World Council of Churches

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

For a ceative Orthodox-Protestant dialogue

01 December 1999

H.H. Aram I

"For a Creative Orthodox-Protestant Dialogue" is the address given at the opening session of Special Commission's meeting in Morges by H.H. Aram I, moderator of the WCC central committee.

It gives me a profound spiritual joy to welcome you to this first meeting of the Special Commission. As this body embarks on a process of critical reflection, at this juncture it is vitally important to remind ourselves of some facts and factors. 

I.The first question that must be raised at the outset of this major process in the life of the World Council of Churches is why are we here? The creation of this Commission has a long and complex history. it is rooted in WCC-Orthodox relations. I would like to highlight a few significant aspects of these relations:

  1. The Orthodox churches have participated in one way or another, and to a greater or lesser degree, in the inception and the expansion of the modern ecumenical movement, as well as in the formation and development of the WCC. The presence of the Orthodox churches in the WCC has provided a broader perspective of the ecumenical vision. By introducing the trinitarian dimension to the theological discussion, the centrality of spirituality and liturgy for Christian life and mission and the basic importance of pneumatology and sacramental ecclesiology, the Orthodox churches have not only opened new avenues for theological reflection, but have also helped to initiate convergence and reception processes on a number of critical and controversial issues.

    Through the constant reminder and persistence of the Orthodox churches, visible unity, the base on which the WCC was created, has remained a priority item on the agenda of the Council. In fact, not only have the Orthodox churches emphasized the primacy and urgency of visible unity, they have also contributed significantly towards the debate on unity. So we see that the Orthodox presence in the WCC has enlarged the scope of the Council's life and witness, making it truly a World Council of Churches.

  2. In their turn, the Orthodox churches have been enriched by their ecumenical involvement. The WCC has provided the opportunity and the context for the Orthodox churches to come out of their "national" boundaries and sociocultural milieu and to engage, on a global scale in a living encounter and creative dialogue with the churches of other traditions. For example, between 1964 and 1972, Faith and Order organized four unofficial Christological dialogues between the Oriental and Eastern churches. Given the fact that the two church families had not met since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, these meetings represented a true landmark in the history of the ecumenical movement in general, and the Orthodox churches in particular. Orthodox theology has also been considerably enriched by Western theology, particularly by the following four foci: emphasis on the centrality of Bible and kerygma, the critical approach to church history, biblical textual criticism and the missionary character of theology.

  3. However, the participation of the Orthodox churches in the life of the WCC has not always been an easy and smooth one. Upheavals, tensions, passivity and frustration have often characterized the Orthodox presence in the Council. The Orthodox have felt themselves neither fully outsiders not fully insiders. This ambiguous situation has created problems both for the Orthodox and Protestant members of the Council. The particularity of the Orthodox churches has become an alienating factor rather than a real challenge for a deeper and critical dialogue. The decision to adopt 25 percent quota for Orthodox, with the aim of enhancing the Orthodox participation, has further hampered the process of integrating the Orthodox churches in the life of the WCC. This growing marginalization of the Orthodox churches has sometimes generated concern and uneasiness, but never any serious response on the part of other members of the Council. In fact, the Orthodox churches have been considered a sort of special entity, with their special flavour, untouchable and unchangeable. This image of Orthodoxy still largely prevails in the Council.

    In respect to major ecumenical issues and processes, the Council has asked for Orthodox contribution. On some other occasions the Orthodox churches themselves have taken the initiative to come together to voice their own concerns or express their views on specific ecumenical themes and critical issues. But the Orthodox reactions and contributions have not been fully integrated into the total life and witness and the theological reflection of the Council. Thus the Orthodox reaction, frustration and critique have continued with increasing pace. This process climaxed in the Thessaloniki Statement.

  4. What are the root causes of the Orthodox dissatisfaction? Let me briefly identify, without any comment, some of the major concerns and expectations:

    • Growing horizontalism worries the Orthodox. A significant shift from theological matters and doctrinal issues towards socio-political problems may, according to Orthodox, jeopardize the basic aim of the Council. Therefore, visible unity should remain the central vocation of the Council, acquiring more visibility in all programmatic priorities and activities of the Council.

    • The Council must remain firmly attached to the Toronto Declaration and should avoid giving any ecclesial or ecclesiological significance to the ecumenical fellowship expressed within the framework at the Council. The terms "fellowship" and "koinonia", which are often used in the Council, need to be clarified.

    • The WCC must refrain from using inclusive language particularly in prayer language.

    • Issues related to ordination of women and sexual orientation must not appear on the agenda of the Council. In fact, many Orthodox find the agenda of the Council out of line with the priorities, expectations and traditions of their own churches.

    • The theology, programmes, language, working style, methodologies and procedures of the World Council are still largely Protestant and Western. They must be radically revised, taking into consideration other confessions, traditions and regions.

    • The forms of representation and decision-making procedures create a situation of majority-minority. Hence, the existing decision-making procedures must be changed to ensure an equal Orthodox participation.

II. This Special Commission has been created to respond properly to the "Orthodox concerns". You may remember that before the Harare assembly, in view of the increasing Orthodox critique, the leadership of the WCC initiated a process of intensive consultation within the Council and with the member churches, including the Orthodox churches. The purpose of this process was to explore ways and means of dealing efficiently with Orthodox situation. This process culminated in the decision of the Harare assembly to create a Special Commission to "devote a period of at least three years to studying the full range of issues related to the participation of Orthodox churches in the WCC and to present proposals about changes in structure, working style and ethos to the Central Committee for decision (or for eventual formulation of constitutional changes at the next assembly) (cf. D. Kessler ed., Together on the Way: Official Report of the Eighth Assembly of the WCC, Geneva, 1999, pp.160f.).

The nature, status and the raison d'être of this Commission are clear. This body will establish its own agenda, methodology, procedures, style of work and timelines. Its findings will then be submitted to the Central Committee for appropriate action. This is how I perceive the work of the Special Commission.  

III. As Head of an Orthodox Church and as Moderator of the Central Committee, I want to share with you a few perspectives at this first meeting of the Special Commission:

  1. For many years, the Orthodox churches have contributed significantly to the ecumenical discussion. However, they have not actively and consistently participated in this discussion. They have reacted rather than proacted, and have not responded seriously to ecumenical challenges. They have been used to talking rather with themselves and about themselves. Therefore, they have not been able to fully integrate their concerns and expectations into the ecumenical agenda and to help shape the ecumenical course. It is equally true that the Protestant churches have failed to react with sensitivity, openness and seriousness to the Orthodox challenges, perspectives and traditions. Therefore, the interaction between these two major ecclesial traditions was not always creative and mutually enriching and challenging. This is not the time of course to blame one or the other. This is the time for the Orthodox and Protestant churches to engage in a critical and open dialogue with each other as ecumenical partners, sharing the same ecumenical goals and vision. Dialoguing does not mean agreeing. Dialoguing means talking to each other with mutual trust and love. Let us not hide our differences. This is not the ecumenical way. We must face them honestly and courageously. Let us not also make our differences obstacles "on the way" towards common witness and visible unity.

  2. This Commission is not a negotiating body. It is not composed of two negotiating groups. It comprises representatives of two major confessional traditions of the WCC. We all belong to the same Council. It is our Council. We established it and through it we built up our ecumenical fellowship. Therefore, we have come together as members of the same family to discuss matters pertaining to our own family. I firmly expect that we will conduct our discussion and tackle the issues before us in this spirit and in this perspective.

  3. The intention of this Commission must not be to meet or accommodate the "Orthodox concerns". Rather, by seriously responding to the concerns and challenges coming from the Orthodox churches, it should review the structures, the procedures and agenda of the Council by making them more responsive to the new realities and needs. This means that the Commission should discuss not only "Orthodox concerns", but also "Protestant concerns". I would like to see this Commission discuss ecumenical concerns both in Orthodox and Protestant perspectives. Otherwise it will lose its integrity and its work will become one-sided and biased.

    Furthermore, we should not pretend that we can solve all problems and meet all demands. We must be realistic and humble. The aim of this Commission must not be to satisfy some churches by making some modifications and introducing some changes in the existing structures and procedures of the Council. We must aim, in light of our common experience and the emerging new realities and challenges in the life of our churches and our societies, to deepen and strengthen our fellowship. And for such a sacred goal we must be open and ready to do everything that is necessary and possible.

  4. I consider the work of this Commission, in a sense, the continuation of the process Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC (CUV). Speaking about CUV, we repeatedly underlined that it is not a programme or a study project, but a creative and continuous process, a process that transcends the programmatic framework of the Council to touch Council-member church relations. This process must be open, dynamic and responsive to the changes that are taking place in the life of our churches. The Commission must carry on its work in this perspective. Let us not forget that many of the concerns that the Orthodox raise and the challenges that they pose are, in one way or another, and on a larger or smaller scale, integral to the CUV process.

  5. On several occasions, even at the height of Orthodox-WCC tensions, the Orthodox churches stated their strong need for a WCC. They affirmed the crucial importance of the ecumenical movement; at the same time, they expressed serious reservations about the ways in which the WCC works towards the ecumenical goals. After 50 years of togetherness within the fellowship of the WCC, the Orthodox churches realize that the time has arrived to renew and reassess together our fellowship in all its aspects, dimensions and manifestations.

    In fact, the Council has made special efforts, particularly in the last decade, to keep pace with the rhythm of changing times by responding to the challenges and expectations of member churches. For many churches, including the Orthodox, however, this was not enough. I share this concern when I look at the Orthodox churches that are in a process of transformation, selfaffirmation and rediscovery of their specific role in the society. I understand the restlessness of the Orthodox churches when I see the growing tension between the so-called conservative and ecumenically minded groups within the same church, a situation that may have disastrous consequences for the integrity and witness of the Orthodox churches. Hence, Protestant churches must listen to the Orthodox churches carefully. We may not fully understand and appropriate all their concerns, but we cannot simply ignore them. And the Orthodox must listen to their Protestant partners. They may not share their perspectives, but they have to respect others' views and traditions. This is the meaning of ecumenism. This is the cost of being in ecumenical fellowship and responding to the call of God in Jesus Christ.

  6. We must bear in mind that the Orthodox churches cannot afford to retreat into parochialism by considering ecumenism only a way to assert their Orthodox identity; not can the Protestant churches afford to impose an ecumenical agenda that may sooner or later lead the Council to disintegration. They must stay together, work and grow together. This commitment was strongly reaffirmed by the eighth assembly of the WCC in Harare. In my view, equal participation in the decision-making process and shaping together the agenda of the Council remain the necessary conditions for any substantial and meaningful advance in our ecumenical growth.

  7. Bilateral theological dialogues, in my judgment, are in stagnation. The multi-lateral dialogues will determine the future course of the ecumenical movement. Most of the regional and national ecumenical bodies and structures have become shaky and have lost their impact. A global council in a globalized world is a necessity. Hence, we need a World Council of Churches. Let us, therefore, reshape and restructure the Council by redefining our perceptions and rearticulating our vision more clearly, and by setting the kind of decision-making procedures and working agenda that respond to the expectations and realities of our churches. Together, let us restructure the Council in a way that generates and enhances more participation and firm commitment; let us make a Council with which the churches can identify themselves.

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This is, indeed, a major task and a great challenge before this Commission. Let us take up this challenge with a sense of humility and responsibility.

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