Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

The Orthodox Church, the World Council of Churches and Rome

The Orthodox world at large still lacks precise information on the events that took place in August at the Rhode’s meeting of the Central Committee World Council of Churches. And now that the Venice talks between Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians, announced after Rhodes and planned for 1960, have been officially cancelled by Rome (before even we knew, whether and by whom the invitation to these talks was accepted on behalf of the Orthodox) the need for clarification becomes imperative. The somewhat chaotic and, in many respects, accidental character of Orthodox representation on practically all levels of the ecumenical movement is not the least factor in the confusion about the very principle of our membership in the World Council of Churches, as well as its implications, confusion that for many years has been obvious in Orthodox circles. But today we cannot afford such a confusion any longer. For from the stage of theological encounter we have moved into the stage of decisions. And to decide, for example, whether the Orthodox Church will deal with Rome directly or within the frame of the W.C.C. implies more than a problem of "ecumenical tactics", it implies the whole ecumenical stand of the Orthodox Church, and, on a deeper level, its ecclesiological conscience itself.

If we do not know exactly what happened at Rhodes, some points seem sufficiently clear:

  1. A meeting of the Orthodox participants in the session of the Central Committee with some Roman Catholic observers, present at Rhodes, took place outside the regular agenda of the Committee, the latter being not notified about it. At this meeting, presided by the official representative of His Holiness, the Patriarch of Constantinople — the Metropolitan of Philadelphia, the possibility of an informal theological conference of Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians was discussed, and, in principle, accepted. Virtually all Orthodox dignitaries, present at Rhodes, took part in the discussion and no one seems to have raised a dissenting voice.

  2. This meeting provoked a rather violent reaction from some of the non-Orthodox members of the Central Committee and some Protestant papers ("Reforme", "La vie protestante") openly accused the Roman Catholic observers of a lack of loyalty towards the World Council of Churches. Taking advantage of the session of the Central Committee they attempted to dissociate the Orthodox from the common stand with the other members of the World Council of Churches.

  3. On October 2, the Ecumenical Press Service (N 38) published a declaration of His Eminence Archbishop lakovos, head of the Greek Church in America and the newly elected President of the World Council of Churches. In this declaration, Archbishop lakovos (a) excluded a priori the possibility of any "reunion", from which the non-Roman and the non-Orthodox Christians would be excluded, (b) denied any official character to the Orthodox-Roman meeting at Rhodes, (c) said, that, since no official invitation to a theological conference has been received in Constantinople, no delegate would be sent to Venice and (d) affirmed that the Orthodox Churches were unanimous about their cooperation with the World Council of Churches and the eventual contacts with Rome.

  4. The Venice meeting of 1960, first announced by Radio Vatican, was officially cancelled by Rome (New York Times, Oct. 21, 1959).

These being the known facts, the question which we raised in the last issue of the Quarterly (cf. Notes and Comments, in Spring 1959 issue) acquires even a greater degree of importance and urgency. The question can be formulated as follows: If, on several occasions, it has been clearly stated that the Orthodox Church will not take part in any conversation with Rome without the Protestant Churches, does this statement express the consensus of the Orthodox opinion and if it does — on what theological presuppositions is it founded? As it stands it could lead to two types of motivations, both of which seem to us wrong.

Either it indicates that, by the very fact of their association with the W.C.C., the Orthodox Churches have alienated the right of a direct ecumenical action, which view, if accepted, makes it impossible for many Orthodox to have any further participation in the organized Ecumenical movement.

Or, the decision to include the non-Orthodox and the non-Roman Christians in the dialogue with Rome might mean the desire of the Orthodox ecumenical leaders to see in the Orthodox Church a "bridge" between the Roman and the Protestant Churches, thus fulfilling the loyalty of the Orthodox Church to the ecumenical movement in its all-embracing and universal scope. This second theory, acceptable theologically, is doubtful as to its practical value. We have already pointed out that the whole problem of Orthodox-Catholic relations is basically different from that of its Orthodox Protestant counterpart and to put them on the same level, although preserving in theory the "ecumenical character" of such an enterprise, would lead in practice to confusion and, ultimately, make a disservice to the real ecumenical spirit. In the Orthodox opinion, the membership of the Orthodox Churches in the World Council of Churches means, first of all, the encounter of Orthodoxy with the non-Roman west, and by no means does it exclude the possibility of a similar encounter with Rome. There can be neither contradiction, nor incompatibility between these two lines of ecumenical action, and if, by grace of God, the second could complement the first one, it would mean a real enrichment of the whole movement, rather than its distortion or betrayal. To accept any other view would, in our deepest conviction, lead to further misunderstandings and endanger the still fragile, and yet desirable participation of Orthodoxy in the World Council of Churches.

Alexander Schmemann

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall, 1959, pp. 45-46