by Bishop Vasilios (Karayiannis) of Trimithus

Documents from Sub-committee III
(Chania, Crete, August, 2000)

A. Introductory remarks

During the 20th century, the Orthodox church has progressively become an active member of the ecumenical movement, particularly through the World Council of Churches (WCC). The Orthodox Church's participation is characterised by two features. The first is its awareness of being the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.1 Through its worship, tradition, theology, spirituality and its orthodox faith, the Orthodox Church reveals its uninterrupted historical and apostolic nature. The second feature has to do with its acute sense of responsibility for the quest for the unity of the Church.

Given these foundations -- the self-identification of the Orthodox Church with the Una Sancta, and the principle that all believers in Christ ought to be one flock under one shepherd, who is Christ -- the Orthodox Church's active participation in the ecumenical movement is not unconditional: its essential and unique objective in the ecumenical movement is the unity of all believers in Christ, in the Orthodox faith and the mystery of communion.2.

This is the basic criterion which predetermines the attitude of the Orthodox church within the WCC and other ecumenical organisations, as well as in bilateral theological dialogues; this is the ecclesiastical and theological framework in which unity is to be reached. It is no different from the criterion for the unity of the Church during the first Christian millennium, where the definitions of orthodox faith were set at the seven ecumenical councils, and were lived in the tradition of the Church. This position sustains the Orthodox Church ecclesiastically, and at the same time prevents it from drawing nearer to the other Christian confessions, whose ecclesiastic life, faith and tradition do not fall within this criterion.

Nevertheless, the decision of the Orthodox Church to participate in the ecumenical movement is not arbitrary. The Orthodox church must abide by the decisions and definitions of the seven first ecumenical councils, as well as the council under Patriarch Photius (879-880) 3 and one of the "Palamite Councils" (1453). But the life, the tradition and the conciliar experience of the Orthodox Church is not inert, and we ought not to be accused of "traditionalism", inhibiting or rejecting the present in favour of the past. Tradition is the continuous and uninterrupted life of the Church, ever rejuvenated by the Holy Spirit.

Thus the participation of the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement is characterised by certain clear conditions. Yet in our modern reality, this participation should not be taken for granted as something painless. Various groups are labelled, unhelpfully, as either "ecumenical" or "anti-ecumenical", as "traditional" or "liberal", "conservative" and so on. In fact, the Church encompasses a certain pluralism of thought, expression, perception regarding matters that deal with its life. In the Orthodox world today there are many and various assessments as to the necessity and the scope of its participation in the ecumenical movement, and as to the results reached up to now by its participation in that movement. Within the range of expressions and evaluations, there is a criticism exerted by the Orthodox side -- e.g., the text of the inter-orthodox meeting in Thessaloniki (1998) -- in assessing the extent to which the objectives and the prerequisites of the Orthodox Church have been fulfilled by its participation in the WCC. Taking all this into account, we shall endeavour to provide the most representative picture of the Orthodox position and reactions, without using overly flowery or diplomatic language, but at the service of the truth.

B. Some theological, ecclesiastical problems and issues that lead us to be concerned about the participation of the Orthodox churches to the WCC

After fifty years of their (at times hesitant) participation, the Orthodox have been questioning lately in a more precise and deliberate manner the ways in which the WCC has been faithful to its initial objectives. In all honestly, the feeling has been that in the greatest part of its activities and decisions the WCC does not meet the conditions which would justify the presence of Orthodox delegates. Furthermore, there are no evident hopes for the accomplishment of the objective of ecclesiastical union. To this day, Orthodox spokespersons feel out of place when confronted with the de facto "ecumenical attitude", the actual programmes and activities of the WCC, the theological orientations, the decision-making processes (which ultimately impede Orthodox participation because of its built-in minority delegation) and because of the choice of defiant and dividing theological and moral issues, and so on.

The theological, ecclesiastical issues and difficulties as regards to the participation of the Orthodox Church at the WCC can be summarised as follows:

1. Common prayer
The issue of common prayer during ecumenical meetings is a more serious problem that it might seem, for several reasons.  

  1. Formal canons prohibit priests from common prayer with heretics. "Let any Bishop, or Presbyter, or deacon that merely joins in prayer with heretics be suspended, but if he had permitted them to perform any service as Clergymen, let him be deposed" (Apostolic Canon 45). Laodicea Canon 34 sounds an even stricter note in its contents and formulation: "No Christian shall forsake the martyrs of Christ, and turn to false martyrs, that is, to those of the heretics, or those who formerly were heretics; for they are aliens from God. Let those, therefore, who go after them, be anathema." 44

    However, there are comments to be made about the nature of these canons and their application today:

    1. The first general remark, which is not confined only to the present matter, is that the function of canons in the conscience and in the life of the Orthodox Church is to dictate the Orthodox attitude when the Church is confronted to certain matters at certain times.
    2. Moreover, there is always a distinction between the letter and the spirit of the canons, i.e., the methodology of interpretation and application of the canons. This insures that the canons do not function anachronistically, in such a way as to mistake the issues arising at one time with those of another time. A distinction exists also between strict canonical application and "economy", wherein canons can be applied taking into account the actual situation at hand. "Economy" does not mean overlooking canons but rather enforcing them within the establishment of the Church in a spirit of compassion, and bearing in mind the salvation of all concerned.
    3. The terms "heretic" and "heresy" have been charged with a wide range of meanings. Reverting to its etymology, the term "heresy", as is widely known, denotes the "selection of one part from the whole". Consequently, the conscious selection or rejection of one particular form of teaching of Christianity created numerous schisms. To select one part instead taking a holistic approach to the canonical and doctrinal definitions, is to place oneself beyond the canonical limits of the Church. While the term "heretic" (and all its cognates) has been charged with a solely negative and simplistic meaning, few efforts have been made to correct or analyse its true meaning. Consequently its use tends to disappear, and we might add that it has already disappeared completely within the ecumenical movement.
  2. This situation relates to another issue relevant to the question of "common prayer". Even if the term "heresy" is abandoned, the selecting out of one ecclesiastical experience, one distinctive manner or faith tradition of one confessional family, creates a particular ecclesiastical attitude and way of life. This is obvious when comparing the traditions of the Protestant Churches with those of the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church.
  3. Prayer, or common prayer, is more than simply a sociological phenomenon, or a good deed. Rather, prayer pertains to the essential relationship of man with God; it is that which creates the association of peace and love among the members of the praying Christian assembly. It also confirms the correctness of one's faith.
  4. Many Orthodox people believe, on one hand, that "ecumenical" prayer does not satisfy the above prerequisites, as it constitutes an amalgam of elements originating from all traditions. When these elements are placed outside the predetermined context of the praying community or church -- putting it as mildly as one can -- they are reduced to a kind of folklore and have nothing to do with the essence of prayer. On the other hand, "ecumenical prayer", due to its lack of common ecclesiastical foundation, becomes in many cases a kind of theatrical presentation, which in an absence of sacramental, spiritual and ecclesiological and ecclesiastical character often offends Orthodox people in their perception of what prayer is.
  5. The issue of "common prayer" is the preamble to the question of intercommunion, as promoted by some circles within the ecumenical movement. The position of the Orthodox Church has always been clear on this matter. Participation in the eucharistic assembly of a church (as does participation in common prayer) implies common faith. It also implies a certain common ecclesiastical life of the eucharistic assembly, of which indeed the eucharist itself is the climax. Moreover, the practise of common prayer, as well as intercommunion, can ultimately be an anachronistic practise which weakens or relativises essential tenets of faith and ecclesiastical life.

2. Expression of faith and cultural differences
The issue of prayer in ecumenical assemblies leads to a second crucial concern. As we mentioned at the outset, the objective and the intention of the ecumenical movement and the foundation of the WCC follows the encyclical of Patriarch Ioakim III:

It is a truism that the holy catholic and apostolic Church … is indeed one in identity of faith and similarity of manners and customs, in unison with the decisions of the seven Ecumenical Councils, and she must be one and not many differing from each other in dogmas and fundamental institutions of ecclesiastical government.

But instead of applying the basic principle of the unique and common confession of the Orthodox faith for all believers in Christ, it appears that another practice has prevailed. It is quite clear, for instance, from theological texts of the Faith and Order Commission, differing expressions of faith are legitimised under the heading of "cultural diversity". In the text "Towards Sharing the One Faith", Churches are invited, on the principle of diversity, to recognise that all have the apostolic faith, which is shared and accepted by all Christians, irrespective of their confession of origin (cf., e.g., para. 17).

For the sake of the Orthodox at least, the term "diversity" ought to be clarified, in order to be clear as to where the principle of healthy diversity can be applied and where it cannot. The insistence without distinction on the "variety of ways of confessing the faith" (para. 30) not only perpetuates the separations and schisms but also encourages the continuous multiple divisions of the Church. What is more, the same text (para. 25) states that in the ancient Church, the quest and development of common expressions of faith went without saying.

3. Acceptance of new members within the WCC
The Orthodox believe that there has been a modification in the initial intention, objective, structure and function of the WCC, due to an incautious acceptance of new member-churches that do not comply with the necessary ecclesiastical requirements. We are speaking of ecclesiastical requirements which not only constitute a criterion but also constitute a constant element in the unity which is sought. An eloquent example can be found in the case of the Donatists at the Synod of Carthage (AD 411), with regard to the following:

  1. With its 92nd Canon this synod first legitimated the idea of dialogue with those in schism, under the Gospel imperative to make peace on behalf of the "sons of God".
  2. The synod also identified certain requirements as principles of participation in the dialogue, based on evangelical love and on truth of the faith. According to these principles, it invited the Donatists to respectively determine an equal number of representatives for the dialogue.
  3. The objective of the dialogue was clearly defined. It was the re-uniting of the divided society in the Church, specifically for the salvation of souls "lest through the animosity of men, weak souls, and ignorant people should perish by sacrilegious division" (Canon 92).
  4. Another essential goal of the council was that Donatists reacquire their orthodox faith and the canonical, ecclesiastical structure of the "catholic" (Orthodox) Church. 5

If we take the attitude of the Synod of Carthage and the dialogue with the hard-positioned heretical Donatists -- an attitude that reflected the seriousness of its goals of unity, ecclesiastical conscience and evangelical love -- as exemplary, or as a criterion, it follows that the work being accomplished through the WCC does not meet this criterion. In WCC texts and studies, the Church is seen as a human civil institution, revealed in different cultural expressions. There is even the attempt to "theologically" interpret and legitimize divisions under the principle of a "healthy plurality". To Orthodox consciousness this can appear tantamount to a rejection of the Church, and as such is a matter of indignation.

For its part, the Orthodox Church has the legitimate right to demand the "ecclesiopoiesis" of the others in the fellowship. The participants in the fellowship must somehow take up this challenge and trend; they should not avoid it, trying to find refuge in social activism, in the so-called multiform cultural expressions of faith and so on.

Related to the issue of membership in the WCC, is the acceptance, without distinction, or the attempted efforts for acceptance of groups who are notoriously known for proselytism exerted at the expense of the Orthodox Church, as well as against other Churches.

4. Women's ordination
Of course, the WCC is not to be held responsible for the development of the institution of women's ordination. This is exclusively a matter relevant to the churches themselves. What upsets the Orthodox is their perception of the de facto acceptance of women's ordination on behalf of the WCC, allowing, moreover, provocative attempts to promote women's ordination. The additional difficulty for the Orthodox churches is due to the de facto situation, which invariably places the Churches in the unpleasant situation, wholly or partially, of non-participation in the "ecumenical" prayers because of the aforementioned reasons of the participation of women in the episcopal or priestly rank. We do not mean to imply a refusal to engage in theological dialogue on this very matter. But it is not, deontologically, correct to be first confronted with a situation, and then be asked to discuss about it. This is all the more so when the discussion deals with a matter which divides the fellowship of the ecclesiastical members of the WCC, among whom are the very same churches that have proceeded towards this direction, such as the Anglican Church.

5. Programmatic priorities of the WCC
The programmatic priorities of the Faith and Order Commission, as presented at its Standing Commission meeting in Toronto, Canada (15 - 24 June 1999) and ratified by the following meeting of the WCC Central Committee, are of extreme importance, theologically speaking. But even here, as elsewhere, the Orthodox spokespersons are always in a difficult position regarding matters that cause divisions and oppositions in the church fellowship of the WCC, as, for instance, the issue of homosexuality. This constituted a particularly conflictual issue when, at the General Assemblies of the WCC and of the Council of European Churches (CEC), in unacceptable and evident ways, this sexual particularity was presented and featured in the programme of the Assembly. Such issues are causes of concern for the flock, and their remedy belongs within the respective churches. It is not possible to have them turned into rules of general behaviour, nor to be included in the WCC programmatic agenda.

More broadly, Orthodox spokespersons are disappointed when they see the gravity and priority given to social issues -- surely necessary, but not at the expense of the theological quest for the unity of churches.

6. The applied methodology in theological issues
Among the most serious issues which are being re-examined and redefined, is the way in which the WCC discusses or arrives at theological and ecclesiastical positions. I am not just referring to the prepared documents or to clever manipulation within the governing bodies. I am also referring to an underlying and also obvious methodology which tends to cultivate either a notion of the Church, or a notion of unity, in a very different manner from that of the Orthodox.

Here is one example that can clarify my point: the Basis of the WCC constitution, as well as many WCC texts, features the expression "visible unity" of the Church. To our perception, this expression is, if not dangerous, then potentially quite deceptive and unfortunately unfounded, even though it has been accepted by many Orthodox. Particularly bearing in mind all that has been mentioned earlier relative to "diversity" in the expressions of faith, the expression "visible unity" implies the existence of an "invisible unity", so that what remains necessary is only the visible, sociological unity of the Church and nothing else. Whereas to the Orthodox perception, the objective of the WCC and its entire raison d'être is the unity of faith in the Church, and unity in the sacrament of communion. More examples could be presented, such as the explanations which can be found of the concept of Tradition and traditions, the so-called "ecumenical interpretation", where it is requested of the churches to interpret expressions of faith with some flexibility. 6

C. Conclusion

We have mentioned these concerns even as the Orthodox Church repeats insistently that its ecclesiological principles do not imply a fossilised traditionalism. Rather, the faith, ecclesiological principles, canonical and liturgical structure of the Orthodox church constitute the continuation of the undivided Church of the first millennium. Therefore, in the relationship between the Orthodox and other churches in the WCC, the principle of reciprocity should prevail. The non-Orthodox Churches demand that the Orthodox recognise the "orthodoxy" of their faith. For this to happen, the Orthodox Church, in turn, requests from them the application of their criteria of faith, tradition, ecclesiology, canonical and liturgical tradition. It is not possible to confine the ecclesiological structure of Christianity in the interpretation of the Scriptures alone and overlook the life and centuries-long tradition of the Church.


  1. E.g., Decisions Of The Third Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference On The Orthodox Church And The Ecumenical Movement; cf. Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism, ed. Gennadios Limouris (Geneva, WCC, 1994), pp. 112-115.
  2. See Patriarchal and Synodical Encyclical (1902), of the Ecumenical Patriarch Ioakim III. Georges Tsetsis, The Ecumenical Throne and the World, p.30.
  3. See Vaselios Karayannis, "Is the Council of Constantinople of 879-880 Ecumenical?", Saint Barnabas 42 (1991) 2, pp. 43-57.
  4. Vlassios Pheidas, The Holy Canons, Athens 1997, p.255. See also Third Ecumenical Council canons 2 and 4; Laodicea canons 6, 9, 32, 34, 37, and Timotheos of Alexandria canon 9.
  5. 90th Canon of the Carthage Synod, cf. Vlassios Pheidas op. cit.
  6. Cf., e.g., "Towards Sharing the One Faith" para. 17.