World Council of Churches

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

Appendix IV, Report of Sub-committee II

01 August 2000

by Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Metropolitan of Aleppo

in Report of sub-committee II
Special Commission on Orthodox participation in the WCC
(Vilemov, Czech Republic, August, 2000)

[See responses to this paper below]

1. The questions the Orthodox Churches have been raising to the world Council of Churches and the wider ecumenical family is out of their commitment to the fellowship and to the ecumenical movement. It is also an expression of their desire to be in dialogue with other sister churches in accordance with the imperative to sustain Christian unity.

The World Council of Churches (WCC), in its fifty yeas of existence has changed itself to respond to the changing realities in the world and within the member churches. Such a change indicates the desire of the member churches to see the World Council of Churches as a relevant ecumenical instrument. The necessity to change also reflects the inherent tension that exists between being a fellowship of churches and at the same time needing an institution that will take decisions and give programmatic shape to the concerns of the fellowship.

Often, the organisational procedures for decision making have not been in harmony with the ecclesiological principles of participation of the orthodox Churches.

As a result the inherent tension between the fellowship and the organisational became more apparent. This situation has been further complicated by the internal socio-political upheavals in many Orthodox Churches, especially those on the former socialist and communist countries. While the Orthodox were first to express clearly their dissatisfaction with the WCC, other sister churches were also unhappy: many churches are facing today the problems of secularisation where many believers are leaving the church, or bringing new problems and life styles to the churches.

Therefore, despite different concerns and different ecclesiologies, the World Council of Churches is challenged by different member Churches. The questions raised to WCC referred to its self-understanding as Council, to its priorities and style of work. This questioning of WCC led in 1989 to the study and consultation on the common understanding and vision (CUV) of the WCC. The study document became a policy statement after the VIII Assembly adopted it in 1998.

The CUV document touches upon many of the questions raised by the Orthodox Churches. It covers the following issues: the nature and purpose of the ecumenical movement, its constitutional basis, its self-understanding, and relationships between WCC and its partners. The CUV leads to the revision of the statement of the purpose and function of the WCC, and also to the establishment of a new program and management structure.

These efforts are encouraging and relevant to the mandate of Sub-Committee II. However, two important issues that impact the participation of the Orthodox Churches in the life of the Council remains to be clarified: One - the question of membership, the ecclesiological implications of being a church and two - modes of decision making, processes of working and living together in WCC. Out of 330 member Churches, 25 are Orthodox. Given the difference in their ecclesiological self-understanding. It is not likely that this number will change in the near future. But the number of new member churches in the WCC, will probably increase. How can a process of dialogue and deep ecclesiological reflection accompany memebrship application and screening processes. Two, the Governing bodies and modes of decision making: Governing bodies arrive at decisions by voting. The number of votes is conditioned by the number of member churches. When it comes to voting, the Orthodox Churches will always be a minority. As a result, their grievances will always remain minority opinion.

How can the WCC institution assure equitable participation for the Orthodox Churches in the decision-making processes of its governing bodies as well as the boards, commissions and advisory bodies? How can WCC avoid perpetuating a "majority-minority"? When these questions are answered, then, the other concerns of the Orthodox Churches relating to programmatic priorities will also have taken care of.

2. After presenting my topic, "By What means do we select, approve, monitor and own the agenda for the WCC 's programs, activities and concerns?" 1 would like to draw your attention to the words of my Patriarch H.H. Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East, one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches, during the meeting of the sub-committee 1 & IV in St. Ephrem theological Seminary in Ma'arat Saydnaya in Syria between 6 and 8 March 2000.

"We, as members, of the World Council of Churches, have to be good examples in respecting the rights and responsibilities of every other member Church in that body regardless of difference among us..

We, as members of different Churches come from various cultures and backgrounds. As a result, our minds are turned to view the same matter in different ways. Though we have been together for many years we still do not understand one another fully. But this is not a hurdle that we can not overcome. We all share the same doctrine of the Holy Trinity and we all accept our Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour and believe in eternal life through Him. So, if I consider myself as a true Christian who loves God and his neighbour should accept you as brothers and sisters in Christ even though you are from different Churches."

It is important to know that during the third meeting of the heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in the Middle East in Antelias Lebanon between 4 and 9 May 2000, the common declaration stated a long paragraph on World Council of Churches and the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC. This topic was discussed thoroughly and the Standing Committee of the Oriental Orthodox Churches presented their reports about this special commission. Ms. Teny Pirri Simonian, the Executive Secretary of Church and Ecumenical Relations, was officially invited to the meeting. These are the words concerning the special commission which represents the views of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

"We reaffirm our commitment to the ecumenical movement through the World Council of Churches and our serious engagement in the work of the special commission that aims at a greater Orthodox participation and role in the WCC".

Response to Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Metropolitan of Alepo
by Rev. Eugene Turner

I want to first thank Metropolitan Johanna Ibrahim for his thoughtful and helpful paper and have only a few comments to make.

The first is to appreciate his beginning and ending. In both instances he affirmed his church's commitment to the WCC and the ecumenical movement. These comments from the Metropolitan make clear that the Orthodox Churches of the Oriental family do not desire to disconnect from the ecumenical movement apparently because they know that they are part of it because Christ has made it so that we are all mandated to work for the unity of his Church.

The second comment is to note that Metropolitan Ibrahim identified the tension we face in the WCC on our lack of mutual understanding of the meaning of the WCC being a "fellowship of Churches". This issue has been discussed much during our sessions and it is clear that much work is needed to clarify whether we are Churches together or whether the Orthodox Churches view the rest of the fellowship as schismatics - meaning churches not in the apostolic stream. I will not say more here because we have discussed this topic extensiveley.

The third comment is on your reference to the CUV document. It is my understanding that the CUV final draft was considerably influenced by the Orthodox view. I appreciate the metropolitan's reference to the Document.

The fourth comment has to do with the Orthodox view of being placed in a permanent minority position in the WCC because of the voting. I have two thoughts. I regret that this view assumes that there can never be a time when Orthodox and Protestants can join each other on an issue in the Council. Having been a minority all of my life, I know what it feels like and how at times I assume the most negative consequences of my position because experience has taught me that it is possible for my view never to prevail; however this is regretable in both instances. At the same time, the WCC must address the issue of the voting situation of the Orthodox Churches in the WCC.

I appreciate the paper very much and its strong affirmation of the WCC and the ecumenical movement even Mar Ignatius Zakka II, Patriarch of Antioch's quote supporting the WCC and his church's close identity with it.

Response to Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Metropolitan of Aleppo
by Rev. Ofelia Ortega

We want to express a word of gratitude to Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim for his paper that reminds us the kind of spirituality that we need to keep in our dialogue.

1. First of all we would like to acknowledge his affirmation that the World Council of Churches has changed itself to respond to the changing realities in the world and within the member churches. This gives to us the real sense of the positive changes of the WCC during the last 50 years. The WCC has not been "static" during the whole ecumenical process. Of course, we need to realize that there are different challenging situations in many of our churches that require different responses today (for example: secularization, fundamentalism, and the new situation of the former socialist countries).

Nevertheless, the paper recognizes the need of the WCC to continue our commitment to the fellowship of churches in the ecumenical movement.

The dialogue is necessary if we consider that the World Council of Churches continues to be a relevant ecumenical instrument.

2. We agreed that we need to continue the analysis of the ecclesiological principles of our churches, defining which are the common practices at the organizational procedures that are not in harmony with these principles.

3. In the paper the CUV document is considered a very valid document for our discussions, especially because it reminds us the historical process that has enriched our ecumenical fellowship.

  • Conciliarity and Conciliar fellowship (Uppsala and Nairobi)
  • Eucharistic vision (Vancouver)
  • The unity of the Church as koinonia: Gift and Calling (Canberra) with three basic elements:
    • the quest for Christian unity
    • common witness
    • promotion of justice and peace

We could see throughout the whole ecumenical processes the Council as the fellowship of Churches on the way towards full koinonia.

4. In our way to select, approve, monitor and own the agenda for the WCC's programmes, activities and concerns the words of Patriarch H.H. Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East, one of the presidents of the presidents of the World Council of Churches, are of a deep significance because in his words there is a plea to accept our differences with great humility and love.

This guides us to continue our discussions about the issues mentioned in our background papers:

The Mode of Relationship
How do the churches that belong to the WCC do the communication of our ecumenical commitment to their local churches?

We need to share information with the base, and at the same time we need to have a proper communication from the local churches to the leadership above.

In other words, we need to encourage the development of mutual concerns about issues.

Furthermore, it has been affirmed on several occasions and in other documents the domination of western-northern cultures in our styles of work. We need to recognize that the WCC is integrated today with different churches from diverse cultures. The working methodologies sometimes did not reflect this reality.

We need to discover together which are the priorities of the churches and regions. These specific priorities of the regions are related with the profile and work of the regional councils.

For example: The Decade of the Churches to Overcome Violence will have different characteristics in the implementation of the program in each region.

We need to develop cooperative styles of work among the staff (the principles of integration and cooperation are fundamental); and ecumenical formation is basic to know and understand better the churches that belong to the WCC.

Quality of life
We are called to the fullness of life. This is related on one hand with the witness that the churches bring to the suffering world in favour of affirming life. On the other hand, it relates to the quality of relationship that we need to build among us. The essential elements for this quality of life are: solidarity, compassion and hospitality. We need to explore more the possibility to put into practice these concepts and sharing experiences when this is happening.

Mutual accountability
I like the way that key words could be mentioned to identify our mutual commitment.

Recognizing: their solidarity with each other

Assisting: each other in cases of need

Refraining: from actions incompatible with brotherly/sisterly relations

Entering: into spiritual relationship to learn from each other

Consulting: with each other

At the same time the use of biblical concepts of community and communion has helped us considerably in order to enrich the idea of "The unity of the church", which has been the basic emphasis of the WCC. Furthermore, today, in the search for unity, we have necessarily to come back to the biblical concept of koinonia and to aspire to fulfil in our ecclesiastic lives the spirit of communion in faith, witness and life of each local congregation and in each of our confessions.

The biblical passage of II Corinthians 8-9 has always helped me to understand the meaning of our conciliar fellowship (koinonia). It is a hermeneutical circle that begins with the grace of God to the churches of Macedonia and continues practicing and using the concepts of diakonia and koinonia within the deep fellowship among these churches, and ends with blessing, prayer and liturgy at the end of chapter 9.

And now, allow me to conclude with this prayer that is in the same tone of the presentation of Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim.

"God the Father, creator of justice and mercy,
God the Son, bringer of change and hope,
God the Holy Spirit, source of inspiration and help,
We ask your blessing on us, your pilgrim people,
Divided by our traditions,
yet united in longing to follow you.
Encourage us to face the millennium
in sorrow for our failings of the past,
in hope of a change of heart,
and in faith for a future
built on your Gospel of love.
(Churches together in Famborough, Surrey, UK)