Beginnings in the Early 20th Century
The movement for closer cooperation among the many various Christian groups, which began among Protestants in the 19th century, developed more strongly in the first quarter of the 20th century with the establishment of the International Missionary Council in Edinburgh in 1910. In 1920, Metropolitan Dorotheus, the Locum Tenens of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, issued an encyclical letter entitled “Unto All Churches of Christ Wheresoever They Be.” Calling for “a closer relationship and a mutual understanding” among all the different Christian groups, this letter sparked the chain of events that eventually led to the formation of the World Council of Churches.
The World Council of Churches
In 1948, the World Council of Churches was formed in Amsterdam from the Faith and Order and Life and Work movements which met in Western Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. Throughout the process there was substantial Orthodox participation, led by the outstanding historian and theologian, Father Georges Florovsky (1893–1979). The Roman Catholic Church refused to take part in the founding of the WCC, along with many conservative Protestant and Pentecostal denominations.
By the time of the second worldwide assembly of the WCC, held in 1954 in Evanston, Illinois, the Orthodox patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch; the autocephalous Church of Greece; the Russian-American Metropolia; and the Romanian Episcopate in America all had become official members of the WCC. During this period, the leaders of the Russian Exarchate in Western Europe, as well as certain Russians who remained faithful to Moscow such as Vladimir Lossky (1903–1958) and Nicolas Zernov (1898–1980), also played a major role in ecumenical activity.
In 1961, at the third worldwide assembly of the WCC in New Delhi, India, the Churches of Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland joined the WCC. The Russian Church in the ’60s was extremely active ecumenically, being led in this area by Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) (1929–1978), head of the Office of External Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate. This activity was greatly curtailed in the ‘70s, most likely due to the changing political needs of the Soviet government, which continued to dominate official Church policy.
One major highlight for Orthodox involvement in the WCC came in 1982 with the publication of the Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry (BEM) document. This work shows very substantial Orthodox influence, especially concerning the real presence of the Holy Spirit in baptism, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon.
Nevertheless, in the 1980s and ’90s, it became increasingly difficult for the Orthodox representatives in the WCC to make the voice of Orthodoxy clearly and unambiguously heard, since there were less than 20 Orthodox member Churches, but up to more than 300 Protestant bodies, all with an equal vote. Mounting frustration over this situation was manifested by the Georgian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches dropping their membership in the WCC in 1997 and 1998 respectively, while the Russian Church suspended active membership in 1998.
To address the concerns of the Orthodox, a special Commission was established at the eighth worldwide assembly of the WCC, held in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998. At the next worldwide assembly, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2006, the Commission’s recommendations were adopted, including a shift to decision-making based on “consensus-building” rather than by “democratic” voting.
The tenth worldwide assembly of the WCC was scheduled to be held in Busan, Korea, in November of 2013, to be attended by delegates from each of the 349 Churches that now make up the WCC.
Besides participation in the WCC, many of the Orthodox Churches have participated in various bi-lateral dialogues, such as with the Oriental Orthodox Churches (of Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, Armenia, and India; sometimes called the Non-Chalcedonian Churches), the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Reformed Churches. In the U.S. there was also a dialogue with Evangelical Christians. These dialogues were still in existence with varying degrees of activity in 2013.
As a whole, the Orthodox continued to stress the top priority of faith and order in the ecumenical dialogue, and to insist on full-fledged unity in the Orthodox Faith as the condition for full Christian unity and sacramental intercommunion. The bishops of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) issued an official encyclical on this issue in 1973.