Frequently Asked Questions: The Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches

The Ecumenical Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Frequently Asked Questions: The Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches


Why a Special Commission?

Since the early 20th century, a remarkably consistent feature of the modern ecumenical movement has been the presence but also the unease of the Orthodox churches. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which still refrains from full membership in the main conciliar ecumenical institutions, the Orthodox have participated since the beginning. Yet at nearly every meeting of global significance up until the early 1990s, the Orthodox felt compelled to issue separate statements, indicating serious reservations, doctrinal and otherwise. Their concerns themselves, although experienced more or less acutely, have been consistent over the decades. For a variety of reasons, Orthodox dissatisfaction with aspects of the WCC, and intra-Orthodox tensions concerning membership in a global fellowship of churches, came to a crisis point in the late 1990s, just before the WCC's eighth assembly in December 1998. (1) The Special Commission arose in direct response to that crisis. It sought not merely to assuage the concerns of the moment, but to address the long-standing issues in a more sustained and profound way.

Why no special commission on the participation of other member churches or church families?

In principle, there is no reason why, if the need develops, a special commission could not be created around the concerns brought to the Council by other member churches or groupings of churches. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the Orthodox got a Special Commission because they voiced the loudest complaint. Rather, they expressed a chronic experience of unease--with increasing frequency, pointedness and clarity. And the work of the Special Commission has shown that it is not only about the Orthodox churches (see below).

Is the Special Commission only about the Orthodox?

Because the Special Commission was specifically created as a response to Orthodox concerns, all eyes and ears were initially focused on its Orthodox members. But very soon after its work began, it was clearly perceived that the issues raised would affect more than just the Orthodox churches. It was evident that many of the concerns they expressed were felt within other churches around the table. This realization came as a pleasant surprise, although there was some hesitation on the part of some Orthodox to ielinquish their "exclusive ownership" of these concerns!

In the effort to find common solutions to the concerns raised, the WCC's decade-long "Common Understanding and Vision (CUV)" process--which sought to make the churches rather than the Council itself the main actors--proved to be a precious source of ideas on how to move ahead. The caution and satisfaction expressed by other member churches as much as by the Orthodox may indicate that the Commission achieved a certain balance; that no one party emerged as either "victor" or "loser". Indeed, the hopeful conviction is that the Commission's work will result in a victory for the entire fellowship--even if it takes some time for these fruits to manifest themselves.

What do the Orthodox seek from the WCC?

In the broadest terms, the Orthodox want to feel confident that they are being taken seriously within the WCC. For them, the ethos and de facto theology of the ecumenical movement always seemed essentially a Protestant undertaking, with Protestant theological presuppositions about unity, and Protestant (or Western secular) decisionmaking methods. They have had to wrestle with serious ecclesiological reservations about belonging to a global "fellowship of churches" (see "Why is ecclesiology so fundamental ..." below). Seeing the Council as a body whose theological and moral/ethical bent is decidedly on the liberal side, they have been frustrated by the perception that conservative positions seem to be the ones requiring justification. The Commission's work has made it increasingly obvious that this latter perception is felt, across denominational lines, within many churches.

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