World Council of Churches

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

Towards a Protestant-Orthodox dialogue within the WCC

01 August 1999

Minutes from a Central Committee "Padare" session, 27 August 1999

This gathering, in the context of a WCC Central Committee meeting, was intended as an encounter where some of the issues and concerns which characterize Orthodox-Protestant relations could be discussed in an informal way. It was conceived as a session whose proceedings might be of eventual use to the Special Commission. The session was attended by around 75 people, balanced evenly between Orthodox and Protestant members. Introductory remarks were followed by a discussion which was characterized as "honest, open and constructive".

I. The nature of the dialogue sought

It was clear to all that the dialogue needs to continue, in openness and honesty. Furthermore, several participants spoke of the mutual love and respect which must form the basis of this encounter. As Patriarch Ignatius Zakka (Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch) put it, "Christ tells us to love one another. This love doesn't mean that you have to believe the same thing as me. If I love you as a Christian, I love you as you are. Then we can sit and talk, in an atmosphere of mutual love, mutual respect."

At the same time, mutual love and respect does not mean that we hide our differences, it means that we face them honestly. Mutual love and respect involve also mutual challenge. In defining these parameters we are talking of what has been more and more often called "ecumenical space".

The dialogue so far has been characterized both by hopes and frustrations. It was suggested that one reason for the frustration lies with the unreasonable expectations we have. If we realize that we have in fact developed theologies and ecclesiologies which are, in places, diametrically opposed, and that we will not be able to solve these issues soon, we will give a more realistic character and pace to our encounters. This does not mean that we should relax our efforts, or stop working together in common service to the world. Finally, however, realistic expectations must not ignore the many positive achievements of inter-Christian encounter during this century.

As the nature and terms of the dialogue continued to be discussed, it was frequently mentioned that the multilateral relationships characteristic of the WCC need to be informed by the formal and informal bilateral dialogues. The bilaterals are instructive at every stage -- from the preparation of their agendas to their eventual findings. At the same time, it was noted that the results of bilaterals cannot realistically be considered wholly binding throughout the World Communions which they represent. Yet this fact does not diminish their usefulness in informing the wider encounter.

More generally, it was noted that Protestant and Orthodox theologies and ecclesiologies ought to be understood in terms of their origin in the interpretation of texts, symbols, practices, and history. Ecumenical hermeneutics, a current area of study in particular within Faith and Order, is a vital area which may inform all aspects of the dialogue. The Orthodox "diaspora" -- those Orthodox living outside the traditionally Orthodox countries, may be particularly useful in clarifying hermeneutical issues.

II. Issues in Orthodox-Protestant dialogue within the WCC

Intra-Protestant Diversity
Protestants should not be perceived by the Orthodox as being monolithic. For example, when discussing the ordination of women, it must be remembered that Protestant churches too are divided by this question. Similarly, in approaching either theological or moral/ethical questions, an easy categorization of Orthodox as "traditional" or "conservative", and Protestants as "liberal", is misleading, as it does not do justice to intra-Protestant diversity.

Unity in diversity, and the limits to diversity
Protestant diversity of theological positions, even within single "communions", is baffling to the Orthodox, running counter to their understanding of the relationship between personal convictions and the Church's theology. Similarly, Protestants may wonder whether the apparent Orthodox theological unity isn't tending towards an unhealthy uniformity.

East-West dynamics vs. the Universality of the Church
The Orthodox-Protestant divide can possibly be understood along the lines of an East-West divide, particularly if "East" and "West" are understood not geographically but historically and doctrinally. Can there be a universality which embraces both East and West?

Organic Unity vs. Reconciled Diversity
When Protestant churches unite, as in the Porvoo church-union agreement, must they retain their identity as "Anglican" and "Lutheran"? What is the kind of unity ultimately sought, and are there interim stages to such unity? What does it mean to belong to a council of churches? What is the implication of our common baptism?

Proselytism
We are called to go out and teach, to catechize. But proselytism, conversion by coercion (often utilizing financial incentives) is contrary to ecumenism. The cessation of proselytism would create a much improved climate for dialogue. Yet "proselytism" is often a question of perception. Particularly in the current era, Eastern Europe can tend to perceive anyone from the "outside" as a part of the Western "machinery", with ideological and socioeconomic repercussions.

Ordination of women
This issue arose perhaps more often than any other, as emblematic of (a) serious points on which we disagree, and (b) decisions which are taken unilaterally by churches, i.e., without consulting one another in "mutual accountability".

Baptism
How do we understand each other's baptism? Is there the potential within this question to make a significant breakthrough in ecumenical relations?

The Effects of Migration
Our era has seen an increase in the movement of people from country to country, resulting in an increasing cross-fertilization between Orthodox and Protestants. There is an increased pluralism, and, e.g., more intermarriage. This trend will inevitably lead to opportunities for cooperation and understanding, as well as to misunderstanding.

WCC Decision-making styles

What are the limitations of the democratic model as opposed to the consensus model of decision-making, particularly in view of (a) the de facto built-in minority of Orthodox churches in the WCC, and (b) the foreignness of the democratic method to Orthodox and other sensibilities?

WCC Structural questions
What are the elements or aspects of the WCC's structure which help or impede Protestant-Orthodox relations? What is our understanding of "Council", as in "Ecumenical Council", as in "World Council"?

Ecumenical Terminology
Inevitably, the ecumenical encounter has generated its own terminology. But there is no longer a common sense as to the meaning of some of the basic terms. What do we mean by "visible unity"? What do we mean by "ecumenical"? These terms have the potential for polarization, and ought to be clarified.

Conclusions

The sense which appeared to be shared by all was that this was a good and honest conversation, and that this particular informal setting was congenial to such discussion. Some saw here a re-emergence of the constructive spirit of the Orthodox-Protestant discussions held at Antelias, Lebanon in 1996. It was widely hoped that the Orthodox-Protestant encounter in this "Padare-style" setting could become a regular feature of Central Committee meetings.