World Council of Churches

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

Anne Glynn-Mackoul on Met. Kirill's proposals

01 March 2000

by Anne Glynn-Mackoul

The inaugural meeting of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC held December 6 - 8 in Morges (Switzerland), allocated to four subcommittees initial discussion of the basic issues which currently comprise the dialogue. The fourth subcommittee was asked to consider "Existing Models and New Proposals for a Structural Framework for the WCC." Among the specific "New Proposals" under review is that of His Eminence Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad published in The Ecumenical Review, Volume 51, Number 4, October 1999, pp. 351-354 and entitled "A Possible Structure of the World Council of Churches: Proposals for Discussion", variously also referred to as the "Russian Proposal" and the "Bicameral Proposal." This participant was invited to formulate an interpretation of Metropolitan Kirill's proposal and offer some reflections.

"The Russian proposal"

Metropolitan Kirill proposes a "radical change in the structure of the World Council of Churches ... [transforming] the WCC into a ‘two-chamber body' ... one of the chambers could ensure the presence of diversity, while the other could serve the goal of unity. The first chamber could be conditionally designated as ‘council', the other as ‘forum'." (p. 353) In this proposal, the basic part of the WCC structure in its current representational, democratic model would be preserved "in its present form (the "Council"), but as an element of a wider, two chamber structure" (p. 353). The new chamber (the "Forum") would conduct its business through decision making by consensus and representation according to families of churches. While all churches engaged in work with the WCC would be expected to participate in the Forum through official representatives (p. 354), churches participating in the Forum would not be required to be members in a juridical sense of the Council or send representatives to the Council, or therefore, be held accountable for decisions taken in the Council.

This proposal is responsive to the challenge of both the Executive Committee of the WCC contained in the document entitled "Foundations for the Special Commission" designated "Executive committee Doc. 5.1. Harare, Zimbabwe, December 1998" (Morges Dossier, pp. 45-52) and the Orthodox Task Force in its September 1998 paper "Orthodox Participation in the WCC/ The Current Situation: Issues and Ways Forward" (Morges Dossier, pp. 35-44). Among the Executive Committee proposals for possible areas of discussion by the Special Commission were a series of questions regarding membership in the WCC including (1) "Is participation in the life and work of the Council to be understood only in terms of a formal ‘membership'?" and (2) "Are there alternative forms of membership or participation which would reflect the reality of ‘being churches' rather than the organic link to an ecumenical organization?" (p. 51).

The September 1998 Orthodox Task Force paper had noted the ongoing discussions concerning possible models of and ways of representation and membership in ecumenical bodies, suggesting that careful consideration be given to these possibilities, including among the alternatives:

B) Particularly to address the ecclesiological problem, models are proposed which would qualitatively de-stress the character of membership. For example, there are efforts to interpret the "Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations" [Cf. Minutes of the Central Committee 1997, p.89.], stating either that the WCC organize such a forum (although possibly of churches and not ecumenical organizations) as a "second chamber" to itself (hence the name "bicameral model"), or that the Council in fact become such a forum. This would address the tension and the countless misunderstandings arising from the different ecclesiological self-understandings of participating churches (p. 42).

The Russian Proposal provides the opportunity for just such a careful consideration of this type of model.

Forum

The term "forum" is used in several distinct, though related, proposals and conciliar models. For example, the "forum" discussed at Harare, ("Proposals regarding a Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations" and "Report of PRC I", cf. Damascus Dossier, pp. 45-49) constitutes one proposal. The "forum" that describes the Canadian Council of Churches (Damascus Dossier, pp. 26-30) describes a different reality. These models and the "forum" proposed by Metropolitan Kirill, ought not to be conflated or confused with one another. The forum concept as affirmed in Harare envisioned a series of occasional gatherings of Christian churches - not necessarily member churches nor necessarily all of the current member churches of the WCC - and ecumenical organizations in order to provide the opportunity for "worship, exploration of matters of common Christian concern and development of enhanced mutual understanding ... not conceived as decision making, programme initiating or document-producing" (pp. 45-46). The Russian Proposal uses the term "forum" as a designation of a second standing chamber of the WCC. The Task Force used the word in both senses, envisioning perhaps that the concept proposed in Harare for occasional less-structured gatherings might be adapted to the more specific purpose as a standing second chamber with a less juridical format than the current central committee. For the purposes of the balance of this paper, the word "forum" will be used in the sense of the Russian Proposal to mean a second standing chamber of the WCC.

The basic problem

As stated by Metropolitan Kirill, the basic problem for the participation of the Orthodox churches in the World Council of Churches

...lies in the fact that within the present structure of the WCC the Orthodox have to be fully responsible for the WCC's agenda and actions, which sometimes prove to be unacceptable for the Orthodox teaching and tradition. ...Historically the World Council of Churches has performed two functions: as a common body of churches on their way towards unity and as a place for discussing the Christian attitude towards the world. The half-century history of the WCC has shown that these two functions of the Council cannot be successfully fulfilled within one structure and system of decision-making. One of these functions implies consensus, the other pluralism, seeking to embrace as many problems, approaches and viewpoints as possible" (The Ecumenical Review, pp. 351-353).1

The Orthodox member churches represent a structural minority within the WCC. Because the Orthodox distinguish themselves from the rest of the member churches and are unable to compromise on many issues, including issues put to a vote in the heterogeneous environment of the WCC decision-making bodies, a structural model that includes consensus decision-making and the opportunity to opt-out of the western representational model would be attractive to some Orthodox member churches.

The proposed solution

The First Chamber - The Council
As envisioned in the Russian Proposal, the first chamber of the newly structured WCC, the Council, would "discuss problems of concern for member churches" and seek ways of solving them", including "the most acute and challenging problems faced by churches of various traditions". This chamber would retain the current Basis for membership and the current representational model of participation, democratic decision-making and rules of procedure which apply in the current central committee. The basic principles of the Toronto Declaration would continue to apply. A Christian church otherwise meeting the criteria for membership in the WCC, could choose not to participate in this body, but all member churches who do participate in the Council would be expected to maintain parallel official representation in the second chamber.

The Second Chamber - The Forum
As outlined in the Russian Proposal, the second chamber of the newly structured WCC, the Forum, would assume "the task of restoration of Christian Unity" and also responsibility for discussion of "mission, religious education, diakonia, human rights, political and global issues". This chamber would function through use of the "confessional families" approach with these families denoted for purposes of the Russian Proposal as "Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed and Free churches" (p. 354) with each family choosing representatives from among the official representatives of the churches comprising that family. Decision-making would be based upon consensus among the families, with the expectation that this principle would also guide decision-making within the families. The basic principles of the Toronto Declaration would again apply. Participation in the Forum would be open to Christian churches "which cannot assume the full commitments involved in the membership in the WCC".

Benefits

The Russian Proposal provides a venue for participation in this ecumenical body for churches which encounter within its own membership hostility to ecumenism in general or to the programs and policies of the WCC specifically or which feel compromised by the direction and ethos of the current structure. It encourages the visible expression of unity among churches with distinct governance but identity of theology and ecclesiology "reflecting all the complexity and manifold nature of the process of restoration of Christian unity". The consensus model promotes ecumenical collegiality in an atmosphere of trust relieved of the adversarial relationships that can develop in majority/minority encounters, relieved of the tension engendered by the perceived need to issue minority statements of defense or clarification.

Questions

The General Assembly - This highest governing body of the WCC elects the Central Committee and operates according to the western representational democratic model and rules of procedure. What is the relationship of the Assembly to the Forum?

The relationship between the Council and the Forum - How are issues designated the province of one or another chamber? How are inconsistencies between the chambers resolved? Presumably a joint Executive Committee could be devised; how would the governance of this committee be resolved? How are resources allocated? Are there now twice as many official representatives involved or do the same official representatives assume roles in both chambers? In what chamber are voices heard representing the outer limits of the tolerance for diversity? Which chamber or who sets those limits?

The relationships of churches within "families of churches" -- How will "church families" be determined? Are representatives of the Anglican churches, the Old Catholic churches, "mainline" Protestant churches and the historic peace churches appropriately members of the same family? Who facilitates the consultations within families of churches?

The relationship between the Council and the Forum on the one hand and the Commissions and Boards and Advisory Groups on the other - Who approves the leadership of these areas?

Authority and Accountability - The current diagram entitled "WCC Programme and Management" reflects a diffuse structure without hierarchical reporting and accountability characteristic of standard business management models. The disconnect between the member churches, as represented in the central and executive committees and communicated through the various subcommittees, advisory committees and boards, and staff of the WCC (and perhaps within the management of the WCC) has created the opportunity for programmes and activities to be cultivated that might not survive more direct scrutiny by a consensus of member churches and which evoke concern within the membership of some member churches and potential member churches. How does the Russian Proposal resolve this? How does the Bicameral structure communicate with authority decisions taken, cultivate a constructive, cohesive vision of the ecumenical encounter, and ensure accountability through the process of implementation of programmes and activities? How does the WCC maintain clarity? Under the Bicameral Proposal, who speaks for the WCC and what are the parameters of public response by those who have chosen to participate only in the Forum?

Effect of institution of the Bicameral Proposal - Will the transfer of any church from membership in the Council to membership in the Forum actually result in an appeasement of anti-ecumenical criticism within that church? What are the costs of implementation of parallel governing bodies -- financial, practical and spiritual - both to the WCC as the primary instrument of the one ecumenical movement and to the member churches? Is there benefit to retaining the Council chamber, or could radical restructuring consist of moving all of the work at the central committee level into a forum model?

Conclusion

With deep appreciation for the initiative of Metropolitan Kirill in offering his thoughtful, concrete proposal for a radical new structure for the World Council of Churches, this subcommittee is able to undertake its task to consider "existing models and new proposals for a structural framework for the WCC" with his clear alternative to the current structure. The Russian Proposal describes a model that would enable churches to shift the emphasis of their own involvement in the WCC away from issues in which they do not choose to engage, that is, which are inconsistent with their own teaching and tradition, and to focus on the task of restoration of Christian unity. The proposal recognizes the discomfort some churches find in the current western decision-making style and rules of procedure and offers not a replacement but an alternative which allows the current member churches to stay together. These reflections are not intended to respond to or resolve the questions raised, but are intended to offer to the committee some focus for the discussion.

Notes:

  1. For a more detailed discussion of the concerns of the Russian Orthodox Church regarding the current status of the WCC see the response of the Russian Orthodox Church in "Three Orthodox contributions to the Common Understanding and Vision Process - Responses to the CUV Draft of September 1996", Turn to God Rejoice in Hope: Orthodox Reflections on the Way to Harare, Thomas FitzGerald and Peter Bouteneff, eds. (Geneva: WCC, 1998), pp. 68-73.