Orthodox Participation in Ecumenical Movement

Jun 06, 2003 02:17 PM EDT

An appeal to the Bulgarian and Georgian Orthodox churches to reconsider their return to the broad ecumenical world family was addressed by the participants at an international academic symposium held in Thessaloniki from 1-3 June. The request is contained in a letter addressed to H.B. Patriarch Maximos of Bulgaria and H.B. Catholicos Elias, Patriarch of Georgia, signed by participants at a symposium organized by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki's Theological Faculty. With the blessing of H.B. Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, the symposium tackled the theme "Orthodox Theology and Ecumenical Dialogue: Problems and Perspectives".

In their letter to the heads of Bulgarian and Georgian Orthodox churches, based on "hope and Christian love", participants at the symposium "make an appeal, out of that love and with deep respect, that your Holy Church review and reconsider its active participation in the multilateral and bilateral dialogues and conversations, and also its return to the broad ecumenical world family".

Both Churches withdrew from the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1998. However, after the WCC Central Committee received last August the substantial report from the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation, there are "new possibilities for taking seriously and dealing responsibly with Orthodox concerns", the letter said.

The letter was approved with applause by participants in the symposium, namely professors from Thessaloniki's Theological Faculty and members of the Steering Committee of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC. While those signing the letter recognize that "the path of inter-Christian dialogue is difficult" they manifest their unanimous agreement that "there is no alternative to dialogue".

The affirmation echoed statements made by Archbishop Christodoulos at the event's opening. "In spite of the negative experience we have acquired all these years, we view the future of the theological dialogues, and generally our collaboration with our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters, with optimism," he said. And regarding theological dialogues in particular, Archbishop Christodoulos said "...we are not allowed to stop the dialogue and break down the bridges of communication between Christians".

Recalling that the Church of Greece is "a founding member of the WCC of which it remains a full member till today", the Archbishop of Athens said work carried out by the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC is a "pleasant development" that "created hopes that as Orthodox we can have an equal voice with the Protestants". "I think that new bases have been created for our presence in WCC", he stated.

At the same time that he voiced his "hope that more effective contribution of the Orthodox in the decisions and activities of WCC will take place in the future," Archbishop Christodoulos did not shy away from self-criticism: "If we, Orthodox, are indifferent and we voluntarily stay in the margin, or if we are divided depending on the narrow interest of our local Church, we must not complain for the situation in the WCC. The wrong is not always on the others."

In his presentation, the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser emphasized the importance of the Orthodox contribution to the WCC during a public lecture at the symposium's closing ceremony. The extensive summary began with "the fundamental decision on the part of the Orthodox churches to assume a leading role in giving shape to the modern ecumenical movement", translated in the encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople that proposed the establishment of a "league (fellowship) between the churches" for the first time in 1920.

According to Raiser, perhaps the most important Orthodox contribution to the WCC was the "consistent expression of the Orthodox commitment to the ecumenical fellowship of churches, which has been re-affirmed in response to questions and sometimes harsh criticism from within". And the "second major Orthodox contribution to unfolding the self-understanding of the WCC" was to establish the christocentric affirmation of its Basis (the confession of "the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour") in a Trinitarian setting ("to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit").

Raiser also referred to several other Orthodox contributions, such as the awareness of conciliarity - "the fact that the church in all times needs assemblies to represent it and has in fact felt this need" - as "a fundamental dimension in the understanding of the church"; the decisive influence of Orthodox thinking in the convergence documents on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, "particularly in terms of emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit"; and the "understanding of the missionary vocation of the church as well as of its diaconal service".

"There is no doubt for me that the active presence of the Orthodox churches in the WCC has been essential in shaping the understanding of our common ecumenical calling", stated Raiser towards the end of his presentation. And now, "the Special Commission and its recommendations have moved us to the point where the Orthodox contribution to the life and work of the WCC can be developed in fresh and constructive ways", he concluded.

Besides professors and members of the WCC Steering Committee, the symposium and discussions were attended by representatives of other churches and academic institutions, a number of Orthodox priests and students, and several WCC staff members.