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World Council of Churches Faces Uncertain Future

Deep divisions threaten 50-year-old ecumenical organization

BY Gabriel Meyer

December 12-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 12/12/98 at 1:00 PM

 

The World Council of Churches' (WCC) golden anniversary this month seemed less a celebration than a midlife crisis.

At the ecumenical organization's eighth general assembly held in Harare, Zimbabwe, Dec. 3-14, the 1,000 delegates from more than 100 countries, representing the WCC's 339 member-churches, along with more than 3,000 observers, including a 23-member Vatican delegation, got a taste of both the internal strife that continues to beset the WCC, and the changing face of the world Christianity for which it seeks to provide a forum.

The general assembly's theme was “Turn to God—Rejoice in Hope,” but high-risk restructuring, threats of walkouts, and fraying ecclesiastical ties were the substance of this year's landmark event.

“There's no doubt that the WCC is at a major crossroads,” said Paulist Father Ron Roberson, associate director of the secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs of the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB).

A western Protestant organization by and large, it increasingly runs the risk, Father Roberson told the Register, of “representing only one segment of the Christian world—the ‘liberal’ wing—rather than the overarching one its founders had in mind.”

The WCC has its origins in three early 20th-century Protestant movements—Life and Work, Faith and Order, and the International Missionary Council—two of which merged on Aug. 23, 1948, at the constituting assembly of the WCC in Amsterdam, to be joined by the missionary council at the WCC's general assembly in New Delhi in 1961.

Formed initially to forge unity among Protestant denominations, especially in the foreign mission field, the entry of Eastern Orthodox Churches and, eventually, the Roman Catholic Church into the broader ecumenical movement in the 1960s made the WCC, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, one of the foremost international forums for dialogue and common action among Christians. By the 1970s, though, it had also earned a well-deserved reputation as a promoter of fashionable left-wing political causes, a development that, until very recently, had cost it the support of many evangelical and Pentecostal groups.

Under the leadership of German Protestant theologian Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the organization since 1993, the WCC has embarked on a bold top-to-bottom review of its identity, vision, and structure, including provisions for a new ecumenical forum that would facilitate the participation of Catholics and some conservative Protestant bodies that have declined membership in the past.

Currently, the Catholic Church has observer status in the general assembly, the organization's governing body which meets every seven years, and participates in the WCC's Faith and Order Commission—its main theological arm—and, in conjunction with the Holy See's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, sends representatives to several other WCC working groups.

Raiser's forum idea proposes that the WCC's general assembly be discontinued in favor of a new global forum of churches and ecumenical organizations (which would include the Catholic Church) of which the WCC would be one among many members—an idea that has attracted Catholic support, and growing interest among formerly stand-offish evangelicals as well.

The head of the Vatican delegation in Harare, Bishop Mario Joseph Conti of Aberdeen, Scotland, said in an Ecumenical News International report that the fact that the WCC is considering changing its structures is a sign of the organization's “good intentions to embrace others.”

Raiser has also forwarded two other long-range proposals to the general assembly this year aimed at incorporating decision-making by consensus into the WCC's operational procedures and constitutional changes in electing officers aimed at putting an end to regional and denominational partisanship.

But if the WCC has been working hard to broaden its base, the 50th anniversary general assembly had hardly begun when some of the divisions that have long plagued the organization came to the fore, demonstrating the fragile state of some long-term ecumenical relations at the turn of the century.

On Dec. 4, Catholicos Aram I, of the Armenian Apostolic Church, an outgoing moderator of the WCC's central committee, warned delegates that Eastern Orthodox participation in the WCC “would steadily dwindle” unless the assembly took seriously the frustrations of Eastern Orthodox Christians who have long complained that WCC activities reflect only the preoccupations of its majority Protestant membership.

Some Russian Orthodox delegates were even more forceful. “If changes are not made,” Father Hillarion Alfeyev, leader of the Russian Orthodox delegation (the WCC's largest member church), told the assembly, “Orthodox Churches will leave the WCC. We want the WCC to be radically reformed so it becomes a true home for Orthodoxy in the 21st century.”

The threat of Eastern Orthodox withdrawal is serious, and, many observers say, should it occur, would, perhaps fatally, undermine the WCC's credibility as a forum for interchurch dialogue.

Last year the Georgian Orthodox Church announced that it would withdraw from the organization. Since then, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has also quit, although WCC officials state the organization has yet to receive official notification. Serbian Orthodox are widely thought to be reconsidering their participation. As a sign of their growing disenchantment, many Orthodox Churches have drastically cut the size of their delegations.

In an open letter sent to the assembly, Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, Eastern Orthodoxy's titular head, complained that the organization had adopted in recent years “a series of liberal theological and moral positions” that reflected only the concerns of member Churches of the Northern Hemisphere.

“What about the veneration of Mary, the veneration of icons, the veneration of the saints?” asked Father Alfeyev, an official of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, in his address, the first by a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church. “These cannot be discussed because they are divisive.”

“But what about inclusive language and the ordination of women?” he asked, referring to topics long championed by the WCC. “Are these not divisive?”

The problem should not be seen as an Orthodox problem, said Father Thomas Rausch, chair of the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and an expert on the WCC, “but an ecumenical one.”

What Raiser and many liberal Protestants have concluded, said Father Rausch, is that the historic doctrinal conflicts of Christianity are not resolvable. “So, you try to build a consensus around social issues instead. And that can't be well received by Rome and by the Orthodox.”

Father Roberson, the NCCB aide, points out that the deeper issue for the Orthodox is the nature of the WCC itself.

Can it set policy, for example?

“The Orthodox make up a quarter of the membership of the WCC,” he said, “and whenever the WCC decides to issue some sort of policy statement, say, on controversial issues, they lose. It's frustrating. “

In addition, most of the Orthodox bodies joined the WCC during the “bad old days” of communism, said Father Roberson. “A lot of more conservative Orthodox look at the ecumenical movement as something the communists made us do.”

What they're proposing to the WCC, said Father Roberson, is the radical restructuring of the organization along the lines of the Middle East Council of Churches.

That ecumenical organization, based in Cyprus, which spearheaded recent discussions on a common date of Easter (see Register Nov. 29-Dec. 5) is set up on the model of “families” of churches, with Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox bodies having an equal voice in the decision-making process.

The multiple dilemmas of the WCC made themselves felt in the recent gathering in Harare, according to Catholic observers.

Clearly, delegates are pulling the organization in several different directions, observed Father Oskar Wermter, head of the Zimbabwean bishops' office of social communications. “Some people want the WCC to be a platform for dialogue, while others want it seen as a united body, using its strength to [exert] political pressure,” he said in a Dec. 6 interview with Ecumenical News International.

Nevertheless, Catholic observers had particular praise for one measure passed by the forum: the statement on international debt relief. “The WCC [has been] a great moral force” in the question of international debt, said Bishop Conti. Participants in the assembly signed a statement Dec. 12 urging wealthier nations to cancel the foreign debt owed to them by poor countries “staggering under an impossible burden.” Pope John Paul II has called on first-world donor countries and international financial organs to reduce—or cancel outright—in time for the Great Jubilee, the estimated $250 billion in unpayable debt owed by Third World nations.

Delegates called the WCC's 50th anniversary general assembly a “turning point event.” With drastic reforms in the works, and with ever more destabilizing tensions in its ranks, and with the heartland of Christianity moving increasingly from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, it's difficult to predict the future of the world's foremost ecumenical forum.

In his report to the assembly, Secretary General Raiser stated that he “perceives signs of uncertainty in the future of the ecumenical movement as a whole,” and ended by saying, “It would seem we are at a crossroads.”

Senior writer Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.