years the WCC took the participation of the Orthodox very seriously. The high level of Orthodox representation at the Porto Alegre assembly and the active participation of the Orthodox delegates in the discussions were due exactly to this. Orthodox delegates gave speeches at the plenary sessions, round tables and working groups. Of course, the possibility of Orthodox testimony at the plenary sessions was reduced to a minimum since only previously designated speakers may have the floor and it is quite difficult to join in on the deliberations. It is considerably easier to participate in discussions in the working groups. Thus, there were over 20 working groups at the Assembly, and Orthodox representatives spoke in all of them. Discussed was a wide array of questions such as religious pluralism, missionary work, inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue, problems of bioethics, the battle against AIDS, Christian welfare and social work, new information technologies and other themes.
An important part of our work as Orthodox delegates consisted of meetings with representatives of other confessions either face-to-face and “behind the scenes” or at bilateral negotiations. It is during these meetings that we have the possibility of explaining our position on various questions. For example, once a Bishop from the Church of Sweden, with whom I am well acquainted and whom I have met at various inter-Christian conferences over many years, approached me. With great concern and hardly disguised dissatisfaction he asked me why the Russian Church had severed relations with the Church of Sweden. I explained to him the position of our Church in detail and said that, in our view, there are limits beyond which one may not go. Dialogue makes sense only when there is hope that our positions may come closer. If a decision is made that flagrantly contravenes both the Tradition of the Church and Holy Scripture (in this case the decision was made to bless homosexual unions), then dialogue seems pointless. The bishop asked me why we did not consult the Church of Sweden before making our decision. I asked him in response why they did not consult us before making theirs. It is totally clear that such a decision cannot bring out Churches closer, but can only move us further away from each other and place us on different sides of the abyss that divides the “Churches of Tradition” from the churches that opt for liberal agenda. This was a difficult and long conversation, and I am hardly sure that I was able to convince my interlocutor of the correctness of our Church’s position, but at least I explained it.
A second example is a talk which I had with an African pastor. He happened to catch a part of my conversation with the Swedish bishop, and several days later came up to me and said: “I heard your conversation and am completely on your side. For us in Africa it is a great shock to learn of the decisions the Protestant brethren in Scandinavia or Western Europe make supporting sexual minorities or blessing homosexual unions. We totally disagree, we are against this, and we are in complete solidarity with you”.
It becomes clear during such meetings and conversations that by no means are all Protestants liberals, and that it is not always the case that we must necessarily differ with the Churches of the South on all questions that we differ on with the Churches of the North. In fact we have many allies in the Christian world on a great number of questions, including those of a theological and moral character. I think that it would be a great mistake if the Orthodox Churches were to reject dialogue with them.
On the whole, the Orthodox delegates highly praised the efforts of the WCC to overcome the estrangement that arose between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox member churches of the Council in the 1990s. However, the positive measures taken could not stop the process that has already been in motion for several decades and which has acquired, in my opinion, an irreversible character. I am speaking of the gradual and ever more obvious division between the “Churches of Tradition”, i.e. Churches in which Tradition plays a central role (mainly the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches), and churches in which the adherence to Tradition is not considered obligatory and in which a liberalization of dogmatic and moral doctrine can be observed over the past decades. In particular, fundamental Christian moral norms based not only on Holy Tradition, but also on Holy Scripture, have undergone re-examination. One of the most visible results of this process has been the recognition of “homosexual unions” in some of the Protestant churches of Europe and North America.
All of this has caused me time and time again to return to the thought of the necessity of forming a strategic alliance between the Orthodox and Catholics for the defence of traditional Christianity. No ecumenical organization, including the WCC, can turn back the process of continual liberalization of the Protestant churches of the North and their further estrangement from the “Churches of Tradition”. In defending traditional values the main ally of the Orthodox Church is the Roman Catholic Church. But the latter is hardly represented in the World Council of Churches.
Translated from Russian by Deacon Basil Bush