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NEWS STORY: Russian Orthodox threaten to pull out of WCC

c. 1997 Religion News Service GENEVA _ Russian Orthodox Church leaders said Tuesday (Sept. 16) that Patriarch Alexii, angered about the direction of the World Council of Churches, is likely to sever ties with the ecumenical group before the WCC’s eighth general assembly in Zimbabwe next year. The withdrawal would represent a severe blow to […]

c. 1997 Religion News Service

GENEVA _ Russian Orthodox Church leaders said Tuesday (Sept. 16) that Patriarch Alexii, angered about the direction of the World Council of Churches, is likely to sever ties with the ecumenical group before the WCC’s eighth general assembly in Zimbabwe next year.

The withdrawal would represent a severe blow to the organization that has prided itself for 50 years on being an honest broker among some 330 Christian churches.”I see no reason why we would continue,”said the Rev. Viktor Petliuchenko, a member of the WCC central committee, which is meeting here this week to draft a blueprint for the organization that will be the subject of next year’s conference.”We don’t agree about many of the things the World Council is doing,”Petliuchenko said.”Their acceptance of women priests, their attitude toward homosexuals. This is not something we can support.” Petliuchenko also reiterated the Russian church’s view that the WCC has not forcefully enough opposed proselytizing efforts by member churches in the former Soviet Union, a major cause of the rift.

WCC officials deny the charge. They have said the organization believes in religious freedom but does not support aggressive recruitment efforts.

But the Rev. Nestor Zhiliaev of the Russian Orthodox Church said,”I think we’re wasting our time. It becomes pointless to go on.” Both priests said Alexii is preparing to revoke its membership in the WCC before the December 1998 general assembly in Zimbabwe.

The two Russian church officials made their comments as the WCC’s Central Committee _ its top decision-making body between assemblies.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Spyridon, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, urged Russian Orthodox officials Tuesday not to withdraw from the WCC. Speaking at a Washington news conference outlining the October visit to the United States of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Spyridon said a Russian Orthodox pullout from the WCC”would be disastrous.” Spyridon said such a move would”lead the Russian church into isolation (and) cannot but have negative results for the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox church overall.” In addition to the tension with the Orthodox Church, the WCC also finds itself in the middle of a dispute among members over the mission of the worldwide organization, a controversy that is being aired among some 156 central committee members and is likely to intensify in the months ahead.”Some people are saying that the WCC has become more of a leader of movements than churches,”said the Rev. Karel Blei of the Netherlands Reformed Church.”There’s a sense that it is becoming more distant from the churches it represents.” Blei said the WCC’s decision to consolidate many of its tasks in an attempt to save scarce resources could have the undesirable effect of”giving the executive committee more power than the central committee, even though they are supposed to answer to us.” The principal aim of the meeting, which runs through Sept. 19, is to formulate a”common understanding and vision”of the WCC, a task that top members acknowledge is becoming increasingly difficult due to the growing differences among traditional Christians, like the Orthodox, and more progressive churches, like the Protestants.

Attempts to seek full communion among all Christian churches, the original stated goal of the organization, are also complicated by the rapid growth of new ecumenical groups and new religious movements, which are vying for members with traditional Christians.”We used to be the only visible players in the ecumenical movement,”said the Rev. Donald Elliot of the Anglican Church.”But that is changing and shrinking our base.” Many members of the WCC _ clergy and laity alike _ believe they are merely responding to changes that have emerged over the past several decades. Women have been permitted to minister in many Christian churches for years. And homosexuals have been welcomed into the churches, some of which accept same-sex marriage.”The number of ordained women several decades ago was really small. Today, doing theology from a woman’s perspective has become something nobody can avoid,”said Aaron Tolen, a Presbyterian from Cameroon and one of the six presidents of the WCC.”The WCC is not for itself. It is called to speak for the world,”he added.

But some of the 15 canonically independent Eastern Orthodox churches, which have been revived after 50 years of communism, contend the fellowship does not speak for them.

Last May, the Georgian Orthodox Church withdrew its membership in the WCC. It accused the group of peddling a distinctly Western brand of Christianity. It also declared hostility toward the proselytizing efforts of some WCC member churches in its backyard and said moves to expand rights for gays and women were politically motivated and out of step with its teachings.

In Moscow, the Russian parliament is once again widely expected to approve legislation that would restrict the activities of religions it considers a threat to the Orthodox Church. While it is not as draconian as the first measure, which President Boris Yeltsin vetoed, it would inhibit the work of many Christian denominations, parachurch organizations, and new religious movements by barring them from owning property until they had operated in Russia for 15 years.

MJP END HEILBRONNER