World Council of Churches Struggling on 2 Fronts

A Fellowship Faces Financial and Theological Problems

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GENEVA, SEPT. 17, 2002 ( The World Council of Churches is not aging well.

At its latest meeting which ended Sept. 3, the WCC’s Central Committee looked for ways to put an end to two crises, one dealing with finances and the other dealing with the role of the member Orthodox churches.

The WCC, founded in 1948, is a fellowship of denominations, now numbering 342, from virtually all Christian traditions. The Catholic Church is not a member, though it maintains relations of dialogue and cooperation.

A WCC economic report revealed a deficit of about 4 million euro in 2001, due to the lack of financial support by more than half its member institutions.

At its beginning, the WCC suggested that members contribute in proportion to their means, but it never fixed a quota. This allowed many Third World denominations to become members.

Indeed, from the start, almost 96% of the WCC budget has been covered by 13 Protestant denominations of Northern Europe. But those 13 have seen their own resources shrink in recent years, which in turn means smaller donations for the WCC.

The financial crisis has had repercussions on WCC activities. Whereas in 1990 it had 359 employees, it now has 183 — and that figure will drop to 162 next year, endangering new projects.

The 158-member Central Committee stated that it «accepted proposals for a plan to considerably reduce budgeted expenditures for 2003,» and appealed to its denominations to be conscious of «the urgency of the situation.»

The financial crisis is a symptom of much deeper problems.

On the one hand, many Protestant denominations are now tending toward fundamentalism. They do not participate in the WCC and show no interest in ecumenism.

On the other hand, Orthodox churches, citing their theological and ecclesiological differences with Protestant denominations, have threatened to leave the WCC if no changes are forthcoming.

In this connection, an important step was taken Sept. 2 when the Central Committee announced the renewal of the WCC’s «structure, style and ethos,» to respond to Orthodox requests.

The renewal affects ecumenical worship services as well as the WCC decision-making process.

The committee’s 35-page report recommended that the WCC start deciding major issues by consensus rather than traditional voting in which the majority wins.

Orthodox delegates complained that their voting powers have waned drastically over the years with the addition of small Protestant denominations to the council. Orthodox membership has remained fairly constant — around 21 churches.

The committee also urged the WCC to drop the term «ecumenical worship» when its members gather to pray. The term implies whole religious services, which may cause theological problems for some denominations, the panel noted. It recommended instead that WCC members join in «common prayer.»

The proposed changes to the WCC’s future life of worship triggered strong reactions.

Bishop Margot Kässmann of the German Evangelical Church expressed regret that the proposals on common prayer would divide worship into «confessional» and «interconfessional» experiences.

But Bishop Christoph Klein of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Romania said his experience on the committee has been «a learning process» where he had gained an appreciation of Orthodox sensitivities about ecumenical worship.

«This is not necessarily a step backward out of fear,» he commented. «It comes out of a dialogue of love, moving to a dialogue of truth and authenticity.»

Father Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America, for his part, has declined to participate in worship services that might give the impression that Orthodox and Protestant denominations have already united.

The proposal on common prayer was referred to the Permanent Committee on Consensus and Collaboration for further study.

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