Orthodox Participation in the WCC: A Brief History

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

Orthodox Participation in the WCC: A Brief History


Held, Heinz Joachim, The Ecumenical Review


The debate going on at present within German Protestantism about how the Orthodox churches understand themselves and their role in the World Council of Churches (WCC) makes it appropriate to look again at the beginnings of and background to Orthodox participation in the WCC and at the phases through which this participation has gone. Only then can one hope that the decisions of the central committee of the WCC in August 2002 related to reordering this cooperation will not be met on the part of Protestants with incomprehension and perplexity but with self-critical insight and comprehension. The pointers which follow are somewhat sketchy but may be an aid to better understanding. (1)

A fundamental Orthodox initiative

The first initiative to found an international ecumenical organization of Christian churches came from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in January 1920. Following the defeat of the Ottoman empire in the first world war, Istanbul was at that time under the control of the Western allies. There was an expectation of new political and ecclesiastical freedom for the work of the Ecumenical Patriarchate after centuries under the yoke of Turkish rule. The encyclical in question was addressed "Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere". (2)

According to the encyclical, "our own church" holds the view "that rapprochement between the various Christian churches and fellowship between them (3) is not excluded by the doctrinal differences which exist between them" and that "such a rapprochement is highly desirable and necessary. It would be useful in many ways for the real interest of each particular church and of the whole Christian body, and also for the preparation and advancement of that blessed union which will be completed in the future in accordance with the will of God." It is apparent that the conception of the League of Nations (4) which had just been established also lay behind this.

The biblical leitmotif at the head of the encyclical was, "Love one another earnestly from the heart" (1 Pet. 1:22). In addition to removing mutual mistrust with all the friction it had caused, it was important "that, above all, love should be rekindled and strengthened among the churches, so that they should no more consider one another as strangers and foreigners, but as relatives, and as being a part of the household of Christ and 'fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise of God in Christ' (Eph. 3:6)". More specifically, it is considered that the churches should come closer together in love: "By stirring up a right brotherly interest in the condition, the well-being and stability of the other churches; by readiness to take an interest in what is happening in those churches and to obtain a better knowledge of them, and by willingness to offer mutual aid and help." Then follow eleven practical suggestions including exchanging brotherly letters of greeting at the major festivals, contacts between theological schools, exchanging students, convoking "pan-Christian conferences" on questions of common interest and the "impartial and deeper historical study" of doctrinal differences.

After having made this proposal, the Ecumenical Patriarchate calls for expressions of opinion on these proposals from "the other sister churches in the East and [of] the venerable Christian churches in the West and everywhere in the world". (5)

Decisive involvement in the movements leading up to the WCC

After the first world war, the representatives of the local Orthodox churches participated in the larger and smaller preparatory meetings which led up to the world conferences on Life and Work at Stockholm in 1925 and Oxford in 1937 and on Faith and Order at Lausanne in 1927 and Edinburgh in 1937, and which prepared the ground with consultations and resolutions for the unification of these two movements in 1937-38 so that the World Council of Churches could be founded in 1948 at Amsterdam. …

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