World Council of Churches

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

Sofia consultation

31 May 1981

Sofia, Bulgaria, 1981

The Sofia Consultation gathered participants from the Eastern Orthodox churches in order to discuss their involvement in the WCC. It was the most substantial such meeting to date, and produced the first serious list of "desiderata" from the Orthodox for the WCC, its structures, programmes, and staff. This meeting was also one of the preparatory meetings for the Sixth Assembly of the WCC, to be held in Vancouver in 1983, whose theme was to be "Jesus Christ -- the Life of the World."


In accordance with the wish of local Orthodox churches and the World Council of Churches, expressed in recent years, an agreement was reached between leaders of the WCC and Orthodox members of the Central Committee, meeting in Jamaica, 1979, to hold a consultation on ecumenical issues. It would focus on the Orthodox contribution to the WCC's activities.

Organized by the General Secretariat and the Orthodox Task Force at the WCC headquarters in Geneva, the consultation of official delegates of the Eastern Orthodox Churches and representatives of the World Council took place in Sofia on May 23-31, 1981. It was hosted by the Bulgarian Patriarchate. There were 30 participants.

The main topics on the Agenda were:

  1. The Orthodox understanding of ecumenism and participation in the WCC;

  2. Orthodox experiences and problems in the WCC;

  3. Perspectives of Orthodox contributions to the activities of the WCC;

  4. "Jesus Christ - the Life of the World".

Various papers and statements on these issues were presented on behalf of the respective Churches, the General Secretariat of the WCC and the Orthodox Task Force. There was an extensive discussion regarding a constructive Orthodox partnership in the WCC, the search for better ways and means of cooperation within the ecumenical fellowship, the strengthening of the role of the Eastern Orthodox Churches in WCC activities and ensuring their ever more effective presence within the WCC.

I. The Orthodox understanding of ecumenism and participation in the WCC

All the participants considered it symbolically important that the consultation met on the 1600th anniversary of the Second Ecumenical Council, Constantinople (May 381) -- a council of a relatively small number of bishops from the East which nevertheless was acknowledged as "ecumenical" by all because "it gathered together the separated" and reflected the Orthodox consciousness of the whole Church. Even those who previously differed with each other in the formulation of the faith were reconciled because they discovered a common expression of the living divine Truth as expressed in the creative theological effort of the Fathers.

The participants of the Sofia consultation were inspired and guided by that example. Conscious of being members of the same One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, preserving the same Truth, the representatives were unanimous in recognizing the ecumenical movement as an important sign of our times, which places before the Orthodox Church a challenge which she must meet responsibly. In their discussion of problems related to Christian unity, they were aware of the fact that "ecumenism in space" (i.e. concern for unity today) is inseparable from "ecumenism in time" (i.e. faithfulness to the apostolic and patristic teaching). They acknowledged the tension which inevitably exists between the necessary faithfulness to holy tradition and the concern for ecumenical relations and eventual unity between separated Christians today. They rejected any idea of compromise in the faith and remembered with satisfaction that the Central Committee of the WCC, meeting in Toronto (1950), declared: "No Church need fear that by entering into the World Council it is in danger of denying its heritage."

They also noted other important points made by the Toronto declaration, e.g. that "membership in the Council does not in any sense mean that the Churches belong to a body which can make decisions for them," and, furthermore, that "membership does not imply that each Church must regard the other member Churches as Churches in the true and full sense of the word."

Although it was recognized that the Toronto Declaration would need development or correction, its text was seen as an essential factor in the continuation of Orthodox membership In the World Council of Churches.

The members of the consultation were unanimous in their understanding of ecumenism, as a necessary expression of Catholicity itself. The Orthodox Catholic Church is concerned to strive for unity among Christians, just as it cannot be indifferent to all other forms of division or hostility in humankind, or in creation. The Son of God, in his Incarnation, assumed the fullness of human nature, and it is in God that humanity finds its true destiny and life. Consequently, the Christian faith cannot separate our human movement toward God from the concerns of human action in creation, and we do not accept the distinction between the so-called "vertical" and "horizontal" dimensions of the Gospel. Christ is indeed the life of the whole world, and the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles "called all to unity" (Kontakion of Pentecost).

If ecumenism is understood in the light of the Catholicity of the Church, it is clear that the World Council of Churches, as an institution, cannot be seen as the only expression of the ecumenical movement. Indeed, the Council does not comprise all the Christian churches existing today, and other ecumenical organizations and initiatives are also performing an important function in the development of the ecumenical movement. However, the World Council of Churches today represents the most comprehensive ecumenical fellowship, which all Orthodox Churches have joined, and in which they have found:

  • a opportunity to have living encounters with other Christians, praying for each other;
  • a panel for a continuous theological dialogue on Christian unity;
  • a possibility for inter-church aid and cooperation in the service of peace and justice in society, along with many other areas of Christian action and mission in the world;
  • an occasion for enjoying fellowship not only with non-Orthodox Christian churches, but also among themselves.

In the opinion of the participants, WCC has been able to produce these fruits because, as it defined itself in Toronto, it exists "to serve the Churches ... as an instrument, whereby they may witness together to their common allegiance to Jesus Christ, and cooperate in matters requiring united action". While the Council can neither "become the Church" nor assume the role of convening an ecumenical council, the fellowship among Churches which it has initiated and nourished will have served to realize the unity of all.

The membership of the Orthodox Churches in the WCC is therefore an expression of the concern which the Church had since Apostolic times for the life, salvation and unity of all. Thus, the consultation of Orthodox theologians, held in New Valamo, Finland (September 24-30, 1977) said:

The participation of the Orthodox in the ecumenical movement of today is not, in principle, a revolution in the history of Orthodoxy, but it is a natural consequence of the constant prayer of the Church "for the union of all". It constitutes another attempt, like those made in the Patristic period, to apply the Apostolic faith to new historical situations and existential demands. What is in a sense new today is the fact that this attempt is being made together with other Christian bodies with whom there is no full unity. It is here that the difficulties arise, but it is precisely here that there also are many signs of real hope for growing fellowship, understanding and cooperation.

The Orthodox Churches, members of the WCC, have committed themselves to this understanding of ecumenism and intend to remain faithful to that commitment. But they also consider that the future of a fruitful Orthodox membership in the WCC can only be secured if some basic facts of past experience are taken into consideration.

II. Orthodox experiences and problems in the WCC

The present evaluation of these issues stems out of the following convictions:

  1. Orthodox Churches were active in founding the ecumenical movement and are full members and partners in the WCC.

  2. The Orthodox Churches here represented, acknowledge the promising, challenging and enriching role of the WCC since its foundation in 1948, for the cause of Christian unity and common Christian witness.

  3. Participation in the WCC is a growing process wherein all member churches are bound to seek a fuller and more effective participation on their own proper terms, not at the expense of other member churches, but with them in mutual understanding.

  4. The Orthodox Churches here represented feel that in order to render a genuine contribution and a witness to the cause of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, they should always be able to act on the basis of their ecclesiology and according to their own rationale.

a) Positive aspects of Orthodox participation in the WCCIt is an undeniable fact that the Orthodox Churches have benefited tangibly from their presence in the WCC, and have had serious impact on its thought, aspiration and work along the lines of mutual understanding, serious discussion of doctrinal issues, exchange of views and experiences and common witness. Progress towards Christian unity has been made, though we still have a long way to go.

Among the positive aspects of this ecumenical endeavour, we would like to point out the following by way of selection, hoping to stimulate a keener interest, a deeper involvement and a more genuine thrust in the ecumenical undertakings.

  1. WCC was instrumental in promoting ecumenical consciousness at various international, regional and national levels, in countries of many Orthodox Churches. It was in this spirit during meetings of the WCC that Eastern Orthodox Churches and Oriental Churches have entered into an informal theological dialogue. The getting together of the Orthodox during meetings of the WCC has also contributed to further strengthening of the existing bonds of brotherhood between Orthodox Churches. The WCC has also brought the Orthodox together in a series of consultations, seminars and workshops on various issues, to clarify their stands and bring their thinking into the life and action of the WCC.

  2. WCC has also rendered great services to the cause of Christian unity and unity of humankind through its various units, sub-units, commissions and working groups. We specially mention the work of the Commission on Faith and Order to find points of convergence between differing confessions on fundamental doctrinal issues such as Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, or the endeavours of the Commissions on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) and on the Churches' Participation in Development (CCPD) to bring the Orthodox theological thinking in the field of mission and evangelism, and of social ethics and development, respectively. We also mention the solidarity and the material and moral assistance of such commissions and working groups as the Commission on Interchurch Aid, Refugee and World Service (CICARWS), Church and Society, Programme to Combat Racism, the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), to respond to human and social needs.

  3. On the other hand, the Orthodox Presence has influenced considerably the life and work of the World Council of Churches, by promoting Trinitarian theology, the primacy and urgency of unity of doctrine, the ecclesiology of the local Church, spirituality and sacramental life and the centrality of the Liturgy.

b) Problems emerging from the Orthodox participation in the WCCIt should be recognized that from the very beginning the participation of the Orthodox in the WCC has not been an easy task. This is especially due to the peculiar structural framework of the Council in which Orthodox theology could not always find its way. The affiliation of the local Orthodox Churches in the WCC at different times (1948, 1961, 1965, 1972, etc.) and for reasons proper to each Church, as well as the absence of an integrated Orthodox approach vis-à-vis the Council and the ecumenical movement did not ease the situation.

While committed to the Council and to its activities and while giving a common witness and service in it, the Orthodox Churches nevertheless have encountered some specific difficulties, which in substance could be summarized as follows:

  1. Because of the working style of the Council, from time to time the Orthodox feel uneasy in it. They have not always the opportunity to promote their priorities in the programmatic undertakings of the Council. On the contrary, issues alien to the Orthodox tradition and ethos are adopted on the Council's agenda as priority issues, such as the question of the ordination of women to priesthood. Therefore efforts should be made in order to bring Orthodox priorities and concerns before the Council, as listed in various documents of Orthodox member Churches.

  2. The Orthodox believe that they are ecumenical because of the very nature of the Church. Therefore, they are called to make a specific theological contribution to the ecumenical debate. However, the language used and the methodology of elaborating theological statements have not always been sufficiently transparent to allow Orthodox positions to emerge and become an integral part of documents emanating from the WCC bodies. Because of this, the Orthodox do not exclude the possibility of re-introducing the practice of producing separate statements.

  3. The opinion was emphasized that the Council being primarily a Council of Churches, member churches should have the right of appointing their representatives to the various bodies of the WCC.

III. Perspectives of Orthodox contributions to the activities of the WCC

In the light of their past experiences in the WCC and in view of a better contribution to the work of the Council, the members of the consultation have expressed the following desiderata:

  1. A reference to Baptism should be included in the basis of the Council or at least in the criteria for admission of new members.

  2. An increased Orthodox representation should be secured in all Assemblies, Committees and other WCC bodies based on the following considerations:

    1. The Orthodox Church is the representative of one of the two basic traditions represented in the Council;

    2. The number of Orthodox Christians as compared to the number of other Christians represented in the Council;

    3. The fact that, under the Constitution of the WCC and Orthodox canon law, it is difficult for more Orthodox Churches to become members of the Council while membership is constantly increasing by admission of Protestant groups, thus reducing the proportion of Orthodox votes to the total number of votes in the Council.

      Accordingly there should be a substantial increase in the number of Orthodox representatives in the General Assembly, the Central Committee, the Executive Committee, the Unit and Sub-unit committees.

  3. All Orthodox Churches should be represented on the Central Committee in proportion to their membership and historical importance.

  4. Each Orthodox Church should be represented at least in one of the Sub-unit committees.

  5. Nominations of Orthodox members to the Central Committee should only be received from the Orthodox Churches concerned and should be implemented.

  6. Nominations of Orthodox members to other committees and bodies of the WCC should be the result of an agreement between the Orthodox Church concerned and the relevant organ of the WCC.

  7. Concerning the Orthodox presence on the staff of the WCC, there should be an increase in the number of the Orthodox staff and all Orthodox Churches should be represented on the staff to the extent possible.

  8. Greek, as one of the languages used in Pan-Orthodox meetings and bilateral dialogues of the Orthodox Church, is commended to be used as a working language of the World Council of Churches, it being understood that the Churches concerned are prepared to take financial responsibility for such use.

  9. The Orthodox members in the various WCC bodies and consultations should actively participate in the drafting of WCC documents from the early stages, through the discussions and in the preparation of the final text. The WCC should give attention that such participation is actually sought and made effective.

  10. More Orthodox speakers, advisers and experts should be involved in various meetings of the WCC and in positions of leadership.

  11. It was recognized that there is a need to change the procedure and methods of the final adoption of the emerging ecumenical consensus on doctrinal issues. This problem deserves serious attention from the constituency of the WCC. The consultation invites the General Secretary of the WCC to initiate an ecumenical discussion on this issue. Concrete proposals have been made by the Russian Orthodox Church. Final solutions to this problem and procedural provisions should be the subject of study and proper formulation in consultation between the General Secretariat and the Units and Sub-units concerned.

  12. The members of the consultation heard with gratitude reports from Orthodox members of the WCC staff about the efforts made until now to bring Orthodox thinking into the activities of the WCC and encourage them to persevere in their efforts. The members of the consultation pledge to report to their respective Churches about the activities of the various Units and Subunits of the WCC and to request increased cooperation and responsible material support wherever necessary.

  13. The consultation considers it essential that during the General Assemblies and meetings of the Central Committee contact should be maintained between the Orthodox representatives in order to make a better contribution of the Orthodox to these meetings. It would be desirable to have special consultations in preparation for the work of the Central Committee.

  14. Special attention was given to the Orthodox preparation for the Sixth Assembly in 1983. The Orthodox Churches represented at the Consultation understand the Sixth Assembly of the WCC in Vancouver as a very privileged opportunity for them and are determined to bring on this occasion a full contribution to the ecumenical dialogue and community. They consider their consultation in Sofia with the leaders of the WCC as an integral part of the preparation for this ecumenical event. They expect that every effort will be made by the WCC leadership and the host churches in Canada to secure full participation of all Orthodox delegates in conditions excluding external interference and leading to fruitful work. In the process of preparation leading up to the Assembly a particular importance should be given to:

    1. Reflection on the meaning of the theme: "Jesus Christ - the Life of the World". Orthodox have the firm conviction that they can give a specific theological Interpretation to the Assembly theme. For them "Jesus Christ - the Life of the World" should become the major concern for the whole ecumenical reflection and solidarity in the years after the Assembly. They are ready to contribute to this purpose with a theological study on the theme, on the basis of the Patristic Christology, Eastern iconography, hymnology and spirituality. They encourage the publication by the Orthodox Task Force of the WCC of a booklet including preparatory material on the Assembly and a comprehensive book on the Orthodox Church.

    2. Local or regional consultations in which member churches from a particular country (or region) should have an opportunity to take part in preparatory work, in cooperation with local clergy and communities. The purpose of these consultations is to strengthen local ecumenism and to start a fresh evaluation of the meaning of the ecumenical fellowship in a given place.

      It would be extremely helpful if the preparatory and background material for the next Assembly (including the Sofia Report) could be translated and circulated ahead of time to the local churches for the above-mentioned purpose.

    3. The team visits represent an important element in this preparatory process. The purpose of the ecumenical visitations during this period should help to promote the ecumenical consciousness and especially to emphasize strongly that the WCC is a fellowship and a council of churches. The churches should feel free but responsible to prepare and to coordinate such visits indicating the form, the issues to be discussed and propose names of persons to be contacted.

The Orthodox Churches here represented strongly insist that before and during the Assembly they should have a structural possibility to bring their priorities on the agenda of the Assembly. They also should have a platform to evaluate the programmes of the WCC and to contribute to the shape of the WCC.

IV. "Jesus Christ - the Life of the World"

The consultation heard several papers on the theme of the Sixth Assembly and proceeded to a discussion which, however, due to lack of time, could not be completed. The participants were pleased to learn of a forthcoming WCC symposium of Orthodox theologians to deal specifically with the theme of the Sixth Assembly. In view of this they thought it better to confine themselves to the following points:

  1. They reaffirmed the readiness and the wish of the Orthodox to fully contribute to the development of the Assembly theme.

  2. They indicated that one of the specific topics of the forthcoming symposium should be the question of how the theme of the Assembly will be reflected in the life and work of the WCC and our Churches after the Assembly.

  3. They agreed that the Orthodox contribution should mainly concentrate around:

    1. the Patristic teaching on Jesus Christ as the Life of the World;

    2. their varied experiences in this century of Jesus Christ as the Life of the World.

  4. They requested that consideration be given to the possibility of publishing in some appropriate form the insights of the papers presented at the consultation, as part of the total Orthodox contribution to the Assembly background materials.

With regard to the teaching of the Fathers, the members of the present consultation proposed that the forthcoming symposium should deal carefully with the following issues:

  1. The methods employed by the Fathers for integrating faith and life, diagnosis and therapy, as a total human experience in praise of the Lord and life.

  2. The exact meanings of the terms "life" and "world".

  3. Grace in creation.

  4. The Logos - "light of every man" (cf. John 1:9).

  5. The divine image in man before and after the fall and the appearance of death.

  6. The Logos as educator and Saviour in the Old Testament

  7. The Logos as Redeemer of the world in his incarnation, death and resurrection.

  8. Jesus Christ as the giver of the Holy Spirit, "abundance of life" (cf. John 10:10) for Christians.

  9. The Church as the new life of the world (mission, unity and holiness).

  10. Jesus as the Bread of Life eternal in the sacraments.

  11. The mystery of the love of the neighbour, in whom we see Christ, and through whom we experience our new life in Christ (witness and service).

  12. The reality of life through death in Christian existence (suffering and joy in self-sacrifice for the life of the world).

  13. The life of the world to come - "God all in all" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28).


The consultation in Sofia provided a great opportunity for fraternal sharing of information, for enriching and strengthening of inter-Orthodox relations, for a more effective dialogue and coordinated Orthodox actions in the ecumenical field. It was a creative encounter of Orthodox representatives with leaders of the WCC and a new instrument of united endeavours towards Christian unity, common witness and service in the contemporary world.

The meeting was seen as a contribution to Orthodox commitment to the ecumenical movement, and a sign of renewed Orthodox sharing in the covenanted fellowship and activities of the WCC.

It brought satisfaction and hope to the participants, called to be obedient servants of the Holy Church, heralds of reconciliation, community, peace and justice.