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Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches

Report of the Steering Committee of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches presented before the WCC Central Committee, 2003

02 September 2009

World Council of Churches
Geneva, Switzerland
26 August - 2 September 2003

Report of the Steering Committee of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches

 Neapolis, Greece, 4-7 June 2003

The Steering Committee met from June 4-7, 2003 in Neapolis, Greece, hosted by the Diocese of Neapolis and Stavroupolis. Members of the Committee had the opportunity to visit several local parishes and to receive their gracious hospitality. They learned about the spiritual, diaconal, educational and social work of the local diocese, and participated in the liturgical life of the local church in the season of the feast of the Ascension.

Prior to the Committee meeting (June 1-3), an international academic symposium took place in Thessaloniki, organized by the School of Theology of Aristotle University. The symposium, entitled "Orthodox Theology and Ecumenical Dialogue: Problems and Perspectives," took place with the blessing of Archbishop Christodoulos, primate of the Church of Greece, who addressed the symposium with an in-depth reflection. Committee members participated in the symposium by offering papers and contributing to the lively and constructive discussions. The symposium was characterized by open and honest discussion within a wide constituency (local clergy, professors, students, and Committee members), of issues directly related to the work of the Special Commission, such as common prayer, ecclesiology, social and ethical issues, the role of women in the life of the church, and the importance of continuing ecumenical dialogue. The symposium closed by addressing an appeal sent to the Church of Bulgaria and the Church of Georgia, to reconsider their participation in bilateral and multilateral theological dialogue, and their return to the worldwide ecumenical family.


The Central Committee, recognizing the need for continuity in the discussion of outstanding issues relating to Orthodox participation, recommended that the Steering Committee of the Special Commission fulfil, until the next assembly, the role of a "Permanent Committee on Consensus and Collaboration."

While the eventual title of this committee has yet to be finalized, the Committee has responsibility for:

1. continuing the authority, mandate, concerns, and dynamic of the Special Commission;
2. giving advice in order to reach consensus on items proposed for the agenda of the WCC;
3. giving attention to matters of ecclesiology.

The Committee will also "give advice and make recommendations to governing bodies of the WCC, including issues of improved participation of the Orthodox in the entire life and work of the Council."

At the outset of the present meeting, members of the Steering Committee offered a preliminary survey of reactions of churches to the Special Commission report.

There was particular reflection on:

  • the consensus model;
  • membership;
  • ecclesiology;
  • common prayer;
  • the continuing mandate and nature of this committee.

The Steering Committee offers this report to the Executive Committee and the Central Committee, and to other relevant groups continuing work in the above-mentioned areas.


The Steering Committee was helped in its discussion on consensus by the progress report from the General Secretary describing work done in that area following the meeting of the Central Committee.

A. The Steering Committee asks the small reference group charged with preparing specific proposals for the Central Committee, as well as the enlarged meeting following the Central Committee 2003 (to produce a draft manual and rules of debate), to take into consideration the following points:

1. The move to consensus method represents a radical shift in the culture of the WCC. It is a move towards a new ethos, focused on deliberation and discernment. The Committee therefore suggests that the draft manual and rules of debate include a preamble describing the qualities required for effective use of the consensus method.
2. Consensus method puts a special responsibility on moderators, but all participants will need to learn new ways of listening and contributing, and discerning the mind of the meeting.
3. The rules of debate should embody the content of paragraphs 49-50 of the Special Commission report relating to consensus decision-making procedure and voting procedure.
4. Consensus procedure may mean that fewer items can be addressed at any one meeting. Careful attention will therefore need to be given to prioritization.
5. There will need to be transparency as to where the decision is made to place an agenda item under consensus procedure or voting procedure.
6. Special consideration will need to be given as to the process by which persons are given the floor to speak, and how points of order are taken.
7. Regular review of the working of consensus method will need to be built into the process.

B. The Steering Committee suggests the following next steps, which build upon those set out in the progress report of the General Secretary:

1. The small reference group, set up by the General Secretary after the Central Committee meeting in 2002, should prepare specific proposals to be brought before the Central Committee in August/September 2003.
2. Following Central Committee 2003, a larger meeting, including representatives of churches which practice consensus decision-making, should be invited to prepare a draft manual and appropriate rules of debate.
3. The proposed new framework should be finalized by the Executive Committee at its meeting in the fall of 2004.
4. The Central Committee meeting in 2005 should implement consensus decision-making based on appropriate rules of debate, and thus serve as a further testing for the method.
5. In the light of the experience of the 2005 Central Committee meeting, a framework for consensus decision-making should be prepared for use at the ninth assembly.


The Steering Committee heard a report on the follow-up of the recommendations on membership and noted with satisfaction:

1. The proposed amendments to the Constitution and the Rules.
2. The proposed procedures for the Executive Committee to deal more adequately with applications for membership and with issues related to membership.
3. The work that is being done to implement the proposals of groupings of member churches for purposes of their representation and participation in the WCC.

Questions discussed

The following questions were raised:

1. the provision for exception from the minimum size (50,000) of applicant churches;
2. how the consensus method should be used for matters related to applications for membership;
3. applications coming from schismatic or "non-canonical" churches;
4. involvement of members of the same ecclesial tradition as the applicant church in the procedure of admission;
5. consultation and cooperation with national and regional councils and world communions regarding applications for membership;
6. whether a rule should be created for dealing with member churches whose teaching is no longer consistent with the Basis of the WCC.

In the discussion it was noted that each application for membership and each issue related to the membership of a church should be dealt with in its own specific context and that the proposed Rules and Procedures seemed to provide a sufficient base for this purpose.

A clarification was made regarding the new category of "churches in association with the WCC". The provisions in the newly-proposed Rule II imply that churches in this category are not eligible for representation on the governing bodies of the Council.

Attention was especially paid to the proposed set of theological criteria for membership and the changes introduced at the meeting of the Central Committee in 2002. Although the criteria were approved by the Special Commission (Appendix C) several members of the Committee felt that the wording of these criteria might need some further consideration, e.g.

  • in (1) to rephrase the second portion of the sentence to read "as revealed in the scriptures and expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed";
  • in (3) to put "one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit" instead of "God, ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’";
  • in (4) to rephrase "and prays for the wisdom of all" as "and prays for the gift of God’s wisdom to all".

There was also a suggestion to add a criterion referring specifically to the commitment to the visible unity of the Church.

It was noted that these criteria would be looked at again by the Central Committee at its meeting in 2003 and would subsequently be sent to the churches, together with the other proposed amendments to the Constitution and Rules, for their consideration and comments. The Steering Committee welcomed this procedure as it would provide ample opportunity for further discussion of the theological criteria, before final consideration and decision by the Central Committee in 2005, for submission to the assembly.


The Steering Committee suggests that the consensus method of decision-making be applied to matters regarding applications for membership and admission of new member churches.

The Committee suggests that a small reference group on membership should be set up by the General Secretary immediately after the 2003 Central Committee, including experts and two members of the Special Commission to accompany the entire process. More specifically, as member churches will be informed about the proposed amendments to the Constitution and Rules and invited to offer their first reaction, the reference group could be instrumental in assessing the churches' responses.


The Steering Committee heard an account of the various initiatives and processes on the study of ecclesiological questions in Faith and Order since the Central Committee meeting in 2002. The redrafting of The Nature and Purpose of the Church, in the light of the responses from churches and councils of churches, was noted. Particular attention was being paid to soliciting responses to the text from Orthodox theologians, colleges, and churches. The request of Central Committee 2002 to develop a succinct statement on the Church for the next assembly, which would include reflection on local/universal, and unity/diversity, was noted. It was suggested that the major ecclesiological questions raised by the Special Commission were being addressed through these processes.

Points raised

The following points were raised in the ensuing discussion:

1. reaffirmation of the importance of the continuing ecclesiological work within Faith and Order;
2. the contribution of Orthodox theology to the shaping and content of The Nature and Purpose of the Church;
3. further exploration needs to be given to the way the Special Commission described the two basic ecclesiological self-understandings, in particular the use of the terms "identification" and "participation";
4. the churches’ need to engage with the question, "how do you see the existence of the Church beyond your own boundaries;"
5. differences of approaches to the understanding of the Church may be influenced by more traditional or liberal approaches to ecclesiology both within and among the churches.


A. The Church and the churches

The Steering Committee recommends that within the development of the convergence text on The Nature and Purpose of the Church, the specific issue of the relationship of the Church to the churches be explored, ensuring the engagement of the major streams of Christianity.

The Committee recommends that ways be found to explore the questions posed in paragraph 16 of the Special Commission report "to the Orthodox" and "to the churches within the tradition of the Reformation."

B. Assembly Statement

The Steering Committee recommends that as Faith and Order develops a succinct statement on ecclesiology for the assembly, it consider including some members of the Steering Committee in the drafting process itself and sharing the draft with the Steering Committee.

Suggestions were made about the character of the statement:

1. Such a statement should be invitational, inviting and challenging the churches to consider their relation to each other.
2. The statement might begin with a consideration and description of the perception of the Church by societies throughout the world, and raise the question of our self-perceptions and presentations, our relations with each other, and the manner in which these contribute to what is diminishing, and what is life-giving in our world as a reflection of the incarnate Word to the life of the world.
3. The statement should be spiritual, biblical, ecumenical and pastoral, so that the representatives of churches may see themselves in it, and be facilitated in discerning the urgency of addressing the questions being faced by the Special Commission.
4. Such a statement might also provide an opportunity for emphasizing that 50 years of dialogue has led to profound changes in attitude and ecclesial relationships, and might take into account the degree of sharing that already exists both locally and nationally, as well as the continuing differences and obstacles.
5. It was emphasized that the assembly would find it difficult to have in-depth theological discussions, due to the number of participants and limits of time.


The Steering Committee received a report on the studies on baptism being conducted by Faith and Order, One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition of Christian Initiation, and by the Joint Working Group, The Common Recognition of Baptism and the Ecclesial and Ecumenical Implications of that Common Recognition.

Points raised

1. Whether to include explicit reference to baptism in the Constitution of the WCC. It was noted that progress has already been made by including baptism in the name of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the theological criteria for membership (cf. "questions raised" in Membership, above). The history of discussion on this theme in the WCC, and the need for sensitivity in addressing the issue were noted.
2. The place and role of confirmation and chrismation and their connection to baptism is raised in any discussion of the recognition of baptism.
3. The development of an understanding of what is meant by mutual recognition.


That on the completion of the work on baptism in both Faith and Order and the Joint Working Group, a small group be convened drawing on members of the Steering Committee. The small group should take into consideration questions raised by the Special Commission (cf. Special Commission Report, § 18, b, c), including whether baptism, or the recognition of baptism, should be stated in the Constitution of the WCC. The small group shall report to the next meeting of the Steering Committee.


The Steering Committee devoted substantial time to assess the received reports, both written and oral, on the reception of Section IV "Common Prayer" and the attached Appendix A "A Framework for Common Prayer at WCC Gatherings". Aware of the Central Committee recommendations of specific points for further consideration (cf. Central Committee 2002, Document GEN 18, Report of the Policy Reference Committee III) the Steering Committee nevertheless concentrated its debate on the widely differing responses to the section on Common Prayer. The results of this debate may be summarized as follows:

1. We reaffirm the intention of this section of the Special Commission report: to find a way of encouraging the member churches both to stay together and pray together in the fellowship of the WCC. We affirm the report’s emphasis on continued prayer as the heart of efforts towards Christian unity. We give thanks for the accumulated history of experiencing that Christians belonging to divided churches can indeed together praise God and ask for forgiveness.

2. We realize that we failed to communicate our vision of common prayer:

  • where fears of the other are banished;
  • where every church tradition and every person’s conscience is met with respect;
  • where everything pertaining to any particular service is transparent and understandable to all participants;
  • where the prayers will allow the Holy Spirit to lead us towards recognizing the richness of other ecclesial traditions;
  • where no one would feel a stranger or alien but would be welcomed and accepted.

3. We are aware that the report’s section on Common Prayer and the contradictory responses it has received reveals that unity in faith, witness and common life do not yet exist. We are equally confident that trust can be built to help clear up misunderstandings about the proposed "Framework for Common Prayer". It was not the intention of the Special Commission to stifle ecumenical spiritual life. It was our intention to clarify common prayer in order to build up confidence and mutual trust when we pray together. For this reason the Special Committee introduced the distinction between confessional and inter-confessional common prayer, recognizing that this terminology is provisional and needs to be further considered by the Committee.

4. We anticipate that coming WCC gatherings will help to ascertain whether the suggested "Framework for Common Prayer" (or parts thereof), can foster common prayer with sensitivity to differing faith traditions and sustain the full participation of all.


The Steering Committee reflected on the "Parity Committee" with the awareness that the tile "Permanent Committee on Consensus and Collaboration" shall be further explored (cf. Central Committee 2002, Document GEN 18) and that the role of this committee should be further clarified. In this sense the Steering Committee affirmed that:

1. The Special Commission has been able to develop a climate of mutual openness and trust which needs nurturing. It has been largely the result of the "parity principle" which has enabled the Special Commission to address issues in a non-defensive, non-confrontational manner.

2. The proposed committee will be able to continue the dynamic of the Special Commission and its significant contribution to the life of the Council, if it concentrates on those underlying issues and concerns which determine the quality of relationships between Orthodox churches and other member churches in the WCC.

3. In order to enable this Committee to become a creative force in the life of the WCC it should continue to be composed of persons with proven experience in the field of ecumenical relations and in the life of the WCC.

Moving forward, the Steering Committee would like to further explore the following:

1. The authority of this Committee is derived from: a) the weight and substance of its mandate and terms of reference, and b) the nature and seriousness of the crisis to which the Special Commission was a response, and the seriousness which accompanied the work of the Commission and the decisions of the Central Committee.

2. In the light of the above, it is certain that the Central Committee or the Executive Committee will receive with utmost seriousness concerns or alarms raised by this Committee.

3. The existence of the Committee has a special importance for the life and future of the WCC. Its authority is moral and ecumenical.

Indeed, like the WCC itself, the Committee "shall offer counsel and provide opportunity for united action in matters of common interest" (cf. Constitution of the WCC, art. IV).


The Steering Committee has started considering the suggestion for having joint moderators and vice-moderators in the WCC governing bodies. It has been reminded of existing ecumenical experiences in this area with all their advantages and disadvantages.

While it has affirmed very strongly the value of the experience of the Special Commission with two co-moderators, it expressed some doubts as to whether this practice could be applied to other instances. It has not attempted to make any decision at this stage, but rather preferred to study the matter more carefully.


The Steering Committee was informed by the General Secretary about an emerging discussion on the "reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement". The need for such a discussion is based on the growing awareness that the proliferation of international church and ecumenical organizations is not viable and sustainable anymore, and undermines the coherence of the one ecumenical movement. The main objective of this discussion will be to focus on the structures and relationships among the existing international church and ecumenical organizations (Regional Ecumenical Organisations, National Councils of Churches, Christian World Communions, etc.). After consultation with the Officers, an encounter is being planned for November 2003 with the aim of outlining the process of reflection and study leading to a proposal to the WCC Central Committee in 2005, and eventually to the WCC ninth assembly in 2006. Obviously, lessons learned from the whole experience of the Special Commission and, particularly, the affirmation that the Council should remain a "fellowship of churches" will be instrumental in the course of this new process.

Finally, the Council’s financial vulnerability and the need for all member churches to increase their contributions, at least through the membership campaign, was brought to the attention of the Steering Committee. The legitimacy and importance of the concern was noted, but time did not allow an extensive discussion on this essential matter. The Committee may come back to it, as part of its commitment to dealing with matters of common concern.


The Steering Committee will meet again from June 15 (arrival) to 19 (departure after lunch) 2004. The venue will have to be decided at a later stage.