World Council of Churches

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

Excerpts from moderator's report to the eighth assembly

01 December 1998

Harare, Zimbabwe, December 1998

The report to the Harare assembly of His Holiness, ARAM I, Catholicos of Cilicia, Moderator of the Central Committee, incorporated substantial accounts of the situation of the Orthodox churches in their relationship to the WCC. At the same time, His Holiness noted that the critical situation extends outside the confessional borders of Orthodoxy. In addition, excerpted below are his remarks concerning the issue of proselytism.

Ecumenism and proselytism cannot co-exist

11. Through the years, the Council has repeatedly spelled out the intrinsic relationship between mission and unity, witness and ecumenism. It is a matter of utmost gravity for the ecumenical movement and the WCC that proselytism continues to be a painful reality in the life of the churches. Ecumenism and proselytism cannot co-exist. Proselytism is not only a counter-witness, it is a negation of fundamental theological and missiological convictions.

12. We are all aware that the situation produced in Eastern Europe and in the former USSR countries following the collapse of communism has become particularly urgent for the ecumenical movement. In all major ecumenical meetings since 1989, we have been reminded that the new freedom for churches to express and develop their witness openly not only presented unforeseen opportunities to the local churches, but also to scores of foreign mission groups and sects directing competitive missionary activities at people already belonging to one of the churches in those countries. The re-emergence of tension between the Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church concerning the Eastern rite Catholic churches is another case in point. So the question of how to reconcile our history and overcome mutual ignorance and distrust has also become a fundamental ecumenical concern in our time. Though the situation of Eastern Europe is particular, it is by no means unique. Recent years have seen an increase of aggressive evangelism and competition in mission in an almost free-market spirit in many other areas of the world as well. We can be grateful for the regeneration of mission in numerous local contexts, yet we cannot turn a blind eye to the damage inflicted to the unity of Christ's church by different expressions of proselytism.

13. In the face of a myriad of new and complex situations and complaints, the Council organized fact-finding team visits to Eastern Europe and held a major consultation on Uniatism in Geneva. The central committee in 1991, in its turn, recommended that the issue of proselytism and common witness be studied further. Unit II embarked on a broad consultative study process that incorporated the work of the Joint Working Group (JWG) and involved churches, mission agencies, the evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic constituencies, theologians, missiologists and local congregations. New impulses were given to this study effort by the conference on world mission and evangelism (Salvador, Brazil, 1996), and the CUV process. This led to the formulation of a statement called "Towards Common Witness: A Call to Adopt Responsible Relationships in Mission and to Renounce Proselytism". This document, adopted by the central committee in 1997, while though recognizing the facilitating role of the WCC, places the main responsibility for implementation with the churches themselves.

14. An analysis of these questions affecting our common life, we must reminds us that one of the principal unfinished tasks of the ecumenical movement is, in fact, ecumenical education at all levels. The Ecumenical Theological Education (ETE) programme of the Council has done significant work in this respect. Not only should ecumenical formation and learning and love and respect for other churches become new priorities for the member churches; it is vitally important that the churches disseminate, discuss, own and uphold the statements on the urgency of common witness that have been adopted by the WCC. Maybe the time has come to encourage the churches to do an audit on their degree of knowledge of and commitment to the principles and guidelines they subscribe to in the ecumenical fellowship. 

Growing together responsibly: a great challenge before us

55. The WCC is not a self-reliant, self-contained and self-sufficient organization. It is the churches in their togetherness. Therefore, the Council has no right to insist upon its self-understanding and agenda. The churches should say what it is, what it should become and what it should do. The CUV was not an internal affair. It was the churches' initiative. Member churches, the Roman Catholic Church and ecumenical partners, participated actively in the process. Furthermore, the CUV was intended to become a continuous process, not a limited attempt confined to a specific period of time and to some concrete areas of the Council's life and work. The CUV must be seen as the beginning of new comprehensive serious efforts aimed at challenging the churches to embark together on the critical journey of reassessing and rearticulating their common ecumenical vision.

56. In the context of the CUV process, the churches as well as the Roman Catholic Church, have strongly re-emphasized the importance of the WCC. Some churches, however, are not fully satisfied with the changes proposed by the CUV. They wish to go beyond. Others want to put the Council back on track since, in their view, the Council is moving away from its central vocation. Recent developments in WCC-Orthodox relations should be seen in this perspective. Any attempt aimed at an objective assessment of the prevailing malaise in WCC-Orthodox relations must take into consideration the evolution of Orthodox-WCC relations since the inception of the Council and the particular situation that was created in the life of the Orthodox churches after the fall of communism. Neither the time nor the nature of my report permits me to scrutinize this matter in detail. I would like, however, to make a few observations:

a) The Orthodox churches have played an important role in the formation and expansion of the WCC. They have brought significant contributions to ecumenical thinking and spirituality; but they have not integrated themselves fully into the total life and witness of the Council. This approach, which has become a permanent feature of Orthodox-WCC relations, was due, first, to some WCC tendencies and practices that were not compatible with Orthodox tradition; second, to the minority situation of the Orthodox churches within the WCC, which is clearly reflected in the composition of governing bodies and decision-making processes; and third, to the ethos and the agenda of the Council, which remained Protestant and Western in spite of the Orthodox presence and participation of churches from different regions. These factors and concerns created a distance between the Orthodox churches and the Council. Both the Orthodox dissatisfaction and desiderata were expressed by so-called "Orthodox statements" made in relation to major agenda items or on special occasions. The uniqueness of Orthodox theology and spirituality have been respected. Yet, too little has been done to bring them into creative interaction with the Protestant theology which continues to dominate the Council's theological language, thinking and methodologies.

b) The collapse of communism and the re-emergence of independent states have added a critical dimension to Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement. In fact, the influx of sects and new religious movements into Eastern Europe and the former USSR countries, the growing efforts to reaffirm the integrity and identity of Orthodoxy, the church's concern to find its proper place and role within the society on the one hand, and the controversial nature and perceived irrelevance of some of the Council's programmatic activities to the life of Orthodox churches on the other hand, have broadened the gap between the Orthodox churches and the ecumenical movement. They have come to regard the Council as a Western, Protestant and liberal movement in a milieu where Orthodoxy has been trying to reaffirm itself by going back to its authentic roots.

57. In time, the WCC discerned the growing Orthodox frustration and prevailing anti-ecumenical mood, and took a number of concrete steps. These were: the restructuring of the Council (1991), setting up a special programme on Christian religious education for Eastern Europe and Central Europe and the former USSR countries (1991), the consultation on Uniatism (1992), the statement of the central committee on proselytism (1993), etc. However, these Council initiatives did not bring about any substantial change in WCC-Orthodox relations. In fact, fundamental questions that the Orthodox churches were raising touched the deeper layers of the Council's existence. Thus the Orthodox churches have voiced serious doubts as to whether the CUV would be able to eliminate the root causes of their frustration, and they called for a "radical restructuring" of the Council. The leadership of the WCC responded immediately to the Thessaloniki statement (April 1998) of the Eastern Orthodox churches by inviting both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox member churches to a meeting of the mixed theological commission, proposed in the said statement before this assembly. The Orthodox churches felt that they needed more time for preparation.

58. I cannot outline here in detail the Orthodox concerns and demands. I would like, however, to summarize the substance of the Orthodox claim in two points. First, the Council should explore new forms of representation, participation and decision-making which will bring the Orthodox churches out of their minority situation and enable them to play a more active role in all aspects of the Council. Second, the Council, is shaping its programmatic framework, agenda items and constitutional and structural aspects, must find a way to reflect equally the convictions and sensitivities, traditions and expectations of all member churches.

59. I want to emphasize that while there is no crisis in WCC-Orthodox relations, the situation is, indeed, critical. Unless the assembly takes this present situation seriously, I fear that the Orthodox participation will steadily dwindle. It is my fervent hope that after the assembly the leadership of the Council and the representatives of all Orthodox churches will embark on a serious and comprehensive process of wrestling together with all questions and concerns that are hampering a more organized and efficient Orthodox participation in the Council. In my opinion, the Orthodox must come with a clear agenda and an open attitude. The churches of the Protestant and Anglican traditions, in their turn, must help the Orthodox to integrate themselves fully in the life of the Council by providing ample space and opportunities to increase the level of their participation. It is time that the Orthodox churches move from monologue to dialogue, from reaction to action, from contribution to participation, from being observers to becoming full partners in the WCC.

60. In Amsterdam the ecumenical pioneers said: "It is not always easy to reconcile our confessional and ecumenical loyalties. We also have much to gain from the encounter of the old-established Christian traditions with the vigorous, growing churches whose own traditions are still being formed. We bring these, and all other difficulties between us into the WCC in order that we may steadily face them together." 11 Differences of opinion, disagreements, tensions and even conflicts will always be part of this global fellowship of multitudinous ecclesial traditions, theological teachings, cultural ethos, national and ethnic identities. This is what we have learned in our fifty years of togetherness. We must both celebrate and bear the cost of our difference.

61. Orthodox frustration must be seen in the light of their commitment to the ecumenical movement. Criticizing the WCC is not being anti-ecumenical. The problem of the Orthodox is not with the importance and credibility of the ecumenical movement, but with the relevance of its agenda, language, methodology and procedures. Some of our Orthodox member churches are not with us in this assembly. Others are not with us the way they used to be. I am sure that we all realize that there is a problem, and that this is not an Orthodox problem but essentially an ecumenical problem. I believe that we have matured enough in our ecumenical journey together to see our problems and concerns in a broader perspective and in their inter-relatedness. This present situation must help us to know more about each other and to trust each other. I believe that our fellowship in the WCC can no longer be based on a majority-minority relationship. Unless this situation is remedied the Orthodox will always feel themselves threatened and marginalized. I also believe that we cannot impose our convictions and agendas on each other. We cannot express uneasiness against each other either, when we want to speak out on what we consider to be vital issues. The Council should provide an open space, in which churches engage themselves in creative interaction based on mutual respect, trust and responsibility.

62. The ecumenical movement, which is at a crossroads in a world in rapid transformation, may disintegrate if the churches fail to firmly recommit themselves to the ecumenical goals and vision. The churches can no longer afford to take refuge in their own confessions and to live in self-isolation. They must co-exist; otherwise they cannot meaningfully exist. They must interact; otherwise they cannot properly act. They must share their experiences and resources; otherwise they cannot grow. Agreed doctrinal statements will not lead the churches to full and visible unity and credible witness; they will merely help them "on the way". Under the ecumenical imperative, the churches must grow together responsibly. Growing together is, indeed, a costly process. It calls for conversion, renewal and transformation. Ecumenism is no more a dimension, a function of the church. It is essentially a mark of what it means to be the church because it affirms and serves the oneness of the church. Ecumenism is no more a question of choice, but the way we respond to the call of God. Therefore, being church means being ecumenical, i.e. being embarked on a common journey. The sign of the ecumenical boat is the cross. We are called to be one under the cross of Christ. This jubilee assembly calls us to reaffirm our common ecumenical commitment to grow together and to move forward together in courage and humility, and with a clear vision.