WCC commission looks at Orthodox concerns
3/30/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York
By United Methodist News ServiceAs a special commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC) works to address the concerns of Orthodox members, the spirit of the discussions is proving more collegial than confrontational.
That's the opinion of Jan Love, a council veteran and United Methodist layperson from Columbia, S.C. She is one of 60 members of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation.
During the WCC's Eighth Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, in December 1998, Orthodox members "found their voice in a new way" and demonstrated they were "absolutely determined that everybody was going to hear them," Love recalled. In response, the assembly created the commission to study Orthodox participation in the council and to propose changes in the WCC's "structure, style and ethos."
Commission members have gathered in two full meetings - in Morges, Switzerland, in December 1999 and in Cairo, Egypt, last October - and worked through four subcommittees to study the major issues of concern.
The commission made its interim report Jan. 31 to the WCC Central Committee in Potsdam, Germany, and its members are pleased that the conversations have been productive, she said.
"There was, right from the beginning, an obvious willingness to work together and an obvious desire to make this a long-term, positive reorientation so that Orthodox and non-Orthodox churches alike could feel a stronger ownership of the whole council of churches," Love explained.
Along with good spirits and a willingness to work came a seriousness of purpose, she added. That was evident in the high level of participation and the stature of the people around the table. Nearly all of the Orthodox representatives, along with additional observers, showed up at the first meeting.
A wide variety of Orthodox bodies participate in the WCC and do not necessarily share the same opinion on all subjects. Significant differences exist between Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches, according to Love. Within the Eastern tradition, a "different political reality" also exists between churches that come from the Slavic cultures and endured a continual threat to their existence under communist oppression, and those from other backgrounds, such as the Greek Orthodox.
"Some Orthodox churches are having very challenging and probing discussions within their own churches about their identity within the 21st century, and that spills over profoundly into ecumenical discussions," Love said. "The Russians are foremost among that group."
What the Russian Orthodox leaders consider to be the negative impact of evangelism by other faiths in the former Soviet Union, "including the rather assertive work of the United Methodist Church," also has influenced their attitude within the council. Love explained that the Russian Orthodox are "absolutely distressed" to emerge from one of the most difficult periods in their history to find that other churches, "rather than helping them reconstruct their own life and identity within their place, would come and compete with them. That's the way they see it."
She acknowledges that many United Methodists do not consider themselves to be competing with the Russian Orthodox, but she doesn't think the denomination as a whole "has fully appreciated the Russian Orthodox point of view."
The varying positions among the Orthodox in the WCC can be found, at one end of the spectrum, with the Russian Orthodox emphasizing identity and tradition and, at the other end, the Ecumenical Patriarchate continuing to push ecumenical interaction. "Those two groups struggle with each other on a regular basis," she said.
One of the proposals emerging from the interim report addresses how all voices can be heard. The commission suggests the council adopt a model of consensus instead of using the current system of majority vote.
Love, who supports that proposal, said consensus already is used informally on a regular basis. "We have a lot of experience with very careful consultation about every controversial public statement before it comes to a plenary," she explained. At the plenary level, there is even more discussion before a document is approved. "You get a full hearing of what people like and dislike."
She pointed out that turning to consensus would be no more difficult than "refining some of the rather strong and already well-worn consultative models that we already have and formalizing them."
Another issue under consideration is identifying a common ground for worship, including what the implications of the word "worship" are and whether the use of "common prayer" would be more appropriate.
Membership questions, such as whether groups like the World Methodist Council or Lutheran World Federation should be eligible or whether membership should be by confessional family, are at issue and may be studied by a special committee, Love said. Many members also have expressed a desire to form a group - with half of the members from Orthodox and half from other traditions - "to be a watchdog over everything the council does."
The special commission will meet again as a body in November, but its final report is not due for a couple of years, according to Love. The subcommittees will continue to work on specific proposals.
Love is optimistic about the final results and believes that the spirit shown at the recent WCC Central Committee meeting in Potsdam "demonstrated much more calm and confidence that this is going to work."
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