Orthodox Resist Liberal Protestant Drift

NYBORG, Denmark—In a further sign of strain between Orthodox Christianity and Protestantism, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has announced that it is withdrawing from the Conference of European Churches, one of Europe's main inter-church bodies.

No reason for the resignation has been given, although the Bulgarian Orthodox Church last year also withdrew from membership of the World Council of Churches.

In recent years there has been increasing criticism from within Orthodox churches about the activities of ecumenical organizations, which are perceived by some as being too dominated by Protestant churches and overly influenced by liberal theological trends. Similar tensions have been reported in the U.S. National Council of Churches.

In 1997, the Georgian Orthodox Church resigned from both the World Council and European conference. The situation in Bulgaria is also complicated by a continuing struggle within the country's Orthodox Church, despite a recent agreement to patch up a split between two rival church leaderships.

The Bulgarian church claims 87% of the country's population of nine million as members.

Conference leaders hope that the six-month period before the resignation becomes effective will allow time for further discussions, and possibly a change of heart by the church.

Dr. Keith Clements,the conference general secretary, said that the news from Bulgaria had been received with “great sadness, not least because many contacts continue with members of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.”

Asked whether the conference was facing a similar situation to that of the World Council, where representatives of Orthodox churches have called for major changes in the organization's structure and ethos, Dr. Clements said that these questions had not been raised “in the same way” within the conference.

The conference “has always been their organization from the beginning,” Dr.Clements told journalists during the meeting of the central committee, pointing out that the participation in the conference by Orthodox churches from eastern Europe went back to the organization's foundation in 1959. In contrast, most Eastern Orthodox churches joined the World Council only after 1961, 13 years after its foundation.