A Remarkable Document: Reflections on the Final Report of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC

By Held, Heinz Joachim | The Ecumenical Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

A Remarkable Document: Reflections on the Final Report of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC


Held, Heinz Joachim, The Ecumenical Review


After reading the final report of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches, (1) I am convinced that the Orthodox "provocation" in the run-up to the eighth assembly in Harare was not only understandable and justifiable from an Orthodox point of view, but that it was also necessary, beneficial and worthwhile for the WCC. The outspoken criticism of the path that the WCC was taking, and the ultimatum given at the same time demanding its radical restructuring made public at the meeting of representatives of the Orthodox churches in Thessaloniki at the beginning of May 1998, could not be dismissed as mere "histrionics". They were intended as a kind of shot across the bow of the ecumenical ship after all other attempts to voice Orthodox criticisms and make changes to the WCC had failed or produced unsatisfactory results.

Prior to this, "Reflections from Orthodox Participants" had been presented during the seventh assembly in Canberra at beginning of 1991. However, this was done at the last minute, at the end of the assembly, without it being possible even to begin discussion of them. The reflections were not simply transitory but an expression of deep disquiet of a far-reaching nature which touched on the (original) self-understanding of the WCC, its programmatic priorities and its (Protestant) ways of thinking and working which had developed over the years and were particularly noticeable in Canberra. These questions went to the very roots and in these "Reflections" there was already talk of a possible re-examination of relations to the WCC.

A healthy provocation

In the WCC's jubilee year, the critical Orthodox voice was heard not simply first at the assembly itself and its follow-up, but was expressed beforehand with unequivocal and painful clarity. It should come as no surprise that this Orthodox "wake-up" call was a rude awakening which led to indignation among Protestants in the ecumenical movement, many of whom had little sympathy for it. Ecumenists from Protestant churches had taken for granted too much the universality of their own ecumenical starting point. They neither knew enough about the ecclesial and ecumenical self-understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy nor had they built up relationships of understanding. They believed the Orthodox needed ecumenical "education" rather than recognizing their own need to learn from them. To some extent, the Orthodox churches were seen as ecumenical spoilsports. (Left-leaning) Protestant ecumenism saw them in precisely these terms and as being unable to be otherwise. Therefore, from all points of view, it is good that the leadership of the WCC reacted with great care and thought to the Orthodox "provocation" of Thessaloniki and that the assembly in Harare agreed to the proposal to set up the Special Commission, despite the irritation caused by some of the comments from the Orthodox side during the assembly.

An historic opportunity

It is clear from the final report of the Commission that there has been, probably for the first time in the history of the WCC, a thorough, patient but also frank and constructive debate between the Orthodox and the Protestant ecumenical ethos within the WCC. At the same time, there is every sign that there has been a serious, genuine and far-reaching review process that points to ways in which the WCC can move beyond its historically Protestant original influences to become an organ of the ecumenical movement, an organ which intrinsically acts and thinks in a way which also gives rights and space to other confessional identities. It would then become more ecumenical than it has been able to be until now. I think this is a genuine opportunity. I would like to congratulate the Special Commission for its work and its results and I can only hope that in discussing this report the central committee of the WCC will take the time to try and understand what it is about and make decisions along the lines being proposed. …

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