World Council of Churches

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

Damascus: report of sub-committee IV

01 March 2000

Damascus, Syria, March, 2000

Sub-committee IV was asked by the Special Commission to engage in evaluation of "Existing models and new proposals for a structural framework for the WCC, including specifically the following issues: (a) various proposals and ideas which are emerging for expressing ecumenical fellowship, (b) options for review of the organization of the WCC, (c) the relationship of various models of "Forum" to the structure of the WCC, and (d) ramifications of parallel ecumenical movements outside of the WCC and parallel structures within the WCC. Sub-committee IV recognized the potential for overlap between the work of sub-committee I and sub-committee IV and deferred to sub-committee I all concrete discussion of specific modes of membership, issues of representation and methods of decision-making within the current framework of the WCC. Sub-committee IV understands its separate mandate evaluating alternative models that might be considered by the WCC, if necessary, to address the concerns that form the mandate for the Special Commission and a vision for future sustainability of the organization.

The work of sub-committee IV began with a review of presentations prepared by sub-committee members. These included an outline by Professor John Briggs of the historical context in which the work of the Special Commission is being undertaken; papers prepared by Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson and Rev. Dr. Georges Tsetsis reflecting on a vision for the future of the WCC; and by Bishop Voitto Huotari and Anne Glynn-Mackoul reflecting on the specific proposal of Metropolitan Kirill for a possible structure of the WCC (The Ecumenical Review 51.iv (Oct. 1999), 351-354). Members of the committee participated, together with the participants of Sub-committee I, in a panel on the various models of organization adopted by a selected group of ecumenical organizations, regional and national. Discussion was engaged on the comments of Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Ephesus (Morges Documents, pp. 15-16) at points (3) and (4) regarding parallel ecumenical movements and parallel ecumenical structures within the WCC.

The sub-committee discussed and considered the historical background for the conversation and understood the historical foundations of the Orthodox unease with the status quo. It also considered the responses of Wesley Granberg-Michaelson and Georges Tsetsis to the call for a visionary reflection. Wesley's An Ecumenical Vision described the ecumenical movement in 2054, a half century from this term of the WCC and at the 1,000 year anniversary of the date generally held to formalize the schism of the western church from the east. Discussion recognized that among the concrete expectations expressed might be an ecumenical movement that includes the widest possible Christian participation, including the Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, and the widest possible diversity, with strengthened links to the REOs. There was recognition of the prophetic voice as absolutely critical to the institution and growth of the WCC.

For his part, Fr. Georges emphasized that before radical restructuring was considered, the CUV needs to be reread, and the constitutional Basis appreciated, as to whether they provide sufficient and unequivocal direction for the churches. Discussion considered whether the constitutional changes adopted in Harare and the CUV (wherein the churches and not the Council are the main actors) had yet been felt, and whether they had in fact been implemented throughout the staff and within the ethos of the WCC. The existence of this Special Commission was affirmed as one example of the CUV at work, but the words of the CUV need to be given "flesh". This reflection that the current structure, if fully implemented, provides a vision for successful interaction which drew our group to give closer attention to the need for fuller implementation of the CUV and its vision for the council.

I. Basic principles of global ecumenical fellowship

Initial discussion resulted in a general acknowledgment that the current structure of the WCC is at best perhaps stale - constructed for a different circumstance -- and, at worst, out of touch with the priorities and direction to be provided by the member churches. The sub-committee even questioned whether there continues to be a role or purpose for a world ecumenical organization of the Christian churches. There was also discussion of the fact that perhaps the extent of the current programme initiatives need to be streamlined - reducing these in quantity but enhancing them in quality - though without losing the dynamic quality that calls churches to account.

The following principles were commended to the Special Commission to guide longer-range reflection on future ecumenical structures:

  1. There continues to be a demonstrated need for fellowship among the Christian churches at the world level in order to continue the witness and service of the Christian churches in and to the world. These include, for example, the important work moving towards visible unity of the churches, global efforts on behalf of human rights and diaconal aid. The council offers to other global agencies like the United Nations a common expression of the concerns of the Christian churches and the prophetic voice supplied by a global witness to Christianity in a secular world.

  2. The World Council of Churches cannot for very much longer continue to maintain a model based solely upon individual member churches each in its own right. The current model of representation and governance does not offer an adequate organizational basis to serve the future of ecumenical interaction by the Christian churches.

  3. A world-wide ecumenical instrument needs to be devised (a) which will be widely inclusive of the various traditions that comprise all of the world's Christian communities, (b) through which the churches will continue to call each other to greater faithfulness in the Gospel, and (c) within which the integrity of the ecclesiologies of the individual member churches will be protected.

  4. The WCC as envisioned would include strong interactive links with REOs on all levels.

  5. The existing and emerging models of regional ecumenical organizations and national councils of churches provide patterns that inform the search for an appropriate global instrument.

II. Forum models

The sub-committee considered that the term "forum" is used in several distinct, though related, proposals and conciliar models. For example, the "forum" discussed in Harare, ("Proposals regarding a Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organization" and "Report of PRC I", cf. Damascus Dossier, pp.45-49) constitutes one proposal. A second model is the "churches together" model which describes a different reality. A third model is the "forum" proposed by Metropolitan Kirill. These models ought not to be conflated or confused with one another. The forum concept as affirmed in Harare envisioned a series of occasional gatherings of Christian churches - not necessarily member churches nor necessarily all of the current member churches of the WCC - and ecumenical organizations in order to provide the opportunity for "worship, exploration of matters of common Christian concern and development of enhanced mutual understanding … not conceived as decision-making, programme initiating or document-producing (pp. 45-46). This model is based upon the concept of participation rather than membership. Metropolitan Kirill uses the term "forum" as a designation of a second standing chamber of the WCC which would allow some churches to participate without incurring the formal obligations of membership.

a. Bicameral proposal by Metropolitan Kirill
The sub-committee considered two papers reflecting upon Metropolitan Kirill's proposal for a forum chamber to be attached to the current structure of the WCC and recognized with gratitude the great benefit to the work of the sub-committee of having a concrete proposal in order to focus the discussion of alternative models. The visionary aspect of the Russian bicameral approach is that it provides the WCC with a way to maintain its current structure and character while providing a separate chamber for those churches who would like to remain active in the work of the WCC but are prevented from doing so. The background for and concrete description of this "bicameral" proposal were fully explored by the sub-committee. It recognized that the stated benefit of the proposal might have to be revisited if the work of the other sub-committees does not result in a revived WCC that includes consideration of those concerns. Some questions were raised regarding the practical results of initiating a two-chamber structure, with its attendant diffusion of authority and control and the potential for losing the direct links with the authority of the member churches.1

The division of matters between the first "council" and the second "forum" chambers seems problematic. The first chamber would "discuss problems of concern for member churches" and "seek ways of solving them", including "the most acute and challenging problems faced by churches of various traditions". This chamber would retain the current Basis for membership and the current representational model of participation, democratic decision-making and rules of procedure. The second chamber would assume the task of working for the restoration of Christian unity, but also have responsibility for discussion of "mission, religious education, diakonia, human rights, political and global issues". The questions raised by this structure are (i) what is the real distinction between the agendas of the first and second chambers and (ii) how can a forum which demands less commitment achieve more ecumenically than a council which demands more commitment?

If the proposal of Metropolitan Kirill is revisited the sub-committee recommends that the questions raised by the papers prepared for the current meeting be revisited and that the additional question be considered as to whether a pattern requiring different levels of votes (majority, super-majority, consensus, unanimity) might allow a one-chamber structure to operate with greater protection for minority positions than now exists.

The sub-committee recognized that the current structure of the WCC provides at least two opportunities for limited involvement by churches that are not otherwise members or full members: (a) in the Commission on Faith and Order; and (b) as an associate member church (Rule I.5.a.2 approved by the Eighth Assembly provides for a new category of associate membership). Another possibility would be to include in the Rules a new category that would allow churches to hold observer membership in the WCC.

Arising out of the discussion of Metropolitan Kirill's proposal was the additional concern to find further ways of engaging the churches in the most tangible and visible fashion. It is therefore suggested that occasional meetings of the heads of churches be convened on an informal basis.

b. "Churches Together" as a model of Forum
A different model of forum, known as the "churches together" model, is represented by the examples of the National Council of Churches of Australia, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and its associated national bodies, and the Canadian Council of Churches, which were presented at the joint panel discussion. The Canadian model was also presented for discussion during the deliberations of Sub-committee IV. All of these models share a "consensus" approach to decision making, with the authoritative responsibility thus residing in the individual churches or families of churches. This means that they also share the feature that the agenda is one hundred percent the responsibility of the member churches rather than under the governance of permanent conciliar institutions.

The models differ, however, in that only the Canadian model understands "consensus" of the authentic voice of the council to mean one hundred percent accord, with member churches being able to "opt-in or opt-out" of any programme or decision; those programmes and decisions which have a less than complete consensus can be facilitated by the Canadian Council but not in the name of the CCC, a methodology which makes free and full participation by Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church feasible and effective.

Sub-committee IV looked with considerable interest at this Canadian example, but realized that because of differences in both size and complexity of the WCC the Canadian model could not be copied directly. At the same time, the sub-committee noted with approval not just the consensus model of decision-making in the Canadian approach, but also the ethos of respect and responsibility which it entailed. Sub-committee IV also discussed the difference in modus operandi resulting from the Canadian acceptance of "opt-in, opt-out" in contrast to its absence in the other "churches together" models.

In particular the sub-committee believed that "families of churches" which accurately reflected the realities of individual member churches - along the lines of the MECC - can offer a way to think about a consensus-forum approach. Bearing in mind the questions raised in the context of Metropolitan Kirill's proposal, the sub-committee affirmed the need for fully exploring models for the WCC in which membership is organized according to families or other groupings of churches. This must recognize, however, the challenge of the many forms of self-definition of Protestant and other churches, and the reality of regional cohesion and other factors as essential to a church's self-definition.

c. The "Forum" proposal as presented to the Harare Assembly
The idea of a "Forum" originally emerged within the WCC's development of the Common Understanding and Vision. Central to the "Forum" proposal has been finding a way to bring together a broad representation of the world's Christian "families," voices, and traditions - including the Roman Catholic Church, and Pentecostal and Evangelical churches - in common discussion and interaction. Further, such a Forum was not conceived of as a way for WCC member churches to find an alternative, less demanding option to their present ecumenical involvement.

The Eighth Assembly affirmed the search for a "more effective, more sustaining, more inclusive network of relationships among churches and ecumenical organizations," while referring further action to the Central Committee. Work now continues to consult with potential participants and take the next steps toward initiating such a "Forum." If implemented, the Forum could provide an ecumenical space for an inclusive gathering of Christian churches and organizations, to deepen relationships and allow for a sharing of insights and experiences.

The sub-committee views the exploration of such a Forum as a vital contribution to the wider ecumenical task. It may enable possibilities of future ecumenical relationships that would not be as readily achieved through the WCC. Nevertheless, the search for such a Forum should not dilute attention at present for the urgent need to strengthen the capacity of the WCC to engage its member churches in deeper fellowship. The Forum is not an "alternative" to the WCC, but rather part of the longer-range search for expressing the one ecumenical calling which all member churches of the WCC already share.

III. Considerations

Sub-committee IV identified the following issues to be given further consideration as its work proceeds, relative to any restructuring - radical or minor - including adoption of any one of the various models for a "forum" proposed or under consideration:

  1. The sub-committee urged full implementation of the constitutional changes adopted in Harare and the CUV by the member churches in order to complete the process of reflecting a heightened sense of accountability to one another, and particularly the concerns of the Orthodox member churches.

  2. The sub-committee recognized and appreciated the far-reaching (and often painful) restructuring undergone at staff level in recent years, the main goals of which were to achieve greater coherence to programmatic work, and more deliberate and long-term planning. Yet it was strongly felt that further review and rethinking was necessary at staff level in order fully to implement the CUV, and especially the constitutional changes adopted in Harare. Such a further process, which would need to include training programmes, would be aimed at helping the staff interiorize these changes, integrating them into the process of envisioning, devising and implementing programmes such that they would be fully expressive of the priorities of the churches. The management model for the WCC should guard against the potential disconnection between decisions taken by churches (through the governing bodies) and initiation and implementation by staff. This disconnection is a factor in the current discomfort experienced by Orthodox and others with the direction and ethos of the WCC.

  3. Although the proposals of Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Ephesus at 1(e) (Morges Documents, pp. 13-14) were formally assigned to the agenda of Sub-committee I, Sub-committee IV took the opportunity to discuss this matter as well. The following recommendation was forwarded to Sub-committee I, which did not have time to discuss it:2
    The sub-committee believed that there would be merit in asking the Executive Committee to consider establishing an informal working group or ad hoc committee to address issues of special concern to the Orthodox arising out of the agendas of the executive and central committees. Such a committee would have equal membership of Orthodox and non-Orthodox and could include both members of the governing bodies and others. The governing bodies should be able to refer matters to it for advice; moreover the committee would be able to suggest matters for the attention of the governing bodies. This committee should be constituted as soon as possible and its mandate should continue until the work of the Special Commission has concluded, at which point the work of the committee should be reevaluated.
  4. In response to points 3(a) and (b) of the paper of Metropolitan Chrysostomos presented at Morges (pp. 15-16) the sub-committee affirms its belief that the WCC should continue to be an agency of the life of the Christian churches in its membership, whilst it needs to make its witness in a divided world. Its particular mission is to work for the unity of the Christian churches both for its own sake and as a witness and a sign to the world.


  1. In specific, questions raised about the bicameral nature of the proposed structure, and the family model of representation it entails, included the following: What or who is church? What constitutes a "confessional family"? How can "confessional families" best organize themselves, represent their constituent member churches, and speak with authority? Does movement into a "family of churches" structure represent ecumenical progress? Is a bicameral structure an improvement in clarity, authority and accountability? Would institution of a bicameral structure in fact resolve the underlying issues of concern to the Orthodox churches?

  2. The proposal is mentioned and supported in the paper of Jean Fischer contributed to Sub-Committee I; cf. p. 28 above (Ed.).