Orthodox Press Grievances

The Christian Century, June 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Orthodox Press Grievances


The world council of Churches' December assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, is likely to face a partial boycott of its worship services--and of voting during most of its debates--by some major churches. A meeting of high-level representatives of the 15 Eastern Orthodox self-governing churches, held in Thessaloniki in Greece from April 29 to May 2, has recommended that the Orthodox churches take part in the assembly but "express their concerns" about the WCC by not joining in various aspects of the assembly, including worship services and common prayers.

A second high-level Orthodox meeting, in Damascus, Syria, in mid-May, echoed many of the concerns of the Thessaloniki meeting, including a proposal to set up a mixed theological commission between the Orthodox and other WCC members. The Damascus gathering was an Orthodox presumably meeting to help Orthodox churches prepare for the WCC assembly. Unlike the Thessaloniki meeting, however, the Damascus gathering also included representatives of the WCC's five Oriental Orthodox member churches, which cooperate with, but are not in full communion with, the Eastern Orthodox churches.

A report issued at the conclusion of the Damascus meeting said that "there is a perception that the fellowship between Orthodox and Protestants in the [WCC] is weakening, and that the Orthodox are finding it more difficult to make a contribution to the council's agenda." Further, according to a report from the Damascus meeting, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has announced its intention to withdraw from the WCC.

According to the Damascus meeting, "noneucharistic common prayer" has "become an increasing area of tension in Orthodox discussion" because of the "changing character of 'ecumenical worship,"' in which there has been "a marked decrease in the sensitivity to the different traditions, their liturgical sensibilities and liturgical ethos."

If implemented, the recommendations first raised at Thessaloniki will affect the participation of some of the WCC's most important members, such as the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has a leading position for Orthodox Christians, and the Russian Orthodox Church, which in numerical terms is the WCC's biggest member church. Their abstention from worship services would be highly embarrassing to the WCC as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of its funding--especially if the abstention is applied to one of the assembly's major events, a "recommitment" service during which the WCC's 332 Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant member churches are expected to pledge to continue their support for ecumenism. The WCC assembly, held every seven or eight years, is the most important gathering in the organization's calendar.

All 15 Orthodox churches represented at Thessaloniki are full members of the WCC--with the exception of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which announced last year that it was withdrawing its membership. "These recommendations are a 'compromise' because there was pressure within some [Orthodox] churches to send only observers to the assembly," said Georges Tsetsis, an Orthodox priest and the Ecumenical Patriarchate's representative at the WCC in Geneva.

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