World Council of Churches

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

Foundations for the Special Commission

01 December 1998

Executive Committee Doc. 5.1, Harare, Zimbabwe, December 1998

This text was prepared by the Mixed Staff Group which was formed to accompany the work of the Special Commission. It was submitted to and adopted by the Executive Committee at its meeting in Harare immediately preceding the Eighth Assembly. It sets out suggested parameters for the Special Commission, as well as possible frameworks and items for discussion. It was adopted by the Executive Committee at its Harare meeting, and is a reference text in the launching of the Special Commission in the PRC I report (included in this dossier).


"On the threshold of the 21st century, all existing ecumenical structures must reassess themselves in the light of the challenge to manifest a form and quality of global community characterized by inclusiveness and reconciliation." (CUV 2.9)

"It is strongly suggested that a Mixed Theological Commission be created with Orthodox members appointed by their own respective churches and from WCC nominees. The Mixed Commission will begin its work after the Harare Assembly by discussing the acceptable forms of Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement and the radical restructuring of the WCC" (Thessaloniki Meeting)

1. Introduction

Statements and actions arising out of Orthodox churches in the past two years have indicated that we have entered a particularly critical phase in the relations between Orthodox churches and the World Council of Churches. This situation arises in part from tensions experienced by the churches internally, due in large part to groups who stand against ecumenical activity in general. But it also arises out of a sharpened perception by Orthodox churches of problems in the way in which the WCC is structured and in how it functions.1

At the Inter-Orthodox meeting at Thessaloniki (May 1998), delegates from the Eastern Orthodox churches urged the formation of a commission which would explore ways in which Orthodox and Protestant2 partners can work together in more constructive and mutually satisfactory ways within the World Council of Churches. Moreover, it is increasingly apparent that many of the issues which had been associated chiefly with the Orthodox are being felt and expressed within a large number of churches across the confessional spectrum. Therefore, to address such questions responsibly has the potential not only of stemming the crisis that is currently being felt most acutely in the Orthodox churches, but also of significantly strengthening and even widening the ecumenical fellowship as it now exists.

Such a strengthening and broadening is at the heart of the concerns which inform the WCC's reflection process Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC. But, as the Lambeth Conference most recently suggested, it is clear that the CUV policy statement represents only a beginning, a point from which the Council needs to further reflect -- broadly and creatively -- on how it can better represent and serve the churches.

The recommendation from Thessaloniki to form a "Mixed Theological Commission" to discuss "Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement and the radical restructuring of the WCC" was endorsed by the WCC Executive Committee at its meeting in Amersfoort in September 1998, and is now being submitted for action to the Eighth Assembly of the WCC in Harare.

The present paper is an attempt to explore the terms of reference for this Commission, i.e its mandate, nature and composition, and to suggest what might be the possible areas of discussion which could form the parameters of its agenda.

As a result of a preparatory study, undertaken by an ad hoc staff group, it is submitted to the Executive Committee for further consideration.

2. Terms of reference

It was noticed right from the beginning that it could be rather misleading to use the term "Mixed Theological Commission", which has a particular meaning for bilateral theological dialogues. Instead, it is suggested to designate this new instrument as a "Special Commission on Orthodox participation in the WCC". The Commission would be "mixed," half of its members being Orthodox and half Protestant. It would be a "Special Commission" in the sense that, mandated by the Assembly and within the broader framework of the CUV process, it would have to reassess the existing structures of the WCC in the light of the most recent ecumenical developments and challenges. It would also be a Commission "on Orthodox participation in the WCC" because, although most of the concerns go beyond merely the Orthodox world, its function would be mainly to address "the Orthodox situation".  

(a) Mandate

It is suggested that the Special Commission be mandated to:

(i) Study and analyze

  • issues in the current crisis in Orthodox participation in the WCC;

  • the resonance felt in Protestant and other churches or ecumenical partners concerning these issues;

  • the ways in which the CUV process has (or has not), can (or cannot) now address these issues.

(ii) Provide interim reports of its work to each meeting of the WCC Central Committee, invite responses to its ongoing discussions from ecumenical partners, and make public the substance of its deliberations as it considers appropriate and useful.

(ii) Convey its findings with recommendations for action to the WCC Central Committee on the basis of the above.

(b) Nature, Composition and Methodology of the Commission

(i) Nature/Composition 

  • Having already received the support of the Executive Committee, the Commission would be created following the Assembly's appropriate decision and the implementation of this decision by the Central Committee.

  • The Commission would be a "mixed body" in the sense that half of its members would be determined by the Orthodox churches, according to already existing inter-Orthodox processes, and half after consultation with other member-churches.

  • The General Secretary of the WCC would be an ex officio member of the Commission.

  • The Commission may consider inviting to its meetings delegated observers from the Roman Catholic Church and other non-member churches of the WCC.

(ii) Accountability

  • The Commission would report to the CC of the WCC as the governing body of the Council responsible for the implementation of policy decisions related to the programmatic activities and the structural organization of the WCC.

  • Commission members should maintain contacts with their churches. Orthodox members of the Commission would be responsible for bringing to the attention of the Commission the inter-Orthodox position/consensus with regard to the issues discussed.

  • The Commission should have a fixed-term mandate in the first instance. An initial three- year mandate could be extended if needed. However, sufficient time should be left for the preparations towards the next assembly, especially if constitutional changes are to be envisaged.

(iii) Preliminary methodological and practical considerations

  • The Commission may have two co-moderators. These could be appointed/elected according to procedures in conformity with the prevailing ethos of the dialoguing partners. The co-moderators would convene the Commission and propose for discussion and adoption at its initial session a preliminary agenda for its first meeting.

  • Preparatory encounters may take place prior to the meetings of the Commission as needed. Preparatory work may also include appropriate study papers to be prepared or "commissioned" for this Commission.

  • The Commission might be divided into sub-committees as needed, which would, in turn, report to the Commission.

  • The Commission meetings should be scheduled in a way that facilitates timely reporting to the Central Committee.

  • While the sessions of the Commission are not public meetings -- in the sense that attendance is limited to its members (or their authorized substitutes) and other persons whom it invites to participate -- the Commission may decide to encourage discussion in the churches of the issues it is considering (for example, by making available study papers which it has considered or providing news releases reporting its discussions), taking care to indicate that such materials do not represent official positions taken by the WCC or any of its member churches.

  • A budget line from the overall budget for governing bodies could be allocated to the Commission. Churches' participation in covering the expenses of the members of the Commission or in hosting its meetings would be particularly appreciated.

3. Possible Areas of Discussion

A number of areas of discussion are being suggested in this second part of the present paper, with the understanding that the Commission should not be considered as an instrument for negotiating with the WCC but, rather, as a forum in which partners in the fellowship, in a dialogue concerning the WCC. They could constitute the principal parameters of what may become the agenda of the Special Commission.  

(a) Changing contexts, enduring commitments (cf. CUV chapter 1)

  • The Thessaloniki Report reaffirmed the Orthodox commitment to the ecumenical movement. Participants in the meeting were "unanimous in their understanding of the necessity for continuing their participation in various forms of inter-Christian activities" (para 6). Beyond the difficulties with the Council and its member churches, described in the report, what would be the contextual changes and challenges within the "Orthodox world" which would require "radical changes" in the WCC?

  • What have fifty years membership in the WCC led to in terms of changed relationships internationally and locally? Is this changed situation reflected in the ethos and structure of the WCC?

(b) The WCC as a fellowship.

(i) The fellowship as an "ecclesiological challenge"

  • How do we perceive the Orthodox-Protestant co-existence within the same "fellowship of churches" as a real "ecclesiological challenge"?

  • To what extent could the reception of ecumenical dialogue and of each other allow us to revisit the Toronto Statement?

  • To what extent could we affirm that we belong to each other by our baptism?

(ii) A genuine "Orthodox-Protestant dialogue" within the fellowship

  • Probably for the first time, one may discover in an Orthodox statement a clear distinction between the WCC and its Protestant member churches. Indeed, the Thessaloniki report recognizes that "certain developments within some Protestant member churches of the Council that are reflected in the debates of the WCC" (para 9) are to be found in the heart of many Orthodox concerns. This consideration may lead to some fundamental questions.

  • What is the predominant culture in the WCC and what are its consequences on the life of the fellowship? There is a perception among the Orthodox that the cultural reality of a self-secularized Christianity seems to influence both the ecumenical theological reflection and the institutional expressions of ecumenism. It is true that discussions on secularization might bring the Council years back, when this issue was on the heart of the WCC agenda. And yet, today, a fresh input from Africa and Latin America could help member churches to look together at this issue in the light of a much larger perspective.

  • How to address the Orthodox criticism that "the WCC does not take tradition seriously"? One of the main subjects of the Orthodox-Protestant dialogue should probably be a sustained effort to better understand the emphasis placed by Orthodox on Tradition and the difference with Protestantism which understands history (and Tradition) differently thus leading to certain hermeneutical principles and to different world views. Is Tradition a wall which separates Protestants and Orthodox? To what extent is the Montreal Statement on Tradition still valid? Could it inspire the present ecumenical dialogue? To what extent could the ecumenical theological dialogue develop a common ecumenical point of view on Tradition as a tangible expression of churches' common confession of the apostolic faith?

  • How do Protestant churches presently understand the denominational principle? The question is raised by the Orthodox within the WCC and in bi-lateral theological dialogues. The denominational consciousness of the Protestant side creates a difference of "ethos" within the Council as a fellowship of churches. What is the specific contribution of those Protestant churches who have united? How far are they close to share their experiences in moving towards visible koinonia? What are the implications of the "factual fellowship" between Protestant denominations when they participate in the life of the Council as a "fellowship of churches" and when, within this same fellowship, they meet with Orthodox churches? What are the implications of the bi-lateral relations in the context of the multi-lateral dialogue within the WCC? When discussing the ecumenical methodology and the ecumenical agenda how could we make clear that "Orthodox" or "Roman" traditions (including ecclesiologies and "ethos") are of a different character from Protestant denominationalism? The nature and scope of the envisaged Orthodox-Protestant dialogue might depend on member churches' readiness to try to respond together to these questions. It might also depend on their awareness that looking together for responses will deepen and strengthen their fellowship because the dialogue here is envisaged as a challenge both to member churches themselves and the WCC structures. In other words, dealing with such fundamental questions in a dialogical spirit, member churches might together identify where the real problems are and thus explore together ways of changing the WCC structures accordingly.

(c) The WCC as an organization.

(i) Participation and Representation

  • In their responses to CUV as well as in previous documents, Orthodox churches emphasized that there are three pressing issues in this area: an Orthodox participation "on equal footing", a participation which would allow a qualitative contribution to the fellowship, and a mode of election of representatives which would take into consideration ecclesiological criteria rather than structural rules and regulations. What are, therefore, the dynamics created by the numbers of member churches and their representatives? Is "membership", as an institutional arrangement with rights and responsibilities, the most appropriate way of ensuring a genuine contribution of the members of the fellowship? Is participation in the Council marked by numerical, geographical and other balances, or do these balances reflect deeper ecclesial and ecclesiological expressions which have to be further studied? Is there a way of representation which would take more adequate account of the ecclesiological understanding of all the member churches?

(ii) Decision- making

  • Many would agree today that the parliamentary model adopted for the WCC in 1948 reflected a particular polity, which derived from specific Christian traditions. For some this polity presents ecclesiological and cultural difficulties. Is this the only possible model for the Council?

  • Orthodox churches challenged very strongly the fact that, within the present structural form of the Council, matters affecting the ecclesiological self-understanding of churches are being decided upon by majority votes. Obviously, this Orthodox challenge has already been responded to in the amendment to the rules which precisely forbids voting on matters affecting ecclesiological self understanding. Yet, on a wider international level, decision-making by consensus has been adopted even by particular political fora. What would be the possibilities and limitations of a "consensus model"? Would it be viable to shift the Council's modus operandi to a greater emphasis on deliberation, sharing, listening to each other and trying to speak together, rather than on decision-making as such?

  • Would it be feasible to explore a "flexible" practice, which would give priority to the consensus model and yet allow some decision-making especially in terms of, e.g. business matters (nominations, budget) and statements (public issues, concern for justice and peace, etc.)?

(iii) "Institutionalization" of the ecumenical movement

  • The Thessaloniki report affirmed and encouraged the Orthodox participation in "various forms of inter-Christian activity" (para 6). At the same time, it called for "discussing the acceptable form of Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement and the radical restructuring of the WCC" (para 16). How could churches assert their commitment to and their co-responsibility for the ecumenical movement, how could they be recognized as ecumenical partners, independently of an "institutional" membership? To what extent would there be a convergence between the above mentioned Orthodox perception and the affirmation of the Policy Statement that "The WCC as an institution must not be paralyzed by institutionalism"?

(iv) The WCC within the "one ecumenical movement"

  • What is the distinctive role of the WCC within the one ecumenical movement? What are the lessons we can draw from what is seen in many churches as an increased favoring of bilateral ecumenism over multilateral ecumenism?

  • What are and should be the specific opportunities and possibilities for multilateral dialogues?

(v) The WCC and the ecumenical agenda

  • How is the present agenda of the WCC affected by the de facto majority-minority relations within the Council? What are the wider ecumenical implications of the claim made in Thessaloniki (para 9) that "the Orthodox were obliged to be involved in the discussion of questions entirely alien to their tradition"?

  • To what extent should the agenda of the Council reflect the various concerns of its member churches, asking each other for counsel? To what extent should the agenda of the Council be shaped by the main concerns of the world at large, thus assisting the member churches to generate together a prophetic voice?

What is the dynamic between the agenda setting and the results of ecumenical work?

(d) Membership

  • Is the present form of membership (a choice made within a historical context, i.e. during the formation of the WCC fifty years ago, and reflecting a rather political model) the most appropriate one for the WCC today?

  • Is participation in the life and work of the Council to be understood only in terms of a formal "membership"?

  • Are there alternative forms of membership or participation which would reflect the reality of "being churches" rather than the organic link to an ecumenical organization?

  • What are the questions emerging from the reflection process on the CUV which challenge the present understanding of membership ("beyond membership", "participation, not membership", "review of membership to include the RCC", etc.)?

  • What is the present status of discussion within the Orthodox churches as to the form of their participation in the WCC (autocephalous/single/national churches; "one" church; a "family of churches") and what are the implications of their choice for the life of the WCC?

  • What is the present status of the discussion within the Protestant churches as to the form of their participation in the WCC (several "national" churches from the same country; a "federation" of churches from the same country; "families" of churches) and what are the implications of their choices for the life of the WCC?

  • To what extent has the present understanding of membership become an obstacle for the enlargement of the fellowship? How could we explain and overcome, in the perspective of the WCC as a fellowship of churches, the reservations of the Roman Catholic, Evangelical or Pentecostal churches?

(e) Emerging models for ecumenical organizations 

These include:

  • Council of "Families of Churches"
  • Council of "Councils"
  • Ecumenical Forum
  • Ecumenical Coalitions
  • Churches Together
  • Christian Councils
  • Regional developments of visible koinonia and their impact on international church relationships (e.g. Leuenberg, Porvoo, etc.)

These models are listed here simply to draw attention to the variety of possibilities that have been/are being explored in the ecumenical world. 

As certain regional ecumenical organizations have been seeing fit to rethink and restructure themselves, and as regional church union agreements have developed, and as solutions are being sought to ameliorate the relationships between the WCC and the Orthodox churches, several models for ecumenical organizations have been emerging and circulating in ecumenical fora in recent years.


  1. Background and reference information can be found in the paper prepared by the WCC Orthodox Task Force, "Orthodox Participation in the WCC -- The Current Situation: Issues and Ways Forward", and in the book Turn to God -- Rejoice in Hope: Orthodox Reflections On the Way to Harare.
  2. In the context of this paper the term "Protestant" is used to include Anglicans and Protestants.