After Many Delays, WCC Prepares to Deal with Orthodox Complaints

 — Sept. 2, 19992 sept. 1999

by Stephen Brown, Ecumenical News Service

[GENEVA] A special commission set up by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in a bid to resolve complaints by its Orthodox member churches is scheduled to hold its first meeting in December.

The scheduling of the meeting follows a series of delays and apparent unwillingness by some Orthodox churches to take part in the commission, which is to bring together Orthodox and Protestant church representatives to discuss a number of sensitive issues, including the Orthodox claims that the WCC’s activities and programs are dominated by Protestant policies.

The WCC’s churches include all mainstream traditions, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church. However, two Orthodox churches have already left the WCC, and any further moves by Orthodox churches to withdraw from the organization could seriously jeopardize the WCC’s claim to be an inclusive ecumenical body.

Bishop Rolf Koppe, of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), who is co-moderator of the special commission, told journalists today at a press briefing during the WCC’s central committee in Geneva that the commission’s first meeting would take place in the first week in December. Unspecified problems had prevented a meeting of the commission until now.

Bishop Koppe said that the commission would have 60 members – 30 from Orthodox churches, and 30 from other WCC member churches – and that its work was expected to last three years, after which it would report to the WCC central committee. Bishop Koppe was speaking after an informal meeting last night of those members of the commission who are attending the central committee meeting in Geneva.

In recent years Orthodox churches have become highly critical of the WCC, which many Orthodox see as influenced by Western liberal Protestant views on inclusive language, the ordination of women and sexuality. There is also concern about the activities of some Protestant organizations in eastern Europe, which Orthodox believe are engaged in “proselytism” – converting people who are already members of another church – and about representation in the WCC’s decision-making structures.

Dr. Gaby Habib, who is a member of the Christian Orthodox Church of Antioch, and a co-moderator of the special commission, said that Orthodox churches and the other WCC member churches were “facing common problems that are emerging in today’s world.” However, he added, “definitely the Orthodox have their own point of view.”

Among the matters that would be discussed at the commission, Dr. Habib said, were the issues of Eucharist as well as Baptism and other theological issues. The decision to set up the commission was taken at the WCC’s last assembly, which took place in Harare in December. The plan for a commission to deal with Orthodox participation in the WCC was first proposed by a crisis meeting of high-level representatives from 15 Eastern Orthodox churches which was held in Thessaloniki, Greece, in May last year. The Thessaloniki meeting affirmed support for ecumenism and the search for Christian unity, but registered strong concern about the policies and programs of the WCC.

Two years ago the Georgian Orthodox Church withdrew from WCC membership. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church withdrew last year.

Asked whether he could rule out the possibility of other Orthodox churches withdrawing from the WCC while the special commission was conducting its work, Bishop Koppe said that he did not believe that other churches would leave, but that he could not rule out the possibility since “no one knows about the next three years.”

Dr. Habib said that he did not think “that any church will withdraw from the council before the end of the work of the special commission,” which he described as a “good opportunity to make the council more of a home” for Orthodox churches.

Dr. Habib also said that he believed that the Bulgarian church might be reconsidering its decision.

The Russian Orthodox Church, the WCC’s biggest member church, whose representatives have been among the strongest critics of the policies and programs of the WCC, has scaled down its participation in the central committee, the WCC’s governing body. Representatives of the church said at the assembly in Harare that the church would not actively participate in the work of the central committee while the special commission was meeting. The church would take a decision on whether to resume full participation in the WCC after the special commission had reported, they said.

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