World Council of Churches

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

Cultural factors in the encounter

18 March 1998

Zollikon/Geneva/Berne, 18 March 1998

This is the report of the second of two consultations organized by the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches and the institute "Glaube in der 2. Welt". These meetings brought together theologians and other specialists from Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches in Europe. These reports are relevant to Sub-committee II to the extent that some of the questions and dissatisfactions concerning "style and ethos" of life in the WCC can be traced to East-West cultural factors.

Cultural factors in the encounter between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Protestantism

...The work of this conference was based on seven reports of actual experiences demonstrating the diverse nature of the contacts existing between Orthodox and Protestant churches in Europe over the years. Both found expression: experiences of contacts developing in a positive way and of intensive cooperation, yet also experiences of difficulties, of deep-seated mistrust that caused cooperative efforts already under way to be broken off...

All the reports made one thing clear: Western Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy face each other as theologically and culturally quite different bodies, with their own histories and mentalities, which are not easily brought into congruence. Their theological approaches and their cultural conditioning are too dissimilar to allow easy understanding. Ecumenical rapprochement between Western Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy requires intense intercultural effort -- on both sides.

Fundamental questions

The discussion of the cultural factors that influence understanding between Western Protestant and Eastern Orthodox theology made it clear that the whole question is more complex than the usual talk about so-called non-theological factors would lead us at first to believe.

1. Theology and culture: Theology never occurs in pure form, free from all historical and cultural influence. The forms of language, thought and expression in which theological statements are made or liturgical acts carried out, as well as the manner and method of approach to theological questions, are always determined by culture. Both sides, Protestant and Orthodox, agree that the cultural forming of our respective churchly existence is basically changeable. But there are very considerable differences when it comes to defining what belongs to the innermost core of the gospel itself - therefore immutable - and which aspects of theology and liturgical practice are historically and culturally conditioned - thus in principle subject to change. In Western Protestant thought, especially since the rise of historical-critical study, the conditioned nature of theological statements has become the almost unquestioned assumption of theological work and of the churches' self-understanding. The differentiation between objective content and its culturally conditioned expression is very familiar. By contrast, Eastern Orthodox thought tends more strongly towards synthesis. Though it distinguishes between divine and human tradition, it would assign many things to unchangeable divine tradition which seem to Protestants to be clearly conditioned by culture and thus subject to critical questioning. Another difficulty must be kept in mind: even for Protestants it is not clear from the outset which things are to be regarded as culturally conditioned - and to what degree. Just where the boundary of the timeless and immutable runs is often worked out through historical-cultural processes and conflicts!

2. Intercultural hermeneutics and conflict research: These disciplines differentiate between basic, more or less unchangeable values and their historically and culturally conditioned concretions (in norms, doctrines, structures, etc.). Could it not be that many of the differences that exist between Orthodox and Protestants root not so much in their maintaining irreconcilable values as in their having drawn different cultural consequences from commonly held fundamental values? Is it unthinkable to regard the difficult ecumenical differences in such matters as the ordination of women, inclusive language or the ethical valuation of homosexuality as the differing historically and culturally conditioned concretions of basic values which Protestantism and Orthodoxy in fact share? Even though the Orthodox side did not respect this differentiation between fundamental "values" and cultural "norms" as a possible line of enquiry, it cannot be overlooked that such an approach rises primarily from Western thought-patterns and corresponds more to the Protestant than to the Orthodox mentality.

3. Dealing with tradition: In what has just been said lies part of the reason why Orthodox often have the impression that Protestants call the very foundations of the faith into question, while Protestants feel that the Orthodox are fixated on traditions from the distant past. The Eastern Orthodox and Western Protestant cultures have developed different ways of relating to tradition and its binding character. This applies also to the treatment of the Bible as the document which underlies Christian tradition. Both sides are aware in principle that both continuity with tradition and openness to modernization or even innovation are needful. This is expressed in Orthodoxy through the distinction between "holy tradition" and "churchly tradition". Protestantism tends more strongly to distinguish between scripture and. Tradition. Today's questions cannot be answered simply by applying the insights of the past. But the manner in which - within the Tradition - new questions in new cultural contexts have been approached may give guidance to the search for answers to today's problems. In the knowledge that tradition and contemporary relevance belong together, the ecumenical task is to learn from each other: Protestants can gain from the Orthodox a deeper understanding of the continuity and authenticity of the tradition; Orthodox can let themselves be encouraged by Protestants to venture upon new ways in the confrontation with contemporary culture.

All these differences should be kept in mind whenever attempts are made to formulate common theological statements. The differing Orthodox and Protestant ideas about adequate ways of "doing" theology or ethics must be taken seriously. And the ideas about what constitutes a "good" ecumenical text differ accordingly.

Promoting understanding

Several points, primarily non-theological or non-dogmatic, crystallized out of the lectures, reports and the discussion on basic questions of intercultural communication, which, if regarded, would make the meeting of Western Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy easier.

1. Behaviour patterns: Patterns of social behaviour are classic examples of differing cultural influences. How one behaves properly towards others, how one shows respect for another, how one behaves towards an ecclesiastical dignitary, how the younger behave towards the older, how men behave towards women - each culture regulates these matters in its own way. This must be remembered in ecumenical contacts. Whereas a young Protestant woman may freely contradict her bishop or church president in public, this would not be proper in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. And when Orthodox laypersons kiss their bishop's hand, the gesture cannot simply be identified with the servility which Western Protestants tend to see in it; it is rather a mark of honour for an office which is in the service of God's presence in the church. In ecumenical contacts it is very important to gain a clear awareness of the different cultures' understandings of social behaviour patterns and to respect each other in these differences.

2. Admitting weaknesses: All too often participants in ecumenical conferences feel tempted to present an ideal picture of their own church and to mention only the strengths of their own traditions. Our plea, on the other hand, is for an ecumenical conversation in which there is enough sensitivity, trust and openness that we no longer need to conceal the problems and negative aspects of our own churches. Only where there is freedom to admit the weaknesses of one's own group can an ecumenical relationship develop which reduces mutual anxieties and makes room for fruitful and trusting cooperation. This sort of openness might mean for the Western Protestant side, for instance, to speak honestly about the negative effects on our churches and societies of the Enlightenment, secularism and liberalism and to acknowledge the currents of thought within Protestantism which are basically opposed to the Enlightenment. Such openness might mean for the Orthodox side, for instance, a critical consideration of the problematic aspects of close identification of the church with a nation or ethnic group.

3. Promoting personal contacts: Ecumenical understanding depends essentially and primarily on the quality of human contacts. Positive, friendly encounters among Christians of Protestant and Orthodox traditions at all levels should be promoted. Visiting back and forth and the establishment of partnerships at the congregational or regional level, exchange of personnel and cooperation in joint projects should be supported in every possible way. Conflict research has shown that deep-seated prejudices: cannot as a rule be overcome by rational information or theological consensus, but only through positive encounters among people, through common experience and common effort. We should, therefore seek ways and means to express respect and honour towards each other in spite of our differences, according to the apostolic admonition to "regard others as better than yourselves" (Phil. 23). Only when we have learned to show respect for each other are the conditions given under which we can enter into a critical conversation with each other.

4. Reciprocal relationships: Relationships can only succeed over a longer period if they are reciprocal. It is especially important to recognize this in a relationship strongly marked by material help by the one side for the other. If the one partner is dependent on the other and always under the obligation of gratitude, the relationship easily develops a problematic slant. It is therefore important to look for ways in which the relationships between Western Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches could be so arranged that a mutual exchange (material, intellectual, cultural, religious) and a reciprocal sharing of interest and concern would be possible.

5. Preparing contacts: Much attention should be given to the careful preparation of visitors' groups, conference delegations and participants in exchange programmes for their encounter with the other church and the unfamiliar confessional culture, and to making them sensitive to the questions of intercultural understanding. Such preparation begins with very elementary aspects: with information about the furnishings of churches, for example, or the meaning of liturgical elements, appropriate clothing and behaviour in worship services, etc. A lack of such information can easily lead to mutual offence and to a hardening of existing prejudices. The aim should be to promote individual ecumenical maturity - a maturity which enables a person honestly to maintain his or her own opinion and to advocate it with conviction, but always with the willingness to understand, to take seriously and to learn from the experiences and way of life of the other confession. An openness is needed that does not simply assume one's own questions and insights to be the central concerns of all the other ecumenical partners, but is instead able to enter upon matters which are important to the others, even though they have less weight in one's own mind.

6. Churches in the minority situation: It is apparent that churches which find themselves in a minority situation, to whichever confession they belong, are often more flexible over against other minority churches than are churches which form the majority within their own contexts. Special care should be taken in the ecumenical movement to hear and consider seriously the voice and experience of such minority churches - which may themselves be in the majority in another context. They can fulfil a bridge function and, for example, help their mother churches where they are the religious majority - to be more open and sensitive in their dealings with the minority churches in their sphere.

7. Methodology at ecumenical meetings: In ecumenical bodies and assemblies a parliamentary style is common which bears a strong Anglo-Saxon stamp; for those from the Orthodox cultural context this is a strange way to proceed. These methods seem inappropriate to them especially when dealing with theological themes. And only to a limited degree has it been possible to bring about an intensive participation of the Orthodox churches in the development of projects in the forms that have become customary in the ecumenical movement... The Orthodox methods of developing and appropriating ecclesiastical or theological texts differ from those of Western Protestantism. Evidently our ecumenical methodologies are still too Western and Protestant. For that reason we support all efforts to find a style of ecumenical work which would be more in keeping with the Eastern Orthodox culture.

Membership in ecumenical organizations

1. Ecclesiology and ecumenism: We note that difficulties arise again and again from differences in the understanding of what membership in ecumenical bodies (CEC or WCC, for instance) means, especially in the living and working together of Protestant and Orthodox churches. We state therefore: membership in the CEC or the WCC does not require any church to compromise its ecclesiological convictions. These ecumenical organizations seek no ecclesial character for themselves. Instead they offer a structure in which churches of differing ecclesial self-understandings may meet, confer together and cooperate in solidarity in diverse projects. On the other hand we find it desirable that we should consider anew how committed we are as churches to taking each other seriously within the framework of the CEC or the WCC. Fruitful ecumenical relationships are only possible if churches enter seriously into dialogue and encounter with other churches which may be theologically and culturally foreign to them. Ecumenism is impossible without conscious acceptance of such constructive confrontation with partners who in many respects seem foreign and incomprehensible to us. We should be at work' within our own churches to foster an attitude of ecumenical openness and commitment without ecclesiological compromise.

2. Proselytism: Another question which strains relations between Protestantism and Orthodoxy is that of proselytism. We wish to see this problem analyzed carefully and the resulting conflicts solved. But the indiscriminate accusation addressed to the Protestant churches that they are responsible for proselytizing activities in the traditionally Orthodox countries is not productive. Problems in this area can only be solved in a serious and ecumenically responsible manner when it can be stated precisely which activities by which groups at what place have caused irritation. As a rule, the groups responsible for these activities are not the Protestant churches associated with CEC and WCC. In fact, the Western Protestant churches are confronted in their own countries with a large number of free evangelistic groups, not associated with ecumenical agencies, some of which are at work to form their own congregations.

3. Ecumenical goals: The Orthodox churches joined the ecumenical organizations in order to work within them towards the restoration of the unity of the church. Until now their chief interest within the ecumenical movement has been in the work of Faith and Order; for them the missionary and social-ethical concerns of the movement do not have the same priority. On the other hand, there is a lessening of interest on the part of many Western Protestant churches living in a post-modern context in church unity by means of doctrinal consensus. For them questions in the areas of justice, peace and the integrity of creation or inter-religious themes carry greater weight. This may contribute to alienation between Orthodox and Protestant churches within the ecumenical movement. Yet in a comprehensive understanding of ecumenism the one set of concerns should not be played off against the other.

In sum, it seems to us that the words of the moderator of the central committee of the WCC, Armenian Orthodox Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia, are especially relevant "We should have the courage to accept each other as we are. Let us not claim that we can or must change each other... We should know how to accept each other and live with our differences. In fact, honest recognition of our differences is a source of strength, confidence and growth" (report to the central committee, Sept. 1997, reprinted in The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 49, No. 4, Oct. 1997, pp.512f.).