EKD-Bulletin 04/2002

4 - 2002


Will the WCC become superfluous?

Background to the conflict in the WCC

The conflict between the Orthodox Churches and the Churches of the Reformation in the WCC was intensifying, even at the time when the "Iron Curtain" divided the world into East and West. Then, however, the Orthodox representatives from the former East Block did not risk an open break. The ecumenical conferences offered them the chance of international encounters which they otherwise would not have had. The fundamental differences between the Orthodox minority and the majority Churches of the Reformation in the WCC were nonetheless immense. They also affected and still affect Orthodox Churches which do not come from the East Block.

The Protestant culture of argumentation is strange to many in the Orthodox Churches. They reject the ordination of women, and presumably find it an insult if women at WCC conferences openly contradict their dignitaries. They condemn the tolerant attitude to homosexuality. Attempts in the WCC to condemn the infringements of human rights in Eastern Europe regularly meet resistance from the Orthodox delegates. And services of worship in an ecumenical framework were often so designed that they were displeasing to the Orthodox.

Since the collapse of the "Iron Curtain", the situation has changed. The Orthodox are now risking an open break, as hefty power struggles rage between the liberals and the conservatives within their Churches - the latter are strongly nationalistic and demand a radical rejection of the WCC. The Georgian Orthodox and the Bulgarian Orthodox Churches have already left the WCC. There are strong currents in the Serbian and Russian Orthodox Churches which also demand withdrawal.

In May 1998 the displeasure broke out at an Orthodox Conference in Thessalonica. The WCC Assembly reacted to this in Harare. A special commission was appointed. This commission, composed equally of 30 representatives from Orthodox and 30 representatives from non-Orthodox Churches, has lately presented its concluding report to the WCC Central Committee. It accepted and approved the report at the beginning of September. The result is a severe conflict.

That this conflict became a media theme in Germany lies with the Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Hanover, Margot KÄßmann. She sharply criticised the special commission's report and its approval by the WCC Central Committee, and resigned as German delegate on the Central Committee, after almost 20 years of work in the WCC, without which - as she herself emphasised - she would scarcely have become Bishop of Hanover. It concerns three problem areas:

First: In future, a consensus process shall apply in the WCC Central Committee and in the full assembly. It should replace ballots according to the majority principle. That should prevent polarisation, say those in favour of this system. No Church must feel itself overruled. The critics fear a paralysis of the WCC, conflictive themes will be avoided in future. Courageous or even provocative political and theological positions would
be excluded.

Second: In future, there will be "member Churches" of the WCC and "associated Churches". The latter will not be allowed to vote in the WCC and only cooperate in an advisory capacity. Those in favour say that this will ease cooperation with Churches that do not want to become full members of the WCC - such as the Roman Catholic Church, some Orthodox Churches and the Pentecostal Churches. They can all have a say without being committed. The critics fear that many Churches which are still full members of the WCC, will renounce their membership and choose the uncommitted form of associated membership. This will by and large weaken the WCC.

Third: In future, at large WCC conferences, there will not be "joint services of worship", but only "confessional" and inter-confessional Common Prayers. Orthodox Christians associate the term service of worship inseparably with the celebration of the Eucharist. The understanding of the Orthodox and the Churches of the Reformation is however so different that, from the Orthodox point of view, an ecumenical service of worship with joint celebration of the Eucharist is impossible. However, Margot Käßmann is not asking for this. She emphasises that for her, the ecumenical service of worship without Communion has become the heart of WCC Conferences. The Bishop said on South-West Radio "if I am now told that 'you are not even a Church, we cannot fundamentally recognise your baptism and celebrate services of worship with you', then I ask myself, on what basis should I cooperate".

The EKD Council explained that it understood Käßmann's disappointment and felt for her as well. At the same time, it praised the efforts of the special commission under the co-chairmanship of the EKD Bishop for Foreign Relations, Dr. Rolf Koppe, which created a basis for further cooperation with the Orthodox Churches. Otherwise the theme is causing controversial discussion within the EKD. Some give praise that for the first time in the history of the WCC, a "thorough, patient, but also open and constructive discussion is taking place between the Orthodox and the Protestant ecumenical ethos in the WCC" (EKD Retired Bishop Heinz Joachim Held). The WCC General-Secretary, Konrad Raiser, sees it this way. Margot Käßmann and other critics counter that the WCC has given way to Orthodox pressure, and that it will lose some of its public importance. The social-ethical questions at world level, such as globalisation, sustainable development, poverty, hunger, AIDS, will be pushed to the side, and the WCC will be mainly concerned with internal issues.

Whether the proposals of the special commission will be taken up and the WCC constitution correspondingly changed, must be decided by the WCC Assembly in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 2006. Margot Käßmann hopes that the assembly will reject changes to the constitution and instead will risk a "liberating blow for the future". And if not? Then "there should be a new organ for Churches of the Reformation at world level" said the Bishop of Hanover. This is an explosive proposal, especially as it was supported by the Bishop of Berlin, Wolfgang Huber, at the EKD Synod's latest conference in November. The EKD Council Chairman, Präses Manfred Kock, called the idea to form a new world association of Churches of the Reformation a "wonderful vision". But Kock feared that the WCC would then become superfluous.

Johannes Weiss

Director for the Department Religion, Churches and Society in the South-West Broadcasting Company (SWR)



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