World Council of Churches

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

Morges goals and agenda

01 December 1999

Morges, Switzerland, December, 1999

Goals and the agenda of the meeting

"The Goals and the Agenda of the Meeting" is the address given at the opening session of Special Commission's meeting in Morges by Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the WCC.

In his opening remarks, the moderator of the Central Committee, His Holiness Aram I, has already provided a succinct summary of the circumstances which have led to the creation of the Special Commission and of its tasks. Your comments in the discussion have enlarged the perspectives, and in the afternoon the Commission will begin its proper work. I have been asked to give a brief introduction to the substance of this first meeting of the Commission.

Without wanting to repeat what has been said already by His Holiness Aram, let me remind you that the Special Commission has been created by the assembly of the WCC in Harare in December 1998. With its decision the assembly responded to the call from the meeting of Eastern Orthodox Churches at Thessaloniki in May 1998 and to the subsequent discussions and suggestions formulated by the Executive Committee of the WCC in September and December 1998. You have received these documents with your preparatory papers and there is no need to elaborate on them. The basic mandate of the Special Commission is given in the decision of the assembly to which the moderator of the Central Committee has already referred. The text of the resolution speaks of a "Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC with half of its members to be determined by the Orthodox churches and half by the Executive Committee of the WCC after consultation with other member churches". According to the same resolution, the Special Commission is established "to study and analyze the whole spectrum of questions related to Orthodox participation in the WCC, recognizing that many of these concerns are of importance to other member churches as well".

This is the core mandate, which invites a few observations. What is "special" about this commission? There is, first, its composition. For the first time in the life of the WCC, an official body has been created with equal participation of representatives from Orthodox churches and from the other member churches of the WCC. With its decision, the assembly has responded to a longstanding demand by the Orthodox churches. Secondly, there is the focus on "Orthodox concerns". These are however considered as paradigmatic for questions which have to be faced together by the membership of the WCC. I venture to say that never before in its fifty years of history has the WCC taken its Orthodox member churches as seriously as with this decision of the Harare assembly. The repeated calls from the Orthodox churches have been heard and are considered as questions which concern the fellowship of churches in the WCC as a whole. The beginning of the work of the Commission is therefore truly a "special" moment in the life of the WCC.

The assembly decision then continues by asking the Special Commission to "make proposals concerning the necessary changes in structure, style and ethos of the Council". This echoes the call of the Thessaloniki meeting for a "radical restructuring of the WCC" as well as the various concerns about the agenda, the working styles, the ways of decision-making and the ethos of the Council to which His Holiness Aram has already referred. We all recall the various desiderata which have been formulated by Orthodox representatives and delegations on previous occasions. Many of these have meanwhile found a positive response in actions of governing bodies or the leadership of the WCC. However, we are also aware of the fact that behind these desiderata and at their root is a sense of mutual distance, incomprehension and even alienation between the Orthodox and the Protestant constituencies of the WCC. Misgivings with regard to structure, style and ethos are only indications of a deeper problem in the relationships between the churches within the fellowship of the WCC. It is not surprising that it should have been in the context of the discussion about a Common Understanding and Vision that this most recent articulation of "Orthodox concerns" occurred; and it should be noted, therefore, that the assembly placed its decision in the context of the ongoing process of reception of the policy document "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC", as the moderator has already reminded us. Questions of structure, style and ethos are to be understood as consequences of a more fundamental clarification regarding the nature of the fellowship which the churches share with one another in the WCC. It would be my hope that the Special Commission can take this perspective into account in shaping its agenda.

The assembly decision finally states clearly that this is a Special Commission of the WCC, operating within its present constitutional framework and thus reporting in the first instance to the Central Committee. The Commission does not decide for itself, but its proposals and recommendations are to "be brought before the Central Committee for consideration and decision while necessary constitutional changes will be presented to the next WCC assembly". Like all other commissions of the WCC, the Special Commission has essentially an advisory role. The fact, however, that one-half of its members have been appointed directly by the Orthodox churches themselves, whereas the other half have been appointed by the Executive Committee with subsequent approval by the Central Committee, underlines its "special" character. It is understood that the Orthodox members of the Commission will participate in its work in close consultation with their own churches from whom they have received their mandate. A significant number of the members of the Special Commission are in addition members of the Executive or Central Committee of the WCC, which will ensure that these governing bodies are regularly informed about the work of the Commission.

In view of the complex nature of the issues to be addressed by the Commission, the assembly decision has provided for an initial time frame of three years, with the expectation that a report be presented to the Central Committee in the year 2002. It would then be up to the Central Committee to consider whether and in what form the work of the Special Commission is to be continued. It is further anticipated that the work of the Commission may lead to recommendations about changes in the Constitution of the WCC. Such constitutional amendments will have to be considered and accepted by the Central Committee, but they can be approved only by the next assembly after having been submitted to the member churches at least six months prior to the meeting of the assembly. Already in the context of the discussion on a Common Understanding and Vision a number of proposals for amendments to the Constitution were considered. The previous Central Committee felt, however, that most of these proposals needed more time for mature reflection and consideration, and it therefore limited itself to a number of minor amendments regarding the role of presidents and a clearer distinction between the tasks of the Central and the Executive Committees. The creation of the Special Commission now offers the appropriate framework for a comprehensive reassessment of the WCC Constitution in the light of the basic understanding of the Council as a fellowship of churches which was affirmed by the Harare assembly.

In consultation with the co-moderators of the Special Commission, an annotated agenda for this first session has been prepared, and it is before you for your consideration and eventual approval. Three main objectives have been identified for this session.

First, it was felt that sufficient time should be given to a free sharing of concerns and views among the members of the Special Commission. All of you come to this work with longstanding ecumenical experience both in the setting of the World Council of Churches and in the context of bilateral dialogues between the Orthodox churches and particular church families from the Protestant tradition. You share the basic concern about strengthening the fellowship of churches in the WCC, but you may have different views and understandings about the issues at stake and the appropriate response. Before the Commission formulates its agenda, all its members should have the opportunity to express their convictions and expectations, and it will be important for the Commission to listen to these different statements and to take them seriously.

Secondly, the Commission will have to discuss the basic mandate which it has received from the Harare assembly and clarify the understanding of its role within the constitutional framework of the WCC. This will include the task to determine the official membership of the Commission and to consider whether to invite consultants or to admit observers to its meetings. In addition to the two co-moderators who have already been designated, it may be necessary to form a small steering group to prepare for meetings of the Commission and coordinate its work, including the preparation of reports and the sharing of information about the work of the Commission with the churches and the wider public.

The annotated agenda identifies as a third objective that the Commission, after having formally constituted itself and clarified the modalities of its work, will have to determine the main issues on which it will concentrate its attention and elaborate a work plan with clear timelines. The formal membership of the Commission may well exceed fifty persons; it will thus be too large a body to do its work in plenary sessions of the Commission only. It may therefore be advisable to form sub-groups, each working on one major issue of the agenda and preparing analyses and recommendations for discussion in the plenary of the Commission. It will therefore be necessary to devote some time to the eventual establishment of sub-groups, of the themes and issues to be assigned to them, the methodology of work and a preliminary distribution of membership. The preparatory papers offer some initial proposals about an eventual structuring of the agenda which could be of help in reaching an agreement on these practical questions.

I hope it is obvious that the Special Commission, like all governing and advisory bodies of the WCC, will need the support of the staff of the Council. For many years already, the Orthodox Task Force, which is formed by the executive staff members of the WCC from Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, has rendered an essential service in accompanying and furthering the discussion which has finally led to the establishment of the Special Commission. The Orthodox Task Force will therefore also continue to accompany the work of the Special Commission. In view of the fact that many of the concerns to be addressed by the Special Commission are being raised not only by Orthodox churches, but are of importance to other member churches of the WCC as well, a special staff group has been created which includes in equal numbers staff colleagues from the two major traditions, drawing on the expertise of many different teams within the present staff organization. This staff group is moderated by the deputy general secretary, Mr Georges Lemopoulos, with Ms Teny Pirri-Simonian from the team on Church and Ecumenical Relations, who carries special responsibility for the relationships with Orthodox member churches, serving as secretary. This staff group has been responsible for preparing this meeting and has put together the preparatory materials which you have received. The role of this staff group will be supportive, respecting the integrity of the Commission and its process of work.

Let me conclude by saying that as general secretary of the WCC I have great expectations regarding the work of this Special Commission. What seemed to be a situation of crisis during the period leading up to the Harare assembly, threatening -- at least in the eyes of some -- even the very existence of the WCC, has, with the grace of God and the patient efforts of many among you, been turned into a genuine opportunity. Issues which have been causing pain and tension already for a long time, but which so far have never been addressed honestly, are now being accepted as challenges for a renewal and a deepening of the fellowship of churches in the WCC. The Harare assembly has acknowledged that the Council is in a process of transformation and that we are again "together on the way". The assembly has affirmed the call to "grow together" and to "build together" and has thus manifested its will to reshape the World Council of Churches in a way that it can respond to the challenges of the 21st century and to the new ecumenical situation at the turn of the millennium. That the Special Commission begins its work during the season of Advent and at the beginning of the church year leading into a new century should strengthen our expectant mood as we open this meeting. May God bless your work for the benefit of the whole World Council of Churches.