Trouble brewing

National | WCC avoids an outright rebellion, but dissent from biblically orthodox members is growing louder

Issue: "Parable of the perjurer," Jan. 9, 1999

Despite some rough going, the nearly 1,000 delegates to the two-week-long Jubilee Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe, last month applied enough chewing gum and baling wire to cracks and stress points in the WCC's creaky structure to keep it afloat for at least the next seven years.

Contrary to some predictions, there was no wholesale walkout by Orthodox delegations. But whether they will be back in 2005 is another matter. Orthodox leaders have grumbled for years about the WCC. They say the 50-year-old WCC is run largely by liberal Western Protestants who have a low regard for biblical authority. Among main bones of contention: the liberals' embrace of homosexuality, their advocacy of women's ordination, and their seeming support of the "blasphemous" use of feminist language for God.

"The WCC agenda is dominated by a western Protestant ethos," Russian Orthodox cleric Hilarion Alfeyev told delegates. He said his church is the largest in the WCC, but "we are becoming more and more isolated." Other Orthodox representatives warned they will walk if their concerns are ignored in key WCC documents and statements and if their calls for reforms are unheeded.

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The Bulgarian and Georgian Orthodox churches already have left the WCC. Senior Russian Orthodox leaders stayed away from the assembly (Mr. Alfeyev led only a five-man deputation), and many of the Orthodox delegations limited their participation in assembly proceedings as a form of protest. Toward the end of the assembly, delegates agreed to set up a commission to deal with Orthodox concerns. Its work is expected to take at least three years.

However, the Russian Orthodox delegates announced their church will suspend its participation in the 150-member policy-making WCC Central Committee until the commission completes its work. If the results are unsatisfactory, "our church will have to withdraw from the WCC," Mr. Alfeyev told reporters.

Many Orthodox leaders believe the best solution is for the WCC to restructure itself as a "forum" with no fixed membership. That way, they say, the Orthodox Church would bear no responsibility for what was said by others.

Although homosexuality was not a plenary issue, thanks mainly to pressure from the Orthodox and African conservatives, it was a topic in some of the 600-plus workshops and gatherings during a five-day "Padare," a Shona word for "meeting place." In one, Roselyn Manika, a Bible-toting Zimbabwean woman, asked two pro-homosexual advocates from the United States-one an Episcopal priest, the other a Presbyterian/United Church of Christ pastor-how they squared their views with Scripture. They said they did not want to talk about the Bible. "It can be used to support anything," said the priest, Brian Grieves, director of Peace and Justice Ministries at Episcopal headquarters in New York.

Scattered about the sprawling University of Zimbabwe campus, the Padare discussion groups addressed topics ranging from youth ministry to economic issues and Orthodox-evangelical relationships. American evangelicals, including a six-member team from the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Church Renewal, ranged through the Padare, appealing for renewal and for the defense of persecuted Christians.

A main reason evangelical leaders went to Harare was to forge alliances with Orthodox, Pentecostal, and other conservatives in the WCC who eventually, they hope, will bring ecumenism back into the mainstream of biblical orthodoxy.

Coordinating this evangelical outreach was Anglican Vinay Samuel of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Mission Theologians. He helped draft a letter outlining the concerns raised in half a dozen meetings of evangelicals at the assembly. It praised many aspects of the meeting but expressed regret that the assembly neglected the voice of biblically orthodox churches in Africa-which the authors described as "committed to the centrality of Scripture, cultural renewal, and social, political, and economic change." It said that "the WCC must operate more in accord with the Christocentric, missionary emphasis of its original vision. Jubilee is also a time to return to the beginning."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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