The Report of the Special
Commission on ecclesiology
“A commission for a crisis”
In the years after the Canberra WCC’s Assembly (1991),
Churches challenged the World Council of Churches, considering it of a
liberal orientation and a failure to hear the voice of Orthodox
formulating its agenda or issuing its public statements. Certain
the Orthodox Churches of Georgia
had withdrawn from membership of the WCC and others were seriously
whether they wished to continue their ecumenical work in the WCC in
Harsh questions of a broader ecumenical character emerged
•Why did the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria and Georgia
withdraw their participation in WCC?
•Why did the council of bishops of the Russian Orthodox
the Holy Synod of bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church request a new
pan-Orthodox discussion on Orthodox participation in WCC?
•For which reason then Orthodox Churches, gathered in Thessaloniki in
stated that their delegates would not participate in ecumenical
common prayers, worship and other religious ceremonies at the Harare
These questions gave expression of a certain “crisis”
to exist in the relations Orthodox Churches - WCC and the main reason
that situation was that there was no common understanding basically on
If we look back we can see that the decades following the
of most of the Orthodox Churches in WCC (New Delhi 1961) represented a period
interchange between Orthodox and Protestants. On the occasion of 25th
anniversary of the council’s founding, in 1973, congratulatory message
from Moscow and Constantinople
pressed the WCC to reexamine its basis and underlying concept o
intensification of dialog followed, culminating with the consultation
Valamo (1977), Sofia
(1981) and Chambesy (1986). Generally the Sofia
meeting is considered to be the precursor of the Special Commission; of
one must understand the different historical context in which these two
Following the collapse of communism
and changes of the leaderships in some of the member churches there
renewed debates on the role of Orthodox Churches within the WCC as an
institution. A pan-Orthodox meeting in Thessaloniki, in May 1998,
essential questions in such a pointed way that the WCC’s eighth
meeting that December in Harare decided to create a special commission,
parity of membership between protestants and orthodox to address these
commission was divided in four subcommittees and had the role to study
analyze the whole spectrum of issues related to Orthodox participation
make proposals concerning the necessary changes in structure, style and
of the Council.
In the late summer of 2002, the central committee of the
WCC met in Geneva
to address a number
of pressing concerns. Perhaps none of these was more potentially
the life of the ecumenical movement than discussion and action
final report of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in WCC.
has not been a smooth sailing for none of the confessional traditions
the WCC. Differing perspectives on the nature of the Church and the
role of the
WCC led to delicate yet frank dialogues between Orthodox and
Protestants and to
ecumenical milestones like Toronto Statement (1950) on the
significance of WCC and, more recently, to the 1997 document “Towards a
Understanding and Vision of the WCC”.
Although the title of the commission refers to orthodox
participation in the ecumenical movement it is important to say that
addressed in this context are not just of the Orthodox churches. It has
been clear that the Catholic Church and many evangelical, free and
communions are unlikely to come into membership with WCC as it is
constituted. Some of the fundamental questions the commission dealt
mark the beginning of new dialogues with Christian fellowships not yet
associated with WCC.
I don’t claim to analyze thoroughly
the subject as it is very complex. I see my paper more like an
debate, to deep analyze and to a better understanding of present
ecumenical discussions on this topic.
The Report of the Special Commission on ecclesiology.
The Special Commission focused its
report and recommendations on
five principal areas: fundamental ecclesiological differences; ways and
of dealing with ecumenical statements on social and ethical issues;
relating to worship and ecumenical conferences; the decision making
the WCC and its governing bodies; criteria for membership and
the churches in WCC.
will focus in my paper precisely at the
issues raised by the Special Commission in the chapter referring to
What it means to be church?
If the Orthodox Church is identified
with the Church is there any place for other churches in Orthodox
Where are the limits of the Church?
How do the other churches understand
their belonging to the One, Holy Catholic Church?
Should the baptism be included in the
basis of WCC?
From these issues raised
by the commission I
will try to articulate further the Orthodox Church’s
I would like to see the contemporary orthodox points of view in the
reflection on ecclesiology.
Despite its participation
in the ecumenical
movement, Orthodoxy has never surrendered its belief that it
"one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". Despite this claim, or
even because of it, Orthodoxy has never ceased to be in a dialogue of
faith with all those Christian communions and churches who seek to
visible unity of all Christians. By being involved in the ecumenical
involvement, Orthodoxy is challenged to situate in God's plan of
those Christian communities which, in its view, are not in communion
one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church because of differences of
practice. Here there is a need of deep theological reflection to
understand if the
canonical boundaries of the Church coincide with the charismatic?
it possible to recognize the validity of the sacraments of those
churches, which are not currently in communion with the Orthodox
Church? If the
response on this issue is affirmative, then the Orthodox Church must
the criteria for such recognition.
ecclesiological positions can be
structured in two categories:
The one following the acrivia of St.
Cyprian of Chartage;
Another one following the line of
patristic synthesis elaborated in the 4th c. by St. Basil the Great;
Cyprian of Carthage
advocated in the 3rd c. that
every schism was a departure from the Church, from that sanctified and
land where it alone uses the baptismal spring, the waters of salvation.
this author of the 3rd c., the Holy Spirit is not present
the canonical community; the limits of the charismatic Church coincide
limits of the canonical Church. Later, Augustine disagreed; he
the Holy Spirit and the charismata of the Spirit can be found outside
canonical limits of the Church. Depending on the circumstances, the
essentially advocated either one of these two positions.
Another perception of this subject has St. Basil the
Great in the 4th c., his perception is more nuanced and when
refers to those outside the church he classifies them different:
schismatic and dissidents. The
schismatic and dissidents can be considered as being still of the
they don’t need to be baptized again. In the past and also today this
be the most accepted ecclesiological direction in the Orthodox
So a person who is baptized in the name of the Trinity does not need to
rebaptised but chrismated.
The question of Orthodox self
understanding was raised at the beginnings as a matter of self
vis-à-vis the WCC. This is still the case with many Orthodox and with
Orthodox Church officially as a whole. It is undeniable that for many
now the Orthodox Church is an integral part of WCC. What would be in
the Orthodox self consciousness in relation to the WCC?
It is very clear by now that the
relation within WCC between Orthodox and non-Orthodox are always
the Orthodox feel always as sui generis Christians in relation to the
This is the sad consequence of the gap between West and East produced
great schism and deepened by centuries of estrangement and autonomous
existence. So if the dialectic between Orthodoxy and West becomes
WCC a healthy and creative one, Orthodox self-consciousness will emerge
bearing the following characteristics:
orthodox will never depart from their conviction that the Orthodox
Church is the Una Sancta. This is due to their faith that the Church is
an historical entity and that we cannot seek her outside the tradition
historically bequeathed and appropriated. But this is not a property of
the Orthodox, it is a reality judging us all (eschatological) and is
something that we constantly receive and the Ecumenical Movement is the
proper place for such a re-reception which takes place together with
Orthodox will always ask for founding a common vision of the Una Sancta
in the ecumenical movement so that the fellowship grows into a common
vision and recognition of what the true Church is.
regard to the ecclesiological significance of the WCC, the Orthodox
will never accept the WCC as a Church, as a body which can be
identified through the marks of Una Sancta.
there is work on all sides and none of it is easy or straightforward.
But it is vital to try to orient this work in accordance with what the
churches actually teach and believe about themselves in relation to the
Church. The old slogan of Life and Work
movement used to be that “doctrine divides and service unites”. These
days the second part of the slogan is much more questionable than the
first: does service really unite? But where doctrine does indeed
divide, that is precisely where we must be in full engagement with it.
Reactions and future perspectives
In general the reactions to the Final Report were
remarkable document said Heinz Joachim Held-retired bishop of Evangelical Church
an historic opportunity, a plus for the WCC on the way into the future.
were also voices of dissent -Margot Kassmann-Bishop of the Evangelical
Church of Hanover who affirmed: It is a giant step backwards.
What is very clear, that this document
is a challenge for all the member churches but also for the Orthodox.
observe different and in part contradictory developments in the
activity of Orthodoxy. Secondly, there is no doubt that in any case the
Orthodox churches wish to and can take an active part in ecumenical
new ecumenical guidelines from Moscow
represent the usually critical position of Orthodoxy today and they
highest priority to genuine ecumenical theology.
The work accomplished by the Final
report of the Special Commission constitutes a very important step in
discussions that have been going on in the WCC for years but is far
bringing the member churches to the end of their common journey. The
of the central committee on the Final Report of the Special Commission
a specific follow-up but there are other challenges and opportunities
Member churches are invited to
deepen the findings of the Special Commission, draw the adequate
lessons from this
constructive exercise and consider their participation in the
churches under new light and new perspectives.
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