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GEN 10.1 Report of the Inter-Orthodox Pre-Assembly Meeting

22 February 2005

 

Preamble

  1. By the grace of God, we have gathered here from the 10th to the 17th of January 2005 on the apostolic island of Rhodes to prepare ourselves for the journey to the ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting under the theme, "God, in your grace, transform the world".  We have felt extraordinarily blessed in our encounter with one another.

  1. The purpose of this meeting has been to reflect on the assembly theme, to consider the work and recommendations of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, and to seek ways in which our churches can strengthen their engagement in the movement for the unity of divided Christians.

  1. The gathering was graciously hosted by Metropolitan Kyrillos of Rhodes on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholemew I, to whom we express our profound thanks.  During the days of our stay we experienced the true philoxenia (hospitality) of the Church and its monasteries, the civil authorities, and the people of Rhodes, who welcomed us into their communities. We witnessed the traces - ancient and modern - of the extraordinary encounter of cultures, faiths, and histories in this place.

  1. Our meeting brought together more than fifty Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox participants, theologians, hierarchs, priests, laypersons, young theologians and two representatives from other member churches.  Leadership was provided by His Eminence Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima (Ecumenical Patriarchate), and His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette (Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria).  (See appended list of participants.)

  1. We met in the context of daily prayer and fellowship.  Our deliberations took the form of meditations on the scriptural passages chosen for the assembly, of papers prepared especially for this meeting (see appended list of papers), and of plenary and group discussions.  During our time together we elaborated our theological and spiritual understanding of the assembly theme, we explored the implications of the forthcoming changes to the life and work of the WCC, and we reviewed the practical preparations for the ninth assembly.

I.  Living in a changing world

  1. We met at a time when the world was in deep pain about the tsunami disaster that struck down more than 160,000 of our brothers and sisters in Asia and elsewhere, orphaned tens of thousands of children and rendered millions homeless.  Keeping in our hearts and our prayers all those who suffer in this tragedy, mindful also of the pain of the people in all our contexts, and in particular the continued conflict in the Middle East, we together pray to the compassionate Father and Creator of all: God, in your grace, transform the world.  It was in this context that we began our reflection on the main theme of the assembly.  Our reflections focused on the transforming grace of God, operating at the various levels of persons, churches, societies, and creation at large.  The spirit of prayer undergirding the theme prompted us to reflect along liturgical lines, drawing inspiration from such aspects of the liturgy as offering, invocation of the Holy Spirit, and commissioning - the sending out into the world.

  1. Our intercessory offering of the world in praise and thanksgiving helps us to present before the Creator God the misery and conflict, injustice and violence experienced by the vast majority of our brothers and sisters in today's world.  This leads many to pose the perplexing and painful question of human suffering: what does it mean to believe in a loving and compassionate God when millions of people perish or suffer in natural calamities?  Although we cannot comprehend the inscrutable God, we know that God will ultimately sustain His creation in His infinite compassion.  We also felt that human violence and war and other man-made disasters of various sorts, were infinitely more brutal and pervasive than natural disasters.  We are convinced that in offering the world to God in a liturgical sense involves our deep desire and determination to transform the world, liberating it from all grief and violence.

  1. In the midst of terrible violence imposed on the Latin American people, on the peoples of the so-called Third World in general, strength is given to mobilize, to gather together in solidarity.  In the context of tremendous social and economic hardship, these people have been strengthened by God in their witness to His transforming power.

  1. In calling upon the Holy Spirit of God to indwell and transfigure our lives, our churches, and our earth, we trust in the Spirit, "who perfects everything that is and that is to be" (Anaphora, Liturgy of St James).  In this work of the Holy Spirit, in continuing to bring to completion all that is created, we are called to join synergetically as fellow-workers (1 Cor 3,9).  Thus, our prayer to the Holy Spirit expresses our commitment to exercise our freedom in cooperating with the grace of God for the transfiguration of the world.

  1. Our service to humanity and the wider creation is a direct expression of our service to God.  Our churches recognize the increasingly multicultural, religiously pluralistic, and secularized contexts in which our faithful live.  This recognition of the new situation requires appropriate pastoral and theological response.  While we know that transformation is a continuous process, our responsibility to discern the will of God in the ambiguity of history is also an ongoing task.  Our repentance as believers, and as churches, is essential for this discernment.  Our sense of being sent out to the world to announce the good news of salvation and to heal its wounds provides the motivation and orientation for our gathering, prayers, and reflections on the theme: God, in your grace, transform the world.

II.  The Assembly Theme

  1. The assembly theme provided the inspiration for reflection on many levels.  We took note of the importance of each key word in the theme: God, grace, transformation, and world, and sought to give orientation so that these words might be properly understood in the context of the theme.

a.  Transformation in Scripture

  1. Our reflection drew its first inspiration from the Bible.  The scriptural account of Christ's transfiguration has a significance that is both existential and eschatological (cf. Rev 1,14).  That which is promised to the righteous in the age to come (1 Cor 15,5 f.) happened to Jesus already in this world.  Jesus is the one who brings the new creation.  Before the eyes of his most intimate disciples, the human appearance of Jesus was for a moment changed into that of a heavenly being in the transfigured world.  This is the anticipation and the hope of the final salvation for all human beings.

  1. In this sense the transformation of the world means first of all our own transfiguration.  St Paul speaks about Christian people as the "new creation".  For his understanding of transformation (metaschematizo), or transfiguration, (metamorphosis) (2 Cor 3,18; Rom 12,2) refers to a process, which begins to take place already during the life of this age.  Scripture consistently shows how the transformation of the world is a process by which the transcendent eschatological reality of salvation works in the earthly lives of Christians.  The signs we are shown of the new creation, which is the grace of Christ's Spirit, leads to the imperative of our response, and points to the world's transfiguration.

b.  Grace

  1. Grace, like everything referring to God, is Trinitarian.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit - all is grace.  By Grace we are justified, by grace we are healed.  Yet grace is not only the power of justification.  Grace is revealed in all the operations, the energies (energeia) of God, His actions that are of His own free will, i.e., out of love.

  1. Grace refers to God's free-will,  God creates the world out of nothing, as an act of grace rather than necessity, and he also recreates it - he transforms it through His Son Jesus Christ - by His grace, rather than out of necessity.  We do not exist without God's grace, His love, and His constant sustaining of the world by His Holy Spirit "by which we live and move and have our being" (cf. Acts 17,28).

  1. Furthermore it is by grace that God gives us the Church, in which we are called to live in unity in Christ.  Unity in the Church is unity-in-plurality, as modelled by the Holy Trinity.  Our partaking of that unity here and now is a foretaste of our partaking of the divine nature - our calling to holiness, and deification (theosis).

c. The transformation of our lives

  1. We believe in God who sent His Only-Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and through him reconciled the world to himself, and by the Holy Spirit offers new and eternal life to all.  Our Christian life is sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit in the vivifying and sanctifying fountain of grace. The ultimate vocation and supreme goal of all human person is theosis (2 Pet 1,4).  As St Athanasius the Great has said, "God became human in order that we may become divine".

  1. God's divine unconditional graceful love draws us to him (Rom 5,15), because humans are not only created by God but they are created for God.  In God we entirely find the purpose of our lives restored and transformed by His gracious presence (2 Pet 1,3).  In this respect it is our universal priestly vocation to bring the whole world to God - through ethical choices in a community bound together in faith and worship (Jn 4,23).  We act in a fellowship of sharing and service as our response to the emerging political and social challenges.  The genuine Christian faith is a practised faith in words and deeds as witness and mission.

d.  Transformation in the churches

  1. Jesus Christ, who is "the same, yesterday, today, and forever," (Heb 13,8), is the head of the Church, which is his Body, sustained by the Holy Spirit, and in this sense the Church cannot sin.  Therefore we do not ask for the "transformation of the Church".  However if we are referring to "the churches" specifically in the sense of communities of believers in history, we know full well that believers sometimes fail to actualize the true being of the Church.  It is we sinners, personally and in community, who require transformation.  The transformation in the churches is a transformation that we must live out in our lives personally and as communities.

  1. The word koinonia, which has seen ever-increasing use in ecumenical circles, is another concept that admits several meanings.  In its fullest sense it describes a communion which has its centre in the Holy Trinity, and sacramentally in the Holy Eucharist.  In this case one cannot describe the fellowship of the churches within the WCC as koinonia.  On the other hand the fellowship of the churches in the WCC confessing together Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour in the love of the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, does have a spiritual quality, a deep Christian content, in ways which still need to be explored and spelled out.

e.  The transformation of our societies

  1. Again and again in our reflections on transformation we returned to the transfiguration of Christ, which has clear implications for the transfiguration of humanity and of the whole creation.  The transfiguration of Christ, which shows God's ultimate intention for the world, has been used as a paradigm for a call to a renewed and transforming missionary ethos and commitment in the Orthodox churches.  As members of Christ's Body, the Church, filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is a witnessing Spirit (Mk 13,11; Jn 16,13), we are called by an inner compulsion (Acts 4,20) to be His witnesses to the end of the world, to be the "little leaven which leavens the whole loaf" (Gal 5,9), and His co-workers (I Cor 3,9) until Christ gathers all things in Him, and the whole of creation is being transformed into a new heaven and a new earth.

  1. Transfiguration has also become a key reference point in the Orthodox tradition for theological-ethical reflection: ours is a transfigurative ethic.  Our ethics entail rediscovering our true humanity created in God's image, particularly in the face of contemporary attempts to manipulate and cheapen human nature.  The injustice, violence, and immorality that reign in our world disfigure the true form of God's world.  The process of the transfiguration of our socio-economic order and human relations involves our personal and communal repentance, and our commitment to struggle against the global vicious circle of evil in our world and replace it by the chain of good.  Healing, hospitality, "holistic localness" and communion are some of the key elements in transfigurative ethics.  This requires a renewed attention and practical follow-up on the part of Orthodox churches.

f.  The transformation of the whole creation

  1. Orthodox theology of creation is clear about the responsibility of humankind towards the creation of God, where the human persons are called to become its guardians, as sons and daughters of God.  In the Orthodox Church we constantly pray for God's creation - for seasonable weather, for the abundance of the fruits of the earth.  Furthermore we experience the sanctifying character of our sacramental acts, such as the blessing of the waters, and the blessing of bread, of oil, of the physical elements of creation.  This is because we recognize that with us and through us, creation has fallen away from its glory, and "groans in travail" awaiting transformation.  In one of our vesperal hymns (Tone 7, Monday) we sing: 

I have become an object polluting the earth, air and water,

for I have stained my body, soul and mind with deceptions….

Since we human beings are created as a "microcosm," encompassing both the physical and the spiritual, what we do and how we act has a profound bearing on the whole of creation.  Both the fall and the transformation of creation takes place in us and through us.

  1. We are therefore all the more challenged to respond to the ecological and environmental problems of our world today, in the light of our theology and liturgical life, with concrete and practical actions. It is in this spirit, and with this sense of our own personal and communal responsibility, that we ask God, in His grace, to transform the whole creation.

  1. Our reflection on the theme consistently relies on our understanding of our own personal and communal responsibility for the fall of creation, and expresses the personal and ethical dimension of the transformation that we beg of God.  Our prayer to God that he transform the world is not a plea that he would change things to be better, that we might wake up one day to find ourselves in a renewed world.  It is a plea that he would work in us and through us, call us to receive, realize, and enact that transformation which he has already wrought in His Son, Our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ.

III. The Special Commission

a.  Looking towards the future

  1. We reflected on the work, the ethos, and the report of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC.  We wish to begin here by expressing our profound gratitude to all the churches in the WCC, and most especially to those who participated in the Commission, to those who have engaged with it.  The creation and work of the Commission was justified - indeed it was long overdue.  Yet we deeply appreciate the patience and care with which our partners listened to us.

  1. The Special Commission was created by the eighth assembly at Harare in December, 1998.  This was a response to the crisis in Orthodox relations with the WCC in the 1990's.  Regrettably, two Orthodox churches had left the Council, and in other Orthodox churches there was a growing sense of alienation.  Although the crisis in Orthodox participation had become acute and inescapable during the last decade of the 20th century, there had been difficulties and tensions from the beginning of the WCC's journey.

  1. The theological presuppositions, organizational structure, and ethos of the WCC issued largely from the experience of Western Christianity.  It was this Western perspective which became the "ecumenical norm".  The Orthodox convictions and perspectives were inevitably heard as critiques coming from a minority, usually respected or at least tolerated, but not affecting or changing the normative approach of the majority.

  1. The response of the WCC came at the Harare assembly in the form of the creation of the Special Commission, whose mandate was to assess and discuss the WCC's "structure, style, and ethos," with a view towards making proposals for overcoming the crisis.

  1. The Special Commission was begun with great enthusiasm and expectations.  One might say that the outcome of the Commission was more "ecumenical" than "Orthodox," and this has required the adjustment of our expectations.  But we realize that this will mean a more lasting and a more genuine solution for the Council as a whole.  Indeed, we affirm without reservation the work and recommendations of the Special Commission, its report in all its aspects.

  1. At our meeting we gave particular space to two aspects of the report: matters of ecclesiology and the change in process of the conduct of meetings to consensus.  However we also took careful note of the report's other major sections.  Regarding social and ethical issues as addressed by the Commission, we are hopeful that shift to consensus discernment will offer to the Council a highly promising way to grapple with such issues.  Regarding common prayer, we are pleased that the Council has already been implementing the proposed framework, and commit to continue to work together towards a common prayer life that is reflective of ecumenical realities.  Recommendations for adjustments to the current policies for membership were heard with appreciation, particularly the introduction of theological criteria for new applicants for membership and the addition of a new mode of relating to the Council.

  1. Although the Special commission no longer meets, its recommendations, adopted by the Central Committee (August 2002), have only just begun to be put into practice, and will truly begin at the ninth assembly.  We have every confidence that these recommendations bear great promise for the whole fellowship, as long as they are given a real chance to work.  We appreciate that attention to these issues will continue in the life of the WCC through the Permanent Committee on Consensus and Collaboration, so that the Orthodox churches will no longer experience the kinds of frustrations that led to the formation of the Special Commission.

  1. Naturally, we have a lot at stake in the results of the Special Commission.  We hope that our insistence on its recommendations is understood properly: it reflects a concern for the ecumenical movement and for the WCC that is its privileged instrument.  As former WCC general secretary Konrad Raiser has put it, "The action adopted by the Central Committee is by no means a matter of either Orthodox or Protestant churches gaining an upper hand". It reflects serious frustrations and dissatisfactions, yes, but it also arises from a commitment to the fellowship, and therefore the desire to find better ways to work together.  We hope to continue to make credible expressions of that commitment in the character of our participation at every level, including, where possible, our increased financial contribution.

b.  Ecclesiology

  1. We were pleased by the Special Commission's attention to matters of ecclesiology.  The report is justified in seeing ecclesiology as central to the different understandings of Christian division and Christian unity, and therefore the key to our different approaches to the WCC.

  1. We took notice of the particular question posed to the Orthodox in the Special Commission report: "Is there space for other churches in Orthodox ecclesiology?  How would that space and its limits be described?"  This question follows naturally from our self-understanding - specifically in our self-identification with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

  1. Orthodox theologians have begun to confront this question systematically mainly since the beginning of the twentieth century, influenced by the ecumenical movement - the new forms of bilateral dialogues, as well as the unprecedented multilateral encounter with other churches.  Since then, many have reflected and written on the subject, but have yet to find coherence in their conclusions.  Here in Rhodes we began a fruitful discussion on the question, and expressed the clear desire to pursue it carefully and systematically together.  The means of this study process is not yet clear.  While it could find a home in the ecclesiology work of the Faith and Order commission, as the Special Commission report suggests, we believe the process would best begin among ourselves.  We are convinced that such a study is necessary and timely, both in response to the respectful challenge posed us by the Special Commission, and also in order to achieve a greater clarity and consistency regarding this question among our own churches.  This is all the more vital, given the increasingly pluralistic context in which our churches live today.

c.  Consensus

  1. We recognize that the shift in the process of making decisions from a parliamentary voting system that is based on "majority rule" to a system designed to discern consensus will be among the most visible results of the Special Commission.  This shift is designed to remedy the perennial problem of the Orthodox churches as a minority in the World Council of Churches, which is not reflective of church realities.  However the implications of the shift are far greater than redressing this historical imbalance.  Scripture itself illumines the way towards this model.  St Paul encouraged the Corinthians "Now, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement, and that there be no divisions among you, that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose" (I Cor 1:10).

  1. The premise of the composition of the Special Commission was that of parity or equal footing (50% Orthodox and 50% from the other churches of the fellowship) and some anticipated that this model would be recommended for all meetings and governing bodies.  In fact, the parity model has proven extremely helpful for the Special Commission itself, as well as for other committees and meetings, such as the meeting on Social and Ethical Issues (Morges, October 2003), and other meetings, and has been affirmed in the composition of the Permanent Committee on Consensus and Collaboration.

  1. Introduction of consensus as the primary method within the life and work of the WCC offers the Council a way to reflect the centrality of Holy Scripture in its life, and engage the work of the Council in an atmosphere of openness, trust, and humility, where the views of all churches will be encouraged and listened to with respect.  We trust that the change to consensus will enhance the potential for the Council to find its true prophetic voice, and may offer a model that invites to the Council churches of that vast Christian constituency not yet members of the Council (including the Roman Catholic Church).

  1. We emphasize our realization that undertaking the work of the Council through consensus discernment and decision-making will challenge all of us; it will require our learning new ways of being together.  It will entail a deep spiritual commitment that will challenge all member churches of the Council.  All participants will have to commit to being attentive and respectful listeners to the voices and positions of all churches, as this method privileges no one.  The consensus method is not an end in itself, but has emerged as the best way forward for discerning the direction of the Council and deepening the fellowship of the churches.  Understanding that return to the status quo is no longer tolerable, we welcome this new method of conducting the life of the Council with hope.

d.  The fellowship of churches and the ecumenical movement in the 21st century

  1. We were informed about new efforts to look at the ecumenical movement in the 21st century.  We are aware both of the structural and financial challenges the ecumenical movement is facing today.  However the ecumenical movement is reconfigured, the world will continue to need a council of churches, i.e., a council which brings together Christian bodies who understand themselves as churches. The world needs an instrument to serve the churches by bringing them into a space for dialogue, for shared work, for the mutual exchange of gifts and insights from our traditions, for prayer together, and to express our commitment to unity.

  1. We believe further that such a council, precisely as a fellowship of churches, will properly operate along exactly the kinds of recommendations made by the Special Commission report: it will account for the ecclesiological issue and respect ecclesiological neutrality, it will foster prayer that reflects the real situations and convictions of the churches, and will be theologically serious in every way, including the way in which it considers churches applying for membership, it will operate on consensus at every level.

IV.  A meditation

                              

O merciful God,

by Your eternal Son and by Your Holy Spirit,

You have created the world out of nothing. 

You have brought all things from non-existence into being,

not out of necessity, but in Your free will,

out of Your own loving-kindness, in Your grace. 

You have created the world in which You were well pleased. 

As the crown and fulfilment of creation, You made us, human beings,

whom You endowed with Your own image, after Your own likeness,

to delight in the world and in Your glory.

But we abused our freedom,

we have distorted Your image, and became alienated from Your living presence. 

Through us and with us, the whole of creation is also fallen. 

Yet You have not turned away from the world which You love.

In Your own free will, in Your mercy and loving-kindness,

You have sent Your Son to redeem the world,

to transform the world,

to recreate the world.

In Your Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, You have renewed us.

Yet we continue to deny this gift.

We fall away, and need to be called back in repentance. 

We have distanced ourselves from You:

do not remember our sinfulness!

Call us again, so that we might be return to You,

until You have brought us into Your kingdom which is to come,

until You have made us to be partakers of Your nature.

In Your grace, You have redeemed us by Your Son in the Holy Spirit: 

O God, in Your grace, transform our lives!

In Your Son and by Your Holy Spirit,

You have granted us the Church - the Body of Christ,

which You have made to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. 

In Your Church we experience Your kingdom which is to come.

In Your Church we experience the redemption, transformation, recreation of the world. 

In Your Church we are healed and reconciled.

By Your Holy Spirit, keep us faithful to the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of Your Church.

Call us to repentance, to transformation, that we may truly be Your Church.

In Your grace, You have given us the holy Church:

O God, in Your grace, transform us for the sake of Your Church!

In Your Son, who was transfigured in front of his disciples,

You showed us the divine brightness of the uncreated grace,

You showed us that the one who would be crucified is life and light.

In Your Son, who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,

and went to his voluntary life-giving death,

You have taught us that the way to transfiguration is to love one another - even our enemies - as ourselves,

to take up our cross daily,

to be servants of one another.

In our pettiness, our pride, and our lust for power,

we demean each other's dignity,

we lose sight of Your image in each other,

we wound and break each other with violence.

Call us to repentance, to witness to the world, to transformation.

In Your grace, You have given us all that we require to live in together in harmony and justice,

O God, in Your grace, transform us, for the sake of the world!

You have given us a world to delight in,

the manifestation of Your own uncreated glory,

and gave us the charge to till it and keep it,

to exercise a responsible stewardship over all living things and the whole creation.

You have given us the examples of Your saints,

whose relationship to the animals and to nature prefigures the new life, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb.

But in our callousness, we have mistreated animals, and brought many to extinction.

In our greed and our short-sightedness,

we have squandered the resources of the world,

we have razed forests,

we have poisoned the air and the waters.

We threaten ourselves, each other, and future generations,

and we offend Your glory.

Because of our sin, the whole of creation groans in travail, awaiting transformation.

In Your grace, You have given us a glorious world - in us it has fallen, in us let it be raised again:

O God, in Your grace, transform the whole creation!