World Council of Churches

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

Excerpts from the general secretary's report to the eighth assembly

01 December 1999

Harare, Zimbabwe, December 1998

The report of the WCC General Secretary, Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, to the Harare Assembly also incorporated an account of Orthodox concerns. These were largely placed under the framework of membership in the Council, and the meaning of this membership. Within that context, the General Secretary also introduces here the proposal for a Forum of Christian churches and ecumenical organizations.

Beyond membership?

23. The CUV document emphasizes the understanding of the WCC as a "fellowship of churches" which has a structure and organization, but is not to be identified with this structure. Yet -- partly in response to the CUV text itself -- a new discussion has arisen precisely around the institutional character of the WCC as an organization with member churches. In its outline of what is implied by membership of this body, the CUV document draws on an earlier text received by the central committee in 1996 (cf. "The Meaning of Membership", in Central Committee Minutes 1996, pp.184-87). When a draft of that text had been sent to the member churches for comment, only very few churches reacted. In retrospect it is clear that an explication of the meaning of membership which is inspired by the biblical notion of the body -- in other words, the churches in fellowship as members of one another -- cannot easily be reconciled with the notion of membership of an organization. Many churches seem primarily concerned about membership of the Council in the sense of participation, representation, influence on decision-making -- summed up in the phrase "owning the organization". Membership indeed brings rights and privileges -- but it also entails responsibilities and obligations. The CUV document speaks much more extensively about the responsibilities of membership than about the issue of rights of participation and representation. While an earlier draft of the CUV text had included a section about the institutional implications of this understanding of the WCC, particularly for its governing structures, the central committee felt that those proposals needed further reflection and should therefore be treated separately from the policy statement. Now it is precisely on these concerns that discussion is focusing.

24. Critical questions have in particular been raised by the Eastern Orthodox churches. At a meeting at Thessaloniki earlier this year, these churches called for a "radical restructuring" of the Council, apparently making the accomplishment of this objective a condition for their continued participation in the life and work of the WCC. The understanding of "membership" is central in their argument. Membership of the Council at present is based on the institutional identity of churches as autonomous, mostly national bodies. The Constitution and Rules of the WCC -- in accordance with the Toronto declaration of 1950 -- leave open the ecclesiological question of what constitutes a church. A potential member church needs to express agreement with the Basis and give evidence of its autonomy and "sustained independent life and organization". It must recognize "the essential interdependence of the churches, particularly those of the same confession, and must practise constructive ecumenical relations with other churches within its country or region". Apart from these requirements, potential member churches must have at least 25,000 members (for associate member churches 10,000 members). These formulations on "membership" do not indicate how the WCC is to respond if a member church experiences division or if two or more member churches enter into union or an agreement of full communion. The fact that most churches of the Protestant tradition today live in a situation of (at least de facto) full communion with each other raises the question of how this can be reflected more adequately in the character of their membership of the WCC.

25. For more than twenty years, the Orthodox churches have expressed concern about the WCC's continued acceptance of new member churches, most of them of Protestant background, while the number of Orthodox churches has remained virtually unchanged and is not likely to change. They find themselves locked into a structural minority situation. Consequently, they can exercise only limited influence on programmatic directions and decisions of the WCC's governing bodies. Emphasizing that they represent one of the two main Christian traditions -- Orthodox and Protestant -- which together form the Council and that the combined number of their faithful corresponds to at least one-third of the total of all member churches of the WCC, they are calling for a reconsideration of the Council's structures and processes of governance. To be granted a quota (presently 25 percent) of the seats on governing bodies, alongside quotas for lay persons, women, young people etc., does not in their understanding address the real problem. They also question the Council's rules for debate and decision-making, which follow the parliamentary model of majority rule. Respecting their firm conviction that matters which affect the ecclesiological self-understanding of a church cannot and must not be decided by a majority vote, the Council has adopted a rule (XVI.6.b) allowing such matters to be dealt with in deliberative session without a vote. Recently, however, they have raised the more fundamental question of what it means to continue membership of an organization whose agenda is shaped by concerns which often are foreign, not only to their ecclesiological self-understanding, but also to their ethos and culture. Not wishing to call into question their commitment to and co-responsibility for the ecumenical movement, in which they have participated from the early days, they ask whether institutional membership with the implications and responsibilities set out in the CUV document is the only way to be recognized as an ecumenical partner. Some have noted that the Roman Catholic Church enjoys broad possibilities for participation as an essential partner in the programmes and activities of the WCC without, however, taking on the responsibilities of membership.

26. What these questions bring to light is that the WCC's institutional profile and "ethos" have been shaped essentially by the model of church assemblies and synods of the historic Protestant churches which have appropriated the tradition of parliamentary decision-making in countries with democratic constitutions. And indeed, participation by the people in decisions affecting their lives has been a criterion which the Council has strongly defended. It has thereby opened its own life to the influence of interest groups around many significant issues. While many churches consider this appropriate, it is essentially a model derived from political life and is not necessarily the best way to express the self-understanding of a "fellowship of churches". Not only the Orthodox churches, but also many churches in Africa and other parts of the Southern hemisphere, follow different models, which emphasize dialogue and consensus and the respect for hierarchy and authority. Without rejecting the discipline of "mutual accountability" as a criterion for a committed fellowship, they would insist that it presupposes genuine partnership, the readiness to risk the encounter with the other in a dialogue of love rather than the negotiation of compromises between different positions and interest groups. If the WCC is indeed to serve as a framework for opening ecumenical space, the question should be asked whether the present form of governance by majority rule is the most appropriate way to organize its life. Decision-making by consensus has been adopted as a formula even in some political forums on the international level. It is practised in most of the programmatic contexts of the WCC. Such models might also be explored for the governance of the WCC at the formal decision-making level. At the same time, the space for genuine deliberation in meetings of the assembly and the central committee should be opened up and widened, inviting the different partners to encounter and engage each other without necessarily having to reach a decision by taking a vote. It is obvious that all the questions regarding participation and membership cannot be dealt with satisfactorily at this assembly. The inter-Orthodox meeting in Thessaloniki mentioned earlier suggested strongly that a "mixed theological commission" be created to discuss the institutional changes required in order to achieve an acceptable form of Orthodox participation in the life of the WCC. This proposal has already received the support of the executive committee, and it is expected that this assembly will take the decisions necessary for setting up such a commission.

27. However, the fact of the active participation of the Roman Catholic Church in many aspects of the life and activities of the WCC obliges us to return to the question whether "membership" as an institutional arrangement with rights and responsibilities is in fact the only -- or even the most appropriate -- form of expressing participation in the ecumenical movement. It has always been recognized that the ecumenical movement is wider and more comprehensive than the World Council of Churches with its recognized member churches. A great variety of instruments and agents of the ecumenical movement have emerged. Some are even older than the WCC itself. The Council has regular working relationships with the bodies representing Christian world communions, with regional ecumenical organizations and national councils and with a range of international ecumenical organizations. While the WCC Rules recognize these as essential partners in the "one ecumenical movement", they cannot be members of the Council, and their participation in developing the WCC's programmes and activities is limited. Besides the Roman Catholic Church, other "non-member churches", particularly from the Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions, contribute in their own way to shaping the agenda of the ecumenical movement without, however, being institutionally related to the WCC. The World Council of Churches continues to be the most comprehensive and most representative institutional expression of the ecumenical movement. Thus it has a particular responsibility to "strengthen the one ecumenical movement", as the proposed revision of article III of the WCC Constitution recognizes. The proposed constitutional amendment acknowledges the different ecumenical partners of the WCC and sees it as a special responsibility of the WCC to "work towards maintaining the coherence of the one ecumenical movement in its diverse manifestations".

28. This proposed amendment thus attributes to the WCC a responsibility which goes beyond its formal membership. The new formulation does not change the character of the World Council as a "council of churches", but it acknowledges that "membership" cannot and must not become an exclusive category for participation in the common ecumenical endeavour. To give tangible expression to its readiness to foster wider relationships beyond membership, the Council has suggested exploring the formation of a Forum of Christian churches and ecumenical organizations. This term "forum" is deliberately chosen in order to suggest that participation is more important than membership. The forum is to be open to all bodies and organizations which share in the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour according to the scriptures and which seek to be obedient to God's call. Its purpose would be to create the space where a genuine exchange about the challenges facing the ecumenical movement can take place and where forms of cooperation can be worked out. The forum should not become yet another institution with administrative and bureaucratic structures. It is not envisaged as a framework where decisions are to be taken or resolutions passed. Its objective would be to shape a network of relationships transcending the limitations of existing arrangements. The WCC would participate in the forum alongside other partners without claiming any privileged place. After initial consultations with the most immediate partners whose willingness to participate would be decisive for establishing the forum, an exploratory consultation took place in August of this year, and a common proposal has been formulated which is now being shared with the different partners for their response. On behalf of the WCC, this assembly, through the Policy Reference Committee I, is asked to react to this proposal.