The World Council of Churches (WCC) is hoping to broaden its base in an appeal to Catholics and Pentecostals. But meanwhile, disenchanted Orthodox and mainline evangelicals are calling the world's largest ecumenical organization to affirm historic Christian doctrine.
At its eighth assembly, 960 WCC delegates gathered in Harare, Zimbabwe, to celebrate the Geneva-based organization's fiftieth anniversary and debate theological, moral, and political issues.
The WCC has had difficulty in maintaining unity and harmony among its 339 Protestant and Orthodox member communions. Orthodox and mainline Protestant evangelicals in recent years have pressed the WCC to refocus on historic Christian doctrine at a time when contemporary theology, some of which rejects traditional Christian teaching, is a potent force within some WCC-member churches.
DEMANDS FOR CHANGE:
Despite strong efforts to hold the WCC together, some have withdrawn from the body. Hilarion Alfeyev, leader of the scaled-back Russian Orthodox Church delegation attending the assembly, noted that two Orthodox bodies—the Georgian and Bulgarian churches—have quit in the past two years.
"If the structure of the WCC is not radically changed, other Orthodox churches will also leave the WCC," he said. At the meeting, the WCC voted to establish a special commission to try to resolve issues of Orthodox participation.
However, hours later, the Russian Orthodox Church—the largest member denomination in the WCC—voted to suspend its participation in the WCC's central committee until the special commission finished its deliberations, which are expected to take at least three years.
"If we are satisfied with the results of the commission, we will resume our work on the central committee," Alfeyev said. "If not, our church will have to withdraw from the WCC."
Both Orthodox and mainline evangelicals generally are unhappy with the liberal Protestant ethos they say dominates WCC debate on issues such as feminism, inclusive language in Bible translation, same-sex unions, ordination of homosexuals, abortion, environmentalism, and population control. Such complaints are not new. At the last assembly in Canberra, Australia, Orthodox threatened to leave the ecumenical organization unless it affirmed the faith's biblical moorings (CT, April 8, 1991, p. 66).
The level of non-Slavic Orthodox participation at the assembly was higher than expected. Yet the greatest morale problem comes from the 21 Orthodox bodies that make up about 30 percent of WCC's membership. Delegates from 16 Orthodox groups gathered earlier to affirm their general support of the overall ecumenical vision, but announced they would significantly reduce their level of involvement in the WCC.
Because many WCC decisions are established by majority rule, the Orthodox believe they are being marginalized, if not ignored, despite their significant numbers. While the Orthodox profess commitment to many of the aims promoted by the WCC, they object that WCC approaches to them are rooted in secular philosophies rather than a biblical theology.
Evangelicals and Orthodox rarely work in concert, but within the WCC the two groups are kindred spirits.
Significant conversations between Orthodox and evangelicals began at the 1991 assembly, and more formal meetings between these two groups have emerged since. At Harare, evangelicals and Orthodox initiated and strengthened numerous informal contacts, and the two groups held several meetings.
The Association for Church Renewal (ACR), mostly evangelicals from mainline denominations in North America, served as an energizing force for evangelical participation at the WCC assembly. Diane Knippers of the Institute for Religion and Democracy and Thomas Oden, a theology professor at Drew University, led the group's involvement in Zimbabwe.
Commenting on evangelical-Orthodox relations, George Tsetsis, representative of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, said, "We manage to find our way together on a few things." But Tsetsis said significant differences and tensions remain, especially over evangelical "proselytism" among majority Orthodox populations.
Evangelicals, focusing their attention on strategic areas, strongly objected to WCC mission statements that underemphasize personal conversion and the ultimacy of Jesus Christ.
In addition, the International Fraternity of Evangelical Theologians called on the WCC to "pay greater attention to charismatic and Pentecostal movements as well as to the evangelizing task."
Evangelicals also were outspoken on the WCC's reluctance to join the fight against religious persecution, noting that the WCC ignored Communist persecution of Russian Orthodox priests during the final years of the Soviet era.
Despite ongoing criticism, evangelical leaders affirmed the goal of strong relations among churches. ACR's Knippers said, "We will not be alienated from the unity to which we know the Holy Spirit is wooing the churches."
Today, WCC represents less than 30 percent of the 1.9 billion Christians worldwide. Roman Catholics and Pentecostals make up most of the remaining 70 percent and have never been a part of the WCC.
But WCC leaders are angling for new ways to draw Catholics and Pentecostals into dialogue with the WCC. In one of the assembly's more important official acts in Zimbabwe, the body created the Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations. WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser hopes the forum will encourage "people [to] talk to each other who at present don't talk to each other." The forum's structure has not been established, but it will mostly likely begin with high-level talks between church leaders.
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