World Council of Churches

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

Leonid Kishkovsky on Orthodox participation

08 March 2000

by Leonid Kishkovsky 

  1. The call for Christian unity comes to us from the Gospel, and our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour obligates us as Christians to seek unity.

  2. Yet Christians are divided in ecclesiology and theology, in the practice and understanding of the sacraments, in ethos and historical perspective, and in cultural context.

  3. The calling of the World Council of Churches (WCC) is two-fold: a) to give an ecumenical context and expression to the call for Christian unity; b) to give an ecumenical context to the (sometimes difficult) encounters between different ecclesiologies, theologies, etc.

  4. The most fundamental ecclesiological division in the WCC is the division between churches of the Reformation traditions and those of the Orthodox traditions. (This division is an expression of the Eastern Christian/Western Christian divide. In terms of ecclesiology, the churches in the South emerged and are emerging from the presuppositions and experiences of Western Christianity.)

  5. The Orthodox have participated in the structures of the WCC, but as a permanent structural minority have not in fact influenced the priorities and programmes of the WCC on an equal footing.

  6. To put it another way, the Orthodox influence has been that of a permanent "opposition", and has sometimes been expressed through "minority reports".

  7. Consequently, within the life of the WCC the Orthodox participation has been felt as an obstacle to ecumenical progress, and not as a contribution to a deeper understanding of what Christian unity means.

  8. These tensions have been expressed most often in the framework of majority/minority debates and decision-making procedures.

  9. The principles and rules governing the WCC membership and WCC decision-making procedures have both expressed and encouraged "denominationalism", placing the Orthodox in a context in which they themselves function like denominations.

  10. A major development in the ecumenical movement has been the achievement of communion and mutual recognition of ministries among churches of the Reformation traditions.

  11. This suggests that all member churches of the WCC would be well-served by providing a new shape for WCC membership, giving more adequate expression and visibility to the realities of ecclesiological traditions and understandings.

  12. For the achievement of equity, equality, adequate representation, and "equal footing" in the WCC, some form of radical change will be necessary in the WCC governing bodies. At root, what is required is a new style and ethos of decision-making. It is, however, unlikely that a new style and ethos will be achieved in the WCC context without changes in the rules which govern representation.

  13. It is instructive that the Special Commission is structured according to the principle of equal representation. This suggests that the discussion of Orthodox participation in the WCC would not be adequately pursued if equal representation were not ensured - from constituency as well as from staff.

  14. This further suggests that the continued participation of Orthodox churches in the WCC will depend on some form of equal representation in governing bodies.

  15. Since the "families of churches" style of representation has been adopted in several regional and national councils of churches, this model requires serious reflection by the Special Commission.

  16. There are, of course, other options that may be considered. If the model offered by the Special Commission itself is taken as a point of departure, we may reflect on the terminology of "communion" or "eucharistic communion" seeking to understand its relevance to the life of the WCC. The Orthodox participants of the Special Commission represent two distinct families of eucharistic communion. The participants broadly representing the Reformation traditions are, generally speaking, churches in eucharistic communion with one another, either as the result of bilateral or multilateral agreements, or as a result of established ecumenical or inter-church practice.

  17. The matter of staff balances is also important for the future of the WCC. It is clear that the Orthodox churches are under-represented in the WCC staff, no matter what criterion is used to assess staff balances. In the staff, the tensions of "majority/minority" and "ethos" are the same as the tensions experienced in the WCC governing bodies. According to my observations of many years, the relationship of staff to their churches is a significant factor in the life of the WCC. The Orthodox staff are, on balance, more closely related to their churches than are the staff from the churches of the Reformation traditions. This means that Orthodox staff are, on balance, more aware of a responsibility to give voice to the ecclesial traditions from which they come.

  18. For the Orthodox, the above concerns are not "anti-ecumenical", nor are they expressions of a "struggle for power". To the contrary, these concerns are expressions of a desire for a deeper ecumenism and a more authentic expression of ecumenical life.