World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

New Valamo Meeting

01 January 2010

New Valamo, Finland, September 1977

The New Valamo meeting sought to respond to issues which arose at the Nairobi assembly. Its statement describes the eucharistic ecclesiology of the Orthodox, and from that perspective treats the sensitive issue of "intercommunion". It goes on to address Orthodox approaches to social and environmental concerns, in the perspective of "the liturgy after the liturgy."

 The eumenical nature of Orthodox witness

A Consultation of Orthodox theologians on "The Ecumenical Nature of Orthodox Witness", organized by the Orthodox Task Force of the World Council of Churches, was held at the New Valamo Monastery from 24-30 September 1977, at the invitation of the Orthodox Church of Finland.

The purpose of the Consultation was to respond to certain ecumenical priorities which have emerged since the Fifth Assembly of the WCC in Nairobi, and to bring some Orthodox insights to bear on issues and programmes as these affect the life and activities both of the WCC and of the Churches themselves.

The Consultation dealt with three specific items on today's ecumenical agenda, namely "The Local Church", "The Proclamation and Articulation of our Faith", and "The Churches' Responsibility in the World Today".

The contents of the present report reflect a variety of opinions expressed throughout the meeting and they should be regarded as points calling for further reflection both within the various sub-units of the WCC and in the Orthodox Churches. In considering the main theme of the Consultation we felt it necessary to examine the ecclesiological basis of our ecumenical commitment, namely our eucharistic understanding of the Church.

The Orthodox understand the Church in the light of the Eucharist. The whole life of the Church, the Word and the Sacraments, stem from and find their fulfilment in the Holy Eucharist. Thus the Eucharist is not just a "sacrament", but the great mystery of our participation in the life of the Holy Trinity, the recapitulation of the entire history of salvation in Christ and the foretaste of the Kingdom to come. In the Eucharist, therefore, the Church is placed in the very centre of history, sanctifying and transforming the world, by being a new creation, creating a new mode of life. At the same time she is placed at the end of history as a sign of the Kingdom, judging the world (1 Cor. 5-6) in the light of the eschatological realities of which the Eucharist is a manifestation (cf. Didache 10).

The Church which has this eucharistic character is not an abstract or speculative idea, but a concrete reality. Whenever the people of God are gathered together in a certain place (epi to auto, see I Cor. 11:20) in order to form the eucharistic body of Christ, the Church becomes a reality. The Church, therefore, is primarily identified with the local eucharistic community in each place. It is by being incorporated into this concrete local community that we are saved and proclaim the salvation of the world in Christ "until He comes".

In order to be such a saving community the local Church must overcome and transcend the divisions which sin and death create in the world. The local community is a true and authentic manifestation of the Church of God only if it is catholic in its composition and structure. It cannot be based on divisions and discriminations either of a natural kind, such as race, nation, language, age, sex, physical handicap, etc. or of a social type, such as class, profession, etc.

Even the divisions created by time and space have to be overcome in this community. For this reason the eucharistic community includes in itself also the departed members of the Church, and although it is in fact a local community it offers the Eucharist on behalf of the entire "oikoumene", thus acquiring truly ecumenical dimensions in which the divisions of space are also overcome.

This catholic nature of the Church which is revealed in the Eucharist is safeguarded through the office of the bishop. The specific ministry of the bishop is to transcend in his person all the divisions that may exist within a particular area and also to relate a local Church to the rest of the local Churches both in space and in time. This link is sacramentally expressed in the synodal consecration of bishops. Because of the character of episcopacy it is essential that there should exist only one bishop in a given area and that all eucharistic communities should acquire their ecclesial authenticity through his ministry. The local Church, therefore, is not necessarily present in every eucharistic assembly but in the episcopal diocese through which each eucharistic gathering acquires its catholic nature.

This understanding of the local Church has always been essential to the Orthodox tradition. In the course of history circumstances often necessitated the creation of larger ecclesial units, such as the metropolis, the patriarchate, the autocephalous church, etc. However, in the function of these units, natural, social or cultural and racial divisions should not distort the original eucharistic understanding of the Church. The canonical structure of the Orthodox Church, as it was formed in the early centuries, has helped and can still help to protect Orthodoxy from succumbing to such dangers.

The community of the Church is united in confessing one faith. This faith is essentially identical with the apostolic teaching and with the "faith once delivered to the Saints". It found its articulation in the entire living tradition of the Church, especially in creeds accepted by the ecumenical Church and in the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. The Orthodox Church regards the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils as faithful expressions of the one apostolic faith and therefore binding on all the members of the Church.

This faithfulness to past councils, however, must always be understood as a living continuity. This includes two essential aspects: fidelity and renewal, both of which are integral parts of Orthodox life and Orthodox witness. Fidelity is never merely a formal repetition of the things once given, but basically faithfulness to the original apostolic truth, in the spirit of creative obedience. Renewal thus comes to mean, in the first place, responding to new, changing situations on the basis of the truth once given. It may also be said, therefore, that renewal in this sense means the application of the apostolic tradition to contemporary questions and needs. This principle implies, first, that fidelity does not become a sterile, static attitude, without relation to the prevailing human and historical realities and, second, that renewal is not an end in itself nor something which can take just any direction whatsoever, but is always based on the original truth of the apostolic tradition.

This process of applying the apostolic faith to new historical situations explains the idea of the "reception" of a Council. Reception does not mean a "formal approval" of the Council. The faith which is pronounced by a Council establishes itself as Truth, by being received and re-received by the community of the Church in the Holy Spirit. Every form of confession of faith is shown to be in the end a matter of participation in the local eucharistic community. Faith becomes salvation only when it is life in the community of the Church.

This raises the issue of confessionalism. The Orthodox Church possesses its own confessions" of faith in the forms of creeds and the decisions of the ancient Councils, especially the Ecumenical Councils. This makes it appear as a "confessional body" or "family" and it is often treated as such by the non-Orthodox. And yet such an understanding of Orthodoxy, sometimes encouraged by the Orthodox themselves, would contradict the fundamental character of its ecclesiology.

The Orthodox are actively involved in the ecumenical movement and have been members of the World Council of Churches since its foundation. How can their ecclesiology, as it was described above, fit into the context of this movement and in programmes and activities undertaken by the WCC? In the first place it must be stressed that the participation of the Orthodox in the ecumenical movement of today is not, in principle, a revolution in the history of Orthodoxy, but it is a natural consequence of the constant prayer of the Church "for the union of all". It constitutes another attempt, like those made in the Patristic period, to apply the apostolic faith to new historical situations and existential demands. What is in a sense new today, is the fact that this attempt is being made together with other Christian bodies with whom there is no full unity. It is here that the difficulties arise, but it is precisely here that there also are many signs of real hope for growing fellowship, understanding and cooperation.

The World Council of Churches is made up mostly of Churches whose identity is basically confessional, in the sense in which we have just defined the word "confession". As a result, they normally see no reason why eucharistic communion should not be practised among the member churches.

The refusal of the Orthodox to practise "intercommunion" is thus seen as arrogance on their part precisely because it is assumed that they are another confessional body which regards itself as superior compared with the rest. In this situation it becomes difficult for the Orthodox to point to an ecclesiology so radically different from that assumed by the other members of the WCC. It is difficult to show in this context that to belong to a confessional body is not the ultimate thing in the Church and that the Orthodox Church regards itself as the Church not on a confessional basis but on the basis of the fact that it identifies itself with the eucharistic community in what it regards as its proper and saving form. Only when this is made clear can the frustration stemming from the issue of "intercommunion" be removed. It will be understood why it is more natural for the Orthodox to speak of "communion" rather than of "intercommunion" or "shared eucharist".

But this would lead to further consequences with regard to the Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement. It will imply a re-orientation of the ecumenical problematic as a whole. This means basically that the unity which we seek in the ecumenical movement cannot be the product of theological agreements, such as a common signing of a confessio fidei. Theological work is certainly needed and should be of a serious kind and high quality. But its main aim should be directed towards the understanding of the existential significance of the community of the Church, particularly of her visible structure which provides man with the possibility of entering into new and saving relationships with God and the World.

The dynamics of the liturgical reality (eucharistic community) as expounded here is rooted in the experience of the Trinitarian life in Christ which continuously saves and illuminates man and history. The members of the Church living, practising and witnessing this eucharistic experience create a new life-style. This life-style was realized in the life of the Apostles, martyrs and all the saints who throughout history refused to exchange the "heavenly" for the "earthly". This mortal life is manifested today in the sins of our times, especially in a culture of individualism, rationalism, consumerism, racism, militarism, deprivation and exploitation in all forms. In each culture the eucharistic dynamics leads into a "liturgy after the liturgy", i.e. a liturgical use of the material world, a transformation of human association in society into Koinonia, of consumerism into an ascetic attitude towards the creation and the restoration of human dignity.

The dynamics of the concept of "liturgy after the liturgy" is to be found in several programmes and activities of the WCC which have emerged since Nairobi and to which the Orthodox Churches have given their support based on their ecumenical solidarity. The emphasis on helping "the poorest of the poor", on establishing peace and justice between nations and states, on eradicating hunger, destitution and sickness, on promoting human rights, on diminishing tensions, on searching for a just and responsible society and on directing science and technology along creative lines, on the peaceful and safe use of atomic and other sources of energy, should be given due attention by our Churches as the above issues are part of their Christian concern and an integral element in their social witness.

The reality of salvation is not a narrow religious experience, but it includes the dynamic which - through the synergy (cooperation) of God and man - transforms human individuals into persons according to that image of God which is revealed in the Incarnation, and societies into Koinonia, through history, into the image of Trinitarian life.

Thus the eucharistic communion is the Church with all its implications. As the Saints have said: "Save yourself and you will save those around you."

The Nairobi Assembly has defined that the WCC is constituted "... to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe". The Consultation expressed its appreciation that the WCC has already launched the debate on the local Church and it expressed its hope that the WCC will do more to direct the attention of its members to the importance of the eucharistic understanding of the local Church and the eucharistic community within the continuity of the apostolic faith as the basis of the unity we seek and to disentangle its constitution from some elements and possibly some structures which make it so difficult for the Churches to find their way to unity,. This would make it easier for the Orthodox to take a full and creative part in the ecumenical movement. In that respect the Consultation expressed its appreciation of the fact that the decision of the First Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference to ask for a fuller and integrated participation of the Orthodox in the WCC has been taken into account by the WCC and that negotiations have been initiated in order to implement that decision.