The Problem of Ecumenical Bureaucracies

Fr. John Meyendorff on Ecumenism, 4

In the past months some mass-media have focused strong criticism upon two ecumenical agencies, the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, accusing them of supporting "revolutionaries" in the Third World, and of misleading the faithful as to the real goals of their activities. These criticisms have provoked sharp debates within the various participating Protestant bodies. The debate is of some relevance to the Orthodox as well, since they are also members of the above-mentioned councils.

In order to understand the problem fully, three issues, which were presented in a very confused manner by the mass-media, must be kept in mind:

(1) The World Council and the National Council are not only two distinct bodies, but they differ in character and in membership. The WCC is a world organization which now includes all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, so that a sizeable number of Orthodox delegates are in a position to assert clearly the Orthodox position on important issues. The NCC is a fellowship of churches and Christian groups belonging to the liberal wings of American Protestantism. Major American Protestant conservative churches -- Baptist, Lutheran, etc. -- do not participate. The Orthodox represent only a small minority.

(2) In both bodies the Orthodox representatives have always clearly proclaimed their own understanding of the Church, and they obtained -- in the so-called Toronto Declaration (1950) -- that membership would not imply the mutual recognition of all the member-churches as "churches" in the full sense. Also, the statutes of both councils make sure that no resolution or decision is binding on the membership. So there is no danger that the WCC or the NCC would "speak for the Orthodox." It is a fact, however, that some statements of the NCC are presented as reflecting the attitude of "Protestants and Orthodox." This is misleading and totally unacceptable. In the view of the Orthodox Church, the two councils are nothing more than forums on which those who believe in Christ can meet and freely cooperate when they so decide. This does not mean that the member churches agree in the faith or in practical attitudes, or that the councils speak for them all.

(3) The highly controversial WCC "Program to Combat Racism" (PCR) is the main object of the media criticisms. It offers help to groups which struggle against racial discrimination, with the proviso that they not use the help for violent struggle. But, obviously, there are no real guarantees; and although racism is indeed abominable to all Christians, the character of the political struggles in which some groups are engaged is highly controversial, particularly when there are alliances with formally Marxist parties. What our readers should know, therefore, is that the PCR is financed exclusively by special, earmarked donations, and that OCA in particular has contributed no monies to its work.

The only justifiable rationale for the Orthodox participation in the WCC and the NCC is that their goal is to unite Christians according to the prayer of Our Lord, "that they may be one." No Christian -- and especially not Orthodox Christians, who claim to possess that unique Truth without which true Christian unity is impossible -- can escape the responsibility to work for unity. The problem is whether contemporary ecumenical bureaucracies are contributing to real unity or actually strengthening factionalism and creating situations where Christian Truth and Justice are betrayed.

In the opinion of this writer, the very comprehensive membership of the World Council, and the wide opportunity which it presents for an articulate Orthodox witness, justifies our membership. (This does not mean, however, that the Council can, in any way, speak for us, or that we should stop protesting against some of the policies endorsed by its majorities!) The National Council, on the contrary, since it represents only a fraction (however important) of American Protestantism does not offer, at present, a satisfactory forum for a meaningful witness of the Orthodox minority.

We should therefore -- following in that example of the Roman Catholic Church -- limit our participation to membership in the "Faith and Order" Commission, which discusses issues of faith. Such a limited participation would continue to reflect our sense of responsibility for the ecumenical dialogue with all bona fide fellow-Christians, but would also put an end to the ambiguities of a half-hearted, inefficient and, in fact, nominal attendance at meetings, without the hope of influencing the results significantly. Our eventual decision for only partial membership--which, in order to be effective, should be taken by all the Orthodox jurisdictions who now belong to the WCC (quite a challenge to Orthodox unity!) -- may actually lead to an eventual reorientation of the ecumenical movement in this country in a more comprehensive, more serious and more responsible direction.

(June, 1983)

posted April 21, 1998