Worship in the World Council of Churches:
Episcopal Divinity School
the tradition of “ecumenical worship” in light of
recent Orthodox critique
This paper is also published in the Ecumenical
Volume 54, number 1, January-April 2002, pp. 3-27.
Like many first-time participants in a large ecumenical gathering,
my response to the World Council of Churches Assembly in Harare
Zimbabwe in 1998 was thoroughly conditioned by my experience of
the worship life of the Assembly. Naïve to many of the difficulties
which this paper will explore, I was swept away by the creativity
and expressiveness of the daily worship. The powerful presence of
the Holy Spirit and the unity of the worshipping community were
the most profound experiences of the Assembly for me. Thus, although
I am now aware of some of the criticisms of this worship tradition,
I begin this study with an affirmation, grounded in my own experience,
that the worship of the World Council of Churches is genuinely spirit-filled
and worthy of a certain apologetic.
Both the experience of worship in the World Council of
Churches, and the WCC’s discussions about worship,
have developed, deepened and changed emphases over the course of
the WCC’s 50 years.1
In the first few decades of the WCC’s history, worship was
seen as the focal point of division, the place where we come upon
our disunity most sharply. The descriptive, comparative approach
to worship during this period was consistent with the overall approach
of the ecumenical movement. It was a time of learning each other’s
traditions and perspectives. The Faith and Order movement undertook
a comparative study of worship. The common worship at ecumenical
events typically took the form of a rotation of confessional liturgies,
shared with the conference for the purpose of mutual edification.
Yet even from the beginning, there were attempts to express a shared
worship of the ecumenical gathering, united in its cultural and
Worship was on the formal agenda of the World Council from the
earliest days, usually as a problem, but sometimes as a source of
solutions. The Montreal 1963 World Conference on Faith and Order
represents perhaps the high-point of ecumenical theological discussion
about the ecclesiological significance of worship. “At Montreal
Faith and Order recognized the significance of worship not just
as a help to mutual understanding among the churches, but as a key
to ecclesiology, the theological positions of the various churches
and the search for Christian unity.”2
Subsequent to Montreal, Faith and Order’s work became much
more narrowly focused on the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry
project, and “one may rightly wonder whether [Montreal’s]
statements have ever again been taken seriously enough in subsequent
Meanwhile, many other dynamics in the churches and in the world
were emerging, and would have an impact on the worship life of the
World Council of Churches. The entrance of most of the Orthodox
Churches into membership in the World Council; the growing pressures
of secularization in the “west”; and the assertion of
independence and identity by post-colonial churches all served to
break the pattern of confessional worship at ecumenical events.
The liturgical movement, growing in parallel with the ecumenical
movement but with perhaps too little contact between the two, nonetheless
had a significant impact on ecumenical worship. The liturgical movement
became increasingly aware of shared patterns of worship beneath
the seemingly divergent expressions of worship, and thus began to
see itself as making an important contribution to the ecumenical
movement. “Among the liturgists, ecumenical commitment was
not merely the politically correct path nor was it undertaken for
utilitarian reasons. Ecumenical commitment was mandated by the ecumenical
nature of the liturgical tradition itself, by a conviction that
the liturgical tradition is a major component of The Tradition of
the one church.”4
This influence led to a focus on patterns of worship, rather than
liturgical texts, as the key to unity and diversity in Christian
worship. An ecumenically recognized ordo which could be
enacted in culturally and confessionally specific ways “can
provide for both local inculturation and widespread ecumenical recognition.
An ordo can provide us with a place to meet.”5
It was proposed that a shared ordo provide the basis for
churches to be accountable to each other and to the Christian tradition
while still exploring fresh expressions of worship. Such a shared
pattern would allow us to appreciate the distinctive gifts of various
worship traditions while still recognizing that we stand within
the same Tradition.
Whether or not it is possible, or desirable, for the churches to
converge on such an ancient and shared pattern of worship, this
is in essence what the World Council of Churches has done in its
own worship life, at least since the Vancouver Assembly. The worship
of the Vancouver Assembly in 1983 has been widely cited as an apogee
of ecumenical worship, in which a new appreciation of ecumenical
worship was enacted in breathtakingly exciting ways. “No longer
was worship a problem to be addressed by the assembly;
it was now a vital and vibrant experience to be celebrated
at the assembly.”6
It was recognized that worship has more power to unite and reconcile
than do documents and negotiations. The Vancouver Assembly, with
its sense of breakthrough in worship, introduced features which
have since become standard aspects of ecumenical worship. A common
theme expressed by those who try to articulate why the worship Vancouver
worked, is that attention was paid to the outward forms. According
to one participant, worship at Vancouver was “a rare quantum
leap in truth and joy” because of the “degree of care
that had gone into the outer ‘frame’ of the worship”7
Since Vancouver, the World Council of Churches has undertaken carefully
prepared and culturally diverse common worship at major events,
not based on any recognizably confessional form, but based rather
on ancient patterns and contemporary expressions. Crawford and Best
summarize the results of 50 years of ecumenical worship development
with the following ten themes8:
From this brief survey of themes in the development of the ecumenical
worship tradition, it becomes possible to identify some of the unique
features of that tradition. At the most basic level, the ecumenical
worship tradition represents a shared understanding of the nature
of ecumenical worship as an encounter with God in the living Jesus
Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, in an assembly which
is gathered and sent. We are gathered from different traditions,
bringing different emphases to this encounter, and we are sent back
to our particular contexts in mission and service. We are not a
community which continues together week after week, but instead
we bring with us the witness of our home communities, and carry
our ecumenical experience back with us. Ecumenical worship aims
for “the worship of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church
which bears the marks of the parts which are formally committed
in this particular partnership.”9 Ecumenical worship is worship
in which people from different traditions and cultures “consciously
witness in an act of worship that what unites them is more important
than what divides them.”10
- there is an awareness that worship is at least as important as
the business of the meeting
- we’ve shifted from common study of worship to
common experience of worship
- we are aware of the shared patterns of worship underneath our
different confessional expressions
- ecumenical worship combines liturgical and cultural features from
- the variety of confessional material has increased
- the variety of verbal and musical styles has increased
- there is an increased appreciation of non-verbal elements (music,
symbol, movement), of silence, and of lay participation
- we recognize that confessional worship is still valuable for learning
about each other’s traditions
- there is a continued urgency to the problem of eucharistic sharing
- doctrinal convergence must be embodied in the worship life of
churches, as part of reception process
“To be ecumenical, any Christian liturgy has to be authentically
Christian and culturally relevant.”11
In attempting to be both these things, worship in the World Council
of Churches takes a consistent form or ordo, drawing from
the worship patterns of the early church, while incorporating a
wide range of cultural expressions, drawing from the living worship
of the member churches. “Liturgy can only be ecumenical when
it achieves this combination of the local and the global.”12
A simple order of worship, based on the earliest Christian traditions,
serves as the basis for daily worship at WCC events. Per Harling
offers a sample as follows:13
preparation (learning new music)
Within this framework, a wide variety of material, drawn from the
worship life of the churches world-wide, can be used. Many participants
describe this experience with the image of a rainbow — “colourful
variety yielded to a cohesive form” — and find in it an
affirmation of the diversity of creation: “we are not all the
same, nor are we made to be.”14
The intent is to express Christian unity while preserving non-divisive
diversity. Whether ecumenical worship is successful in this regard,
I will discuss below. But the attempt to do so is certainly
a prominent feature of ecumenical worship.
invocation or call to worship (often responsive)
hymn of praise
confession of sins and word of forgiveness
entry of the word (procession and singing)
Old Testament or Epistle reading
response to the word (some kind of symbolic action)
affirmation of faith
intercessions (with sung acclamation between petitions)
Lord’s Prayer (each in his or her own language)
Several other features distinguish ecumenical worship from the
worship of our home churches. Many of these stem from the particular
demands of a global ecumenical event, such as the need to avoid
language — which must be translated — to convey the
message of the worship; and the need in many cases for a visually
compelling worship which can be televised. These unique circumstances
have led to the development of creative and participatory worship
services which become spiritual highlights for the participants.
Symbols and symbolic actions are more effective in a global ecumenical
setting than traditional preaching. Quite often these symbolic actions
create a striking visual effect, while providing worshippers an
opportunity to enact the worship in a sensory, personal and expressive
way. These actions allow the worship to move beyond intellectual
consideration, and encourage interaction between participants, as
well as personal reflection and appropriation of the gospel. They
become profound moments which, for me, are some of the most significant
spiritual highlights of my ecumenical experience.
Likewise, music is a key feature of ecumenical worship. The cultural
and stylistic diversity of the music, as well as the way it is used
in worship, are distinctive elements of worship in the WCC, perhaps
driven by the needs of a global worshipping body, but resulting
in a spiritually profound experience nonetheless. The Protestant
musical traditions of hymn-singing punctuating the worship, and
a performance-oriented choir, are downplayed. Instead, music is
woven through the entire worship, with the feel of a sung liturgy.
Per Harling offers four features of music in ecumenical worship:15
The multi-lingual nature of the congregation it itself a feature
of ecumenical worship. Scripture is read, and prayers are offered,
in the language of the reader, without translation. The Lord’s
Prayer is said, in unison, each in his or her own language. This
has become a very significant reminder to me of the ultimate relativism
of our human cultures in God’s eyes.
- multi-cultural, multi-lingual — music as contextualization
as well as cross-contextual communication
- short sung acclamations, drawing on the Orthodox tradition. Acclamations
are easy to learn, and their repetition enhances the participatory
quality of worship. These repetitive and meditative acclamations
allow for common prayer without a common spoken language.
- wider range of instruments than just western church organ
- role of enthusiastic “animator” to teach and lead
the worship, to serve as a mirror to the congregation
The large size of global ecumenical gatherings allows for worship
services that are longer, grander, wordier, and more complex than
in local settings. The unnatural context of an ecumenical event
allows for creative and ambitious liturgy that would not be possible
in a congregation. Likewise, the numbers of people place certain
demands on the worship space. In recent times, Assembly worship
has been held in a tent, which then takes on spiritual significance
as we are reminded of our identity as pilgrim people, sojourners
in this world. The size of the gathering and the complexity of the
worship also allow for a wide participation of leadership, in many
These features describe the look and feel of ecumenical worship.
It is important, also, to describe the spiritual tone. As I have
experienced it, the spirituality of the ecumenical movement is confessional
and kenotic. We are moved to contrite humility in the face of our
divided brothers and sisters, and as we empty ourselves, we find
one another in Christ. The following personal description of an
ecumenical worship event expresses what I have also experienced:
At least in this way our gathering was representative for, like
the two on the Emmaus road, we began by admitting that, in spite
of all the promises received, life in the world in which we lived
fell short of that for which we hoped and prayed. Now, like those
disciples, we learnt anew something of the living word which creates,
redeems and transforms. It is always a painful process. Disunity
cannot be resolved through accusation and argument. In the clamour
for many voices to be heard we sometimes risked drowning the one
clear holy voice which alone could unite. We hurt each other. In
the struggle over power we failed to recognize the nature of the
authority of the servant in our midst. Yet living the paradox of
the gospel, we also discovered that when we were ready to empty
ourselves we were able to receive what was being offered. When we
drew near to Christ we drew near to each other and in the affirmation
of this unity we were empowered to pray together for others in Christ’s
As a final feature of ecumenical worship, something must be said
of the process by which it is developed. Ecumenical worship, the
worship that looks as I have described, is not designed by a solitary
person. In its process, it embodies the product that it creates.
An ecumenically and culturally diverse group of people discern together
the message of the Holy Spirit for this particular community at
this particular time, taking account of the gifts and burdens of
every member of the body. Ecumenical worship is carefully prepared,
with exquisite attention paid to every detail, in order to accomplish
acts of worship worthy of a global event.
Ecumenical worship is challenging. It involves every member in
forms of expression that are unfamiliar, and at times uncomfortable.
Such worship, like the ecumenical movement itself, takes commitment
and determination. Those who are committed to it have discovered
that the fruits are well worth the effort.
This last comment, of course, begs the question of what ecumenical
worship is for. Why is it worthwhile? In other words, how
is worship an ecumenical methodology? Most people would agree that
“our ecumenical calling has worshipping together at its heart”17
We must pray together. But for what purpose? There are a number
of ways of answering this question.
The most modest claim for ecumenical worship is a negative one:
in worship, we experience our disunity. At best, this experience
troubles our conscience. It can stir in us a holy dissatisfaction
with the status quo and urge us on in our ecumenical work. At its
worst, the experience of disunity in worship leads to a rejection
of worship as a valuable ecumenical experience.
Even Christians who are ecumenically committed do not all regard
shared worship as a significant part of that commitment. Some would
put shared service and mission, cooperation over events and programmes
and appointments, much higher up the priority list than shared worship.
Some, perhaps many, hold the view that ecumenical worship is in
some way less satisfactory, less pure, than the worship of any one
tradition on its own. It is certainly true that no one is quite
at home in ecumenical worship.18
While it is true that worship can reveal with painful clarity the
limits of our fellowship, it would be quite unsatisfactory to reduce
the role of worship in the ecumenical movement to simply its negative
For many people, worship at ecumenical events gives them the strength
to carry on in the difficult business of the Council. The music,
symbolic action, scripture and prayer, shared with the gathered
conference participants, are the nourishment they need to face a
contentious debate in the plenary hall. They seek in worship “sustenance
and empowerment for their common witness and service”19
This is certainly an important aspect of an individual delegate’s
experience, but it carries the implication that the real
work takes place elsewhere, and that worship is simply preparation
for ecumenism, rather than an enactment of it.
Often, the sense of spiritual renewal, of excitement and energy,
which the worship generates, spills over into the plenary hall.
The worship has the potential to effect the business of the Council,
especially as these are usually thematically related. At times,
the worship life of the conference becomes its centerpiece. “As
often happens, the worship life, with its multi-cultural, symbolic
and musically colorful expressions, had become the very heart of
this ecumenical gathering.”20 The conference can often express
its consensus on business matters more fully in worship than in
the plenary documents.
The relationship between theological documents and worship has
been considered by the Faith and Order movement over the course
of its history. From the very beginning, Faith and Order has been
grounded in “the insight that common prayer and worship anticipate,
express and prepare experiences of Christian communion that both
reflect and stretch beyond theological agreements and convergences”21
At its best, the Faith and Order movement has understood that Christian
unity is not achieved by comparing dogmatic statements. Rather,
we must experience unity in the elementary functions of
church life and worship, where dogmatics have their true source
and meaning. “Unfortunately, the question of worship was not
integrated into the discussions on the nature of doctrinal statements
and the nature of the unity sought in the Ecumenical Movement.”22
There have been statements on the significance of worship in theological
convergence, for instance: “Worship tests the reality of our
professions of faith and of community. In some ways, too, truth,
is better expressed in worship than in propositional statements,
for worship involves (or should involve) not only the intellect
but also the imagination, the emotion, and the will, not only the
spiritual but also the material.”23
Yet this has sometimes seemed like lip service, as the ecumenical
project of theological convergence continues to be academic, doctrinal,
and lacking in liturgical expression.
Yet for many people, worship is the primary way they experience
Christian unity. In worship, we catch a glimpse of full koinonia.
We experience the fact that the Spirit desires our unity. “For
we are not the only ones who desire our unity: the Spirit itself
hungers and thirsts for our unity, and the Spirit’s desire
is unquenchable, and finally it will prevail.”24 There is
an eschatological dimension of ecumenical worship — in it
we get a foretaste of the unity for which we strive.
Finally, worship not only marks the destination, it also carries
us along. In prayer, we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, rather
than our own power, to heal divisions. Unity in worship is a liturgical
prefiguation of Christian unity. In our common devotion to the triune
God, we experience our common bonds as Christians, far ahead of
what the theological agreements are able to express. “If we
value Christ above all else, above even our own divisions, then
these things [common, central things of worship] will be dear to
us, and if they are, then through them Christ will draw us to himself.
In seeking Christ in worship — in finding Christ
there, and being found by him — we approach the Centre
of all things. And in finding that common centre we shall surely
find each other.”25
Thus I would claim that ecumenical worship is perhaps the most powerful
and profound methodology in the repertoire of the World Council
In presenting such a positive description of ecumenical worship,
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that this worship
is vulnerable to several distortions. Ecumenical worship can be
distorted by an instrumentality which looks to worship as a means
of accomplishing other ends. Worship is always done for its own
sake, for the sake of worshipping God. When it is made to serve
some other purpose — highlighting an issue or making a point
— its doxological character is distorted. Worship can be thematic,
and the prayers can relate to a particular concern of the community,
but ecumenical worship must resist the demand that it serve some
other praxis-oriented agenda. Liturgy is not primarily catechesis.
A second distortion of ecumenical worship is non-denominationalism,
“a bland form of worship which avoids anything that might
offend anyone.”26 Worship should always have a disturbing
character. If we domesticate it to such an extent that it loses
that edge, in an effort to find a lowest common denominator, we
have failed to give expression to the ecumenical movement. Ecumenism
is not non-denominationalism, in the sense of “cheap”
unity, and ecumenical worship should also resist such cheap common
A third distortion of ecumenical worship is eclecticism. In an
effort to create culturally diverse worship experiences, that diversity
can become an end in itself. The worship event becomes a collection
of separate elements, strung together not because they each serve
the coherent narrative of the worship, but because they represent
a laundry-list of special interest groups.
The fourth distortion of ecumenical worship involves an unexamined
ideology of pluralism among some participants and some churches.
There is sometimes an attempt to define ecumenical worship as “services
in which persons from many different confessions can find themselves
comfortably at home.”27
This is an inherently pluralistic definition, and there are persons
from some confessions who could not find themselves at home in this
attempt at home-building through diversity. This rejection of pluralism
doesn’t indicate that these churches are reactionary or xenophobic,
but that they understand and experience worship as a cohesive gesture
rooted in a particular community that has continuity in time and
space, and universality through its organic relationships with other
particular communities. The attempt to be all things to all people
by being a little bit of everything, is an authentic expression
of a particular ethos, but it is no more “universal”
than is the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostomos. The great blind
spot of pluralism is the myth that a collection of particularities
becomes a universal which adequately expresses every particular.
The truth is that only those particularities that attach a prior
value to diversity as an end in itself will find themselves adequately
expressed, while all others will be effectively silenced. Thus the
ideology of pluralism is a distortion of ecumenical worship. A much
better understanding would recognize that, in ecumenical worship
as in all Christian worship, no one can find themselves “comfortably
at home” for we are all pilgrims in an eschatological journey.
As easy as it may be to name these factors as potential distortions
of ecumenical worship, it is much more difficult to discern when
a particular instance crosses the line. This raises all the thorny
questions of inculturation — what forms of expression in worship
are legitimate “non-divisive diversity”, and when does
something become distorted or syncretistic? Who has the right to
judge? On what basis?28
It is clear that the trajectory of development in ecumenical worship,
and the features and functions of worship as it is currently experienced
in the World Council of Churches, are not without controversy. Recently,
the Orthodox member churches of the WCC have been pressing their
concerns and dissatisfaction with the ecumenical movement in general,
and with ecumenical worship as a particular issue. Their criticisms
are serious and deserve a sympathetic hearing. There are ways in
which the ecumenical worship tradition is in need of correction.
Yet it is my claim that the Orthodox go too far if they intend to
call for a full retreat from the tradition that has developed in
the World Council of Churches. In fact, the call for re-confessionalization
of ecumenical worship exposes the fact that there is a living tradition
of worship, indigenous to the ecumenical movement, which is deserving
of articulation and apology.
Since the breakup of communist Eastern Europe, and in particular
in the year before the 1998 Harare Assembly of the World Council
of Churches, Orthodox churches have been voicing an ever more assertive
critique of the WCC. They are now able to say, with some precision
and confidence, that the structure, style and ethos of the World
Council is alienating to their sensibilities and in need of correction.
Many factors which are internal to the Orthodox churches and Orthodox
countries are contributing to this phenomenon, and I can not pretend
to do these justice. But in summary, these include: a new freedom
for the churches to function without state-sponsored suppression;
a rapid increase in church participation and popular interest in
spiritual matters; the struggle of the churches to meet this spiritual
clamor, given the extreme shortage of educated leadership; an influx
of western evangelistic groups, many of whom exhibit flagrant insensitivity
to the Orthodox tradition; and a consequent rise in reactionary
fundamentalist movements within Orthodox churches. Orthodox ecumenists
are often caught in very precarious positions within their own church
politics, as the ecumenical movement is seen to be an instrument
of western Protestants. “Ecumenism is commonly described as
the ‘panheresy’ of our time and the Orthodox ecumenists
as traitors of the faith, of the Holy Tradition, of the Canons and
of the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils and of the Fathers of
But it is not simply internal Orthodox politics which drive the
current criticisms of the World Council. In pointing to the European
Protestant presuppositions of the Council, they expose an unspoken
ethos which is in fact alienating to more than just Orthodox Christians.
Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, Indigenous Peoples, youth, women,
Pentecostals, and other churches which are neither Orthodox nor
Protestant — all these groups also feel difficulty in participating
in a Council modeled on a European parliament. There is widespread
support for the kinds of changes now being considered by the Special
Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches
(on which I serve). However, to my knowledge, the Orthodox are alone
in making a blanket criticism of the worship tradition of the WCC,
and it is on this in particular that I will focus.
In the period before Harare, the Orthodox critique of the WCC reached
crisis proportions, and two Orthodox churches resigned from membership
(Bulgarian and Georgian). Several meetings were held in 1998 to
attempt to assess the state of Orthodox ecumenical relations and
reach a common inter-Orthodox position on the necessary changes.
At the first of these meetings, in Thessaloniki in early May 1998,
the Eastern Orthodox churches agreed on a common position for their
delegates to the Harare Assembly. In the statement from Thessaloniki,
worship itself is not named as a concern of the Orthodox. Rather,
abstention from worship is used as a tool for expressing the seriousness
of the structural concerns. Thus the agreement that “Orthodox
delegates will not participate in ecumenical services, common prayers,
worship and other religious ceremonies at the Assembly.”30
This abstention, together with abstentions from voting, is intended
to convey that “we are no longer satisfied with the present
forms of Orthodox membership in the WCC.”
Later that month, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox delegates met in
Damascus in preparation for the Assembly. In the report of this
meeting, worship is named as a concern of the Orthodox churches,
in a section entitled “Common Prayer”:
In the history of the modern ecumenical movement, Orthodox Christians
have joined in prayer services with non-Orthodox on the basis that
our prayer is for the sake of Christian unity, and that we are praying
to the same Triune God. Yet the issue of common prayer has increasingly
become a topic of discussion.
We take note of the absence in the Eighth Assembly programme of
an official “Assembly Eucharist” and that local parishes
of different communions will host eucharistic celebrations. This
is an accurate reflection of the reality of the ecumenical situation
today, in which there are a variety of approaches to the issue of
Non-eucharistic common prayer, however, has also become an increasing
area of tension in Orthodox discussion. Two pastoral
factors make common prayer more difficult now than ever before:
the increased tension within our churches on this issue, and the
changing character of what we experience as “ecumenical
worship” in recent years and assemblies. In ecumenical worship
services, there is a marked decrease in the sensitivity to the
different traditions, their liturgical sensibilities and liturgical
Thus here we see the first attempt to make clear the concerns of
the Orthodox regarding ecumenical worship. They reaffirm the principle
of prayer for Christian unity, but express difficulty in two respects:
the internal tensions within Orthodox churches (to which I referred
above) and a vague sense that the character of ecumenical worship
has changed in such a way that Orthodox sensibilities are no longer
respected. In some way, which is difficult for the Orthodox to name
with specificity, the “tradition” which I claim and
describe above, is insensitive to Orthodoxy. I will make some preliminary
attempt to specify that insensitivity later in this paper.
At the very end of May 1998 (a busy month for Orthodoxy!) there
was an inter-Orthodox consultation at the New Skete Monastery in
New York on “Orthodox Liturgical Renewal and Visible Unity.”
The report of the consultation includes the following paragraphs:
26. The consultation recognized that in recent times some Orthodox
have questioned whether praying with other Christians is in fact
contributing to the restoration of the kind of Christian unity willed
by Christ. On the one hand, Orthodox in Eastern Europe, who have
become the object of western proselytism, feel under siege and have
experienced the breakdown of previous ecumenical relationships.
On the other hand, many Orthodox argue that some Christian churches
in dialogue with us have experienced radical changes in ethos, priorities,
and moral stance which have come to be reflected in patterns of
prayer and worship.
27. In order for ecumenical services of prayer to contribute to
reconciliation and unity, they should reflect the kinds of fundamental
principles of Christian worship sketched above. Unfortunately, rather
than being theocentric and dialogical, ecumenical worship sometimes
has been dominated and driven by issues which not only deflect from
the concern for Christian unity and reconciliation but also themselves
become the focus of attention. Rather than having communion with
the Triune God as its focus, ecumenical worship sometimes has become
the platform for particular social and political agendas and causes
incompatible with the Gospel. Of course, in worship it is appropriate
to lift up our living concerns in prayer. But when these concerns
become the dominant element, Christian worship is deformed. Here
we must acknowledge that we Orthodox have not always been blameless
in this regard.
28. Orthodox participation in ecumenical prayer has been predicated
upon the fact that the fundamental convictions of the apostolic
faith continue to be expressed through the Scripture readings, prayers,
and hymns of the worshipping community. When these fundamental convictions
of the apostolic faith are lacking or intentionally distorted, it
becomes difficult if not impossible for the Orthodox to participate.
When, however, these convictions are embodied in ecumenical worship
and do reflect the fundamental principles presented above, we should
rejoice in joining our brothers and sisters in Christ in praise
29. Mindful of the prayer of the Lord “that they all may
be one,” we remain committed to the search for Christian reconciliation
and visible unity. We remain convinced that common prayer and common
life will, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, lead to the healing
of our divisions and disunity, so that God will be glorified and
the world will believe.32
This statement points clearly to the distortion of “instrumentality”,
to which I referred above. It also recognizes that internal Orthodox
factors impact on Orthodox ecumenical relations, and that changes
in some non-Orthodox churches place a heavy strain on continued
mutual commitment. (This last phrase is often a coded way of referring
to the ordination of women and the acceptance of homosexuality in
the church, as well as a perceived compromise of trinitarian doctrine
in the use of inclusive language for God.) Yet the New Skete statement
gives a strong affirmation in principle of Orthodox participation
in ecumenical prayer.
In the fall of 1998, the Orthodox members of the WCC staff attempted
to interpret the Orthodox concerns to the other member churches,
to the rest of the WCC staff, and to the delegates to the upcoming
Harare Assembly. A staff group paper, analyzing Orthodox complaints,
refers in passing to “the increasing difficulty of ecumenical
worship”33 but offers no further explanation. A feature story
on the Orthodox situation, written for the general public and mainstream
press, states only that “worship services in ecumenical settings
can tend strongly towards a character that is quite foreign to Orthodox
sensibilities.”34 Again nothing is given to help the non-Orthodox
understand which aspects of ecumenical worship cause offense. The
preoccupation during these months was with the Orthodox critique
of the governing structures of the Council.
The WCC went into the Harare Assembly with a sense of foreboding
about the Orthodox. As a first-time delegate, I recall the nervous
feeling of the Assembly on the first day, when it was not clear
whether the Orthodox delegates would participate, and to what extent.
I also recall how challenging it was for me to understand the nature
of the Orthodox concerns, and how obviously difficult it was for
the Orthodox delegates to express those concerns with specificity.
A great deal of attention was given to the Orthodox “crisis”
in Harare. However, neither the Moderator’s nor the General
Secretary’s reports to the Harare Assembly, in which they
interpreted the current situation for the delegates, mentioned worship.
Nor did the report of Policy Reference Committee I, which recommended
the formation of the Special Commission35. On the whole, it has
only been recently (since Morges 1999) that worship has been a clear
item on the agenda. My sense is that it has been necessary to take
some steps forward in addressing the crisis in order for the worship
concerns to emerge. This does not mean that they are secondary concerns.
On the contrary, I tend to agree with the assessment of Konrad Raiser,
General Secretary, that worship will prove one of the most difficult
and decisive items on the Special Commission agenda.36
In the events since Harare, we see worship slowly emerge as a concern.
The Special Commission met for its inaugural session in December
1999 in Morges, Switzerland. Prior to the plenary meeting, the Orthodox
members of the Special Commission met to organize their concerns
and present a clear list of “desiderata” to the Special
Commission. Worship does not appear on this list.37 Nor does it
appear in the opening remarks to the Special Commission given by
the Moderator of the Central Committee and by the General Secretary.38
However, when Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Ephesus, co-Moderator
of the Special Commission, offered his personal reflections to the
Morges plenary, his comments touched on worship as an example of
WCC actions and ethos that provoke the Orthodox:
In particular, under the influence of conservative and reactionary
circles, common prayer of the Orthodox with other Christians, including
all the canonical implications of this practice, is being presented
as a sinful and completely unacceptable act. In addition, there
is the use of the WCC platform by some partners in order to project
their syncretistic tendencies and practices (e.g. Canberra assembly);
extravagances during worship services or eucharistic celebrations;
the whole issue of intercommunion in its many forms at various levels,
creating questions and problems of conscience; practices that are
alien not only to the Orthodox tradition but also to some parts
of the Anglican and Protestant traditions (ordination of women,
use of inclusive language in theology and worship, ambiguous theological
positions taken by leading figures of the movement, moral and social
positions provocative to the Orthodox tradition and ethos yet adopted
and promoted by certain instruments of the ecumenical movement).
These gradually accumulate, broadening the spectrum of reasons forcing
the Orthodox to withdraw from the Council, and causing many problems
to the churches.39
There are a number of specific issues embedded in this dense paragraph:
ancient canons regarding prayer with heretics; syncretism (esp.
the incident with Dr. Chung in Canberra); ordination of women; inclusive
language; and certain moral stances of certain Protestant churches.
There are also more generalized concerns, such as discomfort with
an extravagant style. The concern with intercommunion is difficult
to understand in this context as it is phrased rather euphemistically.
The WCC does not prejudge the stance of any member church on its
eucharistic practice, and no longer sponsors eucharistic worship
at WCC events.
The Morges report does not name worship as a concern, and in describing
the scope of the Special Commission’s future work it only
offers the question “What is the meaning of staying together
in prayer, worship and discernment of the will of God?”40
After Morges, the Special Commission worked in four subcommittees.
Subcommittee II (on the style and ethos of our life together in
the WCC) and Subcommittee III (on theological convergences and differences
between Orthodox and other traditions in the WCC) both discovered
worship to be a central concern within the scope of their agenda.
It is at this point that worship emerges as a focal issue for the
Subcommittee II met in Vilemov, Czech Republic in August 2000.
In a paper given at the meeting, Ioan Sauca (Romanian Orthodox professor
at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute) addressed the question of ecumenical
worship and urged the Orthodox churches to take responsibility for
the internal divisions within their churches, rather than displacing
these tensions onto the WCC and asking the Special Commission to
solve them. He speaks in particular about attempts to revive church
canons forbidding prayer with heretics, and apply these to the contemporary
Unfortunately, the fundamentalist anti-ecumenical Orthodox groups,
without any critical analysis of the concrete situations in the
Early Church when certain canons were issued, are just repeating
and applying today the canons referring to the “heretics”
and “schismatics” of those times. Such canons and other
Patristic references which speak about situations of the past are
quoted and largely disseminated among Orthodox faithful today by
the “apostles” of anti-ecumenism. Who are the heretics
that the canons refer to? Anybody who does not belong to the Orthodox
Church, they would reply.
Therefore, it must be clear: it is not the structure of the ecumenical
worships or their content that is necessarily taken into question,
but the very praying together with others. Photographs and videos
of bishops and Orthodox clergy participating in ecumenical worships
are distributed and accusations of betrayal of Orthodoxy by the
“orthodox ecumenists” are being made.41
Here Fr. Sauca draws a clear distinction between those critics
of the WCC who are calling for reform and renewal of the Council’s
worship life, and those who make an a priori rejection
of all ecumenical worship. The former, which is strongly supported
by the statements from Damascus and New Skete, should be clearly
distinguished from the latter as the Special Commission continues
its work in this area. Fr. Sauca urges the Orthodox delegates not
to succumb to internal reactionary pressures, but rather to remain
committed to the ecumenical quest, and to work with renewed vigor
on the question of the ecclesial significance of non-Orthodox churches.
In the WCC, the member Churches come together on a common platform
at least in what concerns the nature of the Trinitarian God, of
the divinity and humanity of Christ, our God and Saviour according
to the Scripture. Some are even pushing further that Baptism be
included in the basis, as well. Could anyone responsibly say that
those central elements of faith that we are witnessing together
create no mystical and spiritual bond of Christian unity among the
WCC member churches, however that “link” may be considered?
Can we not say together “Our Father” since our understanding
of God is a common one?42
Subcommittee II’s report from Vilemov includes the following
section on worship:
We affirmed that: Worship became the essential part of life of
the ecumenical movement, bringing people from various Church traditions
together in prayer and in one communion/koinonia of faith in the
life of Christ. Worship is also considered the sacred and holy heart
of every Christian Church and community, because Christian liberty
and virtue arise out of the fertile soil of the Church’s memory
of the salvific events in the life, death and resurrection of our
Lord Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. This
fundamental fact was recognized by all the participants that integrate
the work of our Sub-Committee.
Nevertheless, a pervasive influence of secularism in Western
culture has constricted the Christian imagination and invention
of new things and forms. The experience of the eschatological
future is being lost and the moral, formative and spiritually
transformative power of the liturgy is diminishing. Thus Orthodox
tradition holds that the remembrance (or anamnesis) of the Kingdom
in eucharistic worship remains the substantial soil from which
grows all that belongs singularly to Christian ethics and style
of the life in Christ.
The group recognized the need to continue the dialogue around the
The Theocentric and dialogical meaning of the true worship
in the different Church traditions.
The importance of the eschatological dimension of our liturgies
in the middle of the process of secularization and the culture
of hopelessness that are very much present in our societies.
The cosmic dimension in our liturgies seeing the entire
creation as sacrament.
The Confession of sins that will include our continued
prayer for the painful situation of our divisions that do not
allow us to enter into the fullness of our Conciliar fellowship.
The meaning of the liturgy after liturgy
that will guide us to a continued practice of ethical values
in our societies.
The healing dimension of our liturgies (Ez 47:1-14).
The formative and transformative character of our liturgies.
Efforts have been made to find liturgical forms where the
different traditions could feel represented, but in this attempt
we need to acknowledge that sometimes we are not totally successful
in this process.
For this reason we recommend:
To go much deeper in the analysis of the meaning of ecumenical
worship, and to explore more the use of various Church liturgies
with ecumenical participation.43
Although this section begins with a strong affirmation of worship
in the ecumenical movement, based on a common recognition of a shared
Christian faith, it is in this report that we first see the recommendation
to move the WCC’s worship to a more confessionally based practice
(the meaning of “Church liturgies”), and to renew a
study of worship in our various traditions and in the ecumenical
movement. In the context of this report, with its strong affirmation
of ecumenical worship, these comments can be seen as a positive
attempt to reform ecumenical worship. The concluding sentence of
the Vilemov report states: “Our experience together proves
once more, that where there is the invocation of the Holy Spirit
people from different Church traditions can meet, share and discuss
openly and with a language of truth issues and concerns that divide
them, having different ecclesial lives but experiencing and confessing
the same one faith in Christ.”44
The Special Commission’s Subcommittee III met in Crete, also
in August of 2000. It received a paper from Bishop Vasilios (Karayiannis)
of Trimithus, which included a section on ecumenical worship, as
The issue of common prayer during ecumenical meetings is a more
serious problem that it might seem, for several reasons.
Formal canons prohibit priests from common prayer with heretics.
“Let any Bishop, or Presbyter, or deacon that merely joins
in prayer with heretics be suspended, but if he had permitted them
to perform any service as Clergymen, let him be deposed” (Apostolic
Canon 45). Laodicea Canon 34 sounds an even stricter note in its
contents and formulation: “No Christian shall forsake the
martyrs of Christ, and turn to false martyrs, that is, to those
of the heretics, or those who formerly were heretics; for they are
aliens from God. Let those, therefore, who go after them, be anathema.”
However, there are comments to be made about the nature of these
canons and their application today:
The first general remark, which is not confined only to the present
matter, is that the function of canons in the conscience and in
the life of the Orthodox Church is to dictate the Orthodox attitude
when the Church is confronted to certain matters at certain times.
Moreover, there is always a distinction between the letter and
the spirit of the canons, i.e., the methodology of interpretation
and application of the canons. This insures that the canons do not
function anachronistically, in such a way as to mistake the issues
arising at one time with those of another time. A distinction exists
also between strict canonical application and “economy”,
wherein canons can be applied taking into account the actual situation
at hand. “Economy” does not mean overlooking canons
but rather enforcing them within the establishment of the Church
in a spirit of compassion, and bearing in mind the salvation of
The terms “heretic” and “heresy” have
been charged with a wide range of meanings. Reverting to its etymology,
the term “heresy”, as is widely known, denotes the “selection
of one part from the whole”. Consequently, the conscious selection
or rejection of one particular form of teaching of Christianity
created numerous schisms. To select one part instead taking a holistic
approach to the canonical and doctrinal definitions, is to place
oneself beyond the canonical limits of the Church. While the term
“heretic” (and all its cognates) has been charged with
a solely negative and simplistic meaning, few efforts have been
made to correct or analyze its true meaning. Consequently its use
tends to disappear, and we might add that it has already disappeared
completely within the ecumenical movement.
This situation relates to another issue relevant to the question
of “common prayer”. Even if the term “heresy”
is abandoned, the selecting out of one ecclesiastical experience,
one distinctive manner or faith tradition of one confessional family,
creates a particular ecclesiastical attitude and way of life. This
is obvious when comparing the traditions of the Protestant Churches
with those of the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church.
Prayer, or common prayer, is more than simply a sociological
phenomenon, or a good deed. Rather, prayer pertains to the essential
relationship of man with God; it is that which creates the association
of peace and love among the members of the praying Christian assembly.
It also confirms the correctness of one’s faith.
Many Orthodox people believe, on one hand, that “ecumenical”
prayer does not satisfy the above prerequisites, as it constitutes
an amalgam of elements originating from all traditions. When these
elements are placed outside the predetermined context of the praying
community or church — putting it as mildly as one can —
they are reduced to a kind of folklore and have nothing to do with
the essence of prayer. On the other hand, “ecumenical prayer”,
due to its lack of common ecclesiastical foundation, becomes in
many cases a kind of theatrical presentation, which in an absence
of sacramental, spiritual and ecclesiological and ecclesiastical
character often offends Orthodox people in their perception of what
Here Bishop Vasilios raises the concerns about worship, which had
hitherto been under-examined. He addresses the difficulties of applying
church canons to contemporary situations, and also points to the
“eclectic” distortion of ecumenical worship as I described
it above. Interestingly, he also points to a “theatrical”
character of worship which is removed from an ecclesial context.
This is, in many ways, the crux of the matter, as I will explore
below. Would it be any less “theatrical” to “put
on” an Orthodox liturgy for the benefit of an ecumenical gathering?
Who is the ecclesial community that worships at an Assembly? The
fact that, in large measure, worshippers at ecumenical worship events
do not experience the worship as mere performance, raises
the question of the ecclesial significance of ecumenical worship.
The subcommittee meeting in Crete reached a very similar conclusion
to that of Vilemov, but with a very different tone. Here there is
no foundational affirmation of the importance of common worship
in the search for Christian unity, and the criticisms are not couched
in the usual diplomatic euphemisms.
Orthodox participants have found certain elements within the
worship life of the WCC to be incompatible with apostolic tradition.
These include (a) the use of inclusive language in referring to
God, (b) the leadership of services by ordained women, (c) the
introduction of syncretistic elements. Moreover, there are canons
which prohibit the Orthodox from “prayer with heretics”
(e.g., Apostolic 45; Laodicea 34). There is no formal conciliar
Orthodox decision on the “heretical status” of other
member churches in the WCC. Also, while some apply a strict interpretation
of these canons, others take an approach of “economy”
(oikonomia). As a consequence, at the present moment,
the Orthodox member churches take a variety of approaches to common
Developing a life of common prayer within the WCC requires recognition
of an already-existing degree of unity, something not all member
churches are at the moment able to acknowledge.
This sub-committee recommends to the WCC that its officers
and Executive Committee give immediate attention to the worship
within the ecumenical fellowship, aiming at situating worship
and prayer within a living tradition.
Furthermore, acknowledging the WCC Constitution, that “in
seeking koinonia in faith, life, witness and service, the churches
through the Council will seek to fulfill their common calling
to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit”,
this sub-committee recommends that both the member churches
and the WCC as institution focus attention on:
the nature of prayer; and
the interrelationship between the central Christian
practices: confession of common faith, celebration of the
sacraments, and diaconal service to the world and its people
Thus this subcommittee, like the previous, recommended urgent attention
to the study of worship, as well as a move toward “situating
worship and prayer within a living tradition.” When the Special
Commission met for its second plenary, in October 2000 in Cairo,
worship was a clear item on the agenda. (I was not able to be present
at that meeting.) The report from Cairo to the Central Committee
contains a section on worship, and the next phase of Special Commission
work will involve a subcommittee to look intensively at issues around
ecumenical worship. The Cairo report reads:
5. Worship/Common Prayer
5.1 The positive witness of past practice needed to be taken into
- Fifty years experience together of common prayer.
- This has resulted in Christians in the western tradition adopting
aspects of Orthodox worship and Orthodox employing some emphases
of the worship of other Christian traditions without compromise.
- In practice Orthodox and Christians of other traditions attended
each others’ worship, although for the Orthodox this is done
within the principle of economia.
5.2 Two problematics are to be identified:
- Issues of heresy and economia: it is questioned whether ancient
canons relating to heresy could be directly applied to relationships
with contemporary Christians confessing the Trinitarian faith and
the divinity of Jesus Christ, whilst acknowledging that some did
make this connection. Others held that the principle of economia
can be applied to the issue of common prayer.
- It is to be suggested that the basis for common prayer “requires
recognition of an already existing degree of unity” and some
questioned whether that existed.
5.3 In the light of those considerations it is suggested:
- Life together in the WCC requires prayer together which can become
a symbol of visible unity, liberating those involved from misconceptions
and misunderstandings enabling them to discover each other.
- The term “common prayer” is to be preferred to “worship”
in order to avoid implications concerning ritual.
- In style and character “common prayer” must avoid
syncretistic elements and the use of inclusive language in relation
- Common prayer should focus on the search for unity and should
contain Trinitarian and eschatological dimensions and symbolism.
- Such prayer should arise out of the living liturgical traditions
of WCC member churches.
- Efforts for maximum comprehensibility of common prayer should
be made and the meaning of any symbols featuring in the service
5.4 For every major event or gathering, a committee of equal members
of representatives of Orthodox and other member churches of the
Council should be formed to prepare common prayer for that event
or gathering. It was noted that for other events guidelines as to
good practice already existed.
5.5 It is proposed that a group of experts further study these
matters and present their final formulations to the Special Commission.
This is the report which was given to the Central Committee of
the WCC in January-February 2001 in Potsdam, Germany. In his introduction
to the Special Commission’s report, Metropolitan Chrysostomos
While encompassing also questions of theology, and even of canon
law, the way in which we worship and pray together is the area in
our fellowship which perhaps most directly relates to issues of
‘ethos and style of our life together.’ Prayer and worship
is at the very heart of Christian life, and the fact that we in
the WCC feel strongly about it is probably a good sign. …
The Special Commission’s recommendation so far, that worship
in WCC contexts should ‘arise out of the living liturgical
traditions of WCC member churches’ is significant. In the
first place, it calls into question some of the current methodologies,
which are perceived to be overly eclectic and sometimes spiritually
confusing. But this recommendation should also invite the question
of what exactly is a ‘living liturgical tradition.’47
In these comments, the Metropolitan reflects the extent to which
the Special Commission has uncovered the most difficult issues facing
the churches in the WCC. He offers a very perceptive and important
insight — that it is a good sign, that we care so much about
worship. This reflects the general ethos of Orthodoxy, that worship
matters, that what we say in prayer implicates and commits
us. Many Protestant churches could benefit from this emphasis. Metropolitan
Chrysostomos also highlights the difficulty of the Special Commission’s
recommendation. What constitutes a “living liturgical tradition”?
Before examining this question more closely, it would be worthwhile
to attempt to understand the Orthodox ethos of worship in more detail.
A comment from Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon at the Santiago
de Compostela Faith and Order Conference stuck a responsive chord
with the conference. He said: “the creed is not there for
theologians to study, but for congregations to sing.”48 This
simple statement reveals a deep truth about the Orthodox approach
to worship. Communal worship is an incarnation of doctrine. This
has ecclesiological and missiological implications, but more than
anything else it points to the fact that worship matters. When doctrine
is enacted in worship, the worshippers are implicated; they are
committed to what has been prayed.
The Orthodox take “lex orandi, lex credendi” quite
seriously (as, of course, other Christians do as well). What is
said in worship takes on a binding doctrinal quality. In an ecumenical
setting, this can cause Orthodox worshippers considerable anxiety.49
In a worst case scenario, Orthodox delegates can be captured on
videotape in a prayer event which expresses something quite unacceptable.
There are indeed anti-ecumenical activists who seek to do exactly
this, and to distribute these images as widely as possible, in as
damaging a light as possible. Although this is a propagandistic
outrage, it is made possible within Orthodox churches by the undergirding
assumption that once we’ve prayed something, we are bound
Much of the anxiety Orthodox feel — the fear that they may
be “trapped” in an unacceptable prayer — is triggered
by the fact that the ecumenical worship does not use predicable
and centuries-old prayers. While the patterns of prayer
are ancient, the words and songs are often newly composed, or drawn
from the burgeoning liturgical renewal of the churches. Whereas
one could enter an Orthodox church anywhere in the world and feel
confident that the prayer would find approval, this assurance is
not a feature of ecumenical worship. Of course, the worship committee
which prepares the worship does not knowingly incorporate heretical
doctrine, but the worship materials do not have a history of “reception”
to attest to their orthodoxy.
This causes Orthodox worshippers to feel uneasy and uncomfortable.
They do not trust new prayers. But is this distrust consistent with
Orthodox tradition? Isn’t it the case that, at some point,
all Christian prayers were new? The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
was once prayed for the first time, by a community which had never
heard it before. Why, then, is there an Orthodox distrust of the
“new” today? Has the Holy Spirit abandoned the church
and withdrawn inspiration?
Socio-historical factors, rather than doctrine, are instrumental
here. For the most part, the material of Orthodoxy was developed
in the first millenium. By the year 1300, almost the entire Orthodox
world existed in “captivity”, under uncongenial political
regimes. Liturgically and theologically, there was a loss of creativity
as the church went into “survival mode”. In many cases,
the only activity of the church that was permitted was the liturgy.
This led to a “liturgical maximalism”, in which the
liturgy was made to bear single-handedly the continuity of the church.
Now that the circumstances of the Orthodox churches have changed,
it is taking a long time for Orthodoxy to emerge out of survival
mentality. And it is overly optimistic to say that the churches
are no longer under threat. It is still the liturgical formula which
maintains the unity of the Orthodox church in time and space.
Given these historical factors, what is the doctrine of the Orthodox
church on “newness”? The answer to this question is
best found in recent material on the Orthodox approach to mission
and inculturation.50 Here, the Biblical events of the Incarnation
and Pentecost come together to form the Orthodox paradigm of the
universal gospel in each new context. God was incarnate in Jesus
in a particular time, place, culture, family, and individual. This
particularity is the key to understanding the universality of the
cosmic Savior. The Orthodox church has always sought a creative
balance between particularity and universality, between newness
and continuity, rooted in the Incarnation. Pentecost provides the
basic model of mission, for Orthodoxy. Thus different contexts might
require different emphases of the one Apostolic Faith at different
times; this is entirely legitimate.
To be fully effective, the Gospel of the Incarnated Christ has to
be witnessed and incarnated to concrete people and contexts. It
has to be conveyed “to all nations” (Mt 28,19).
The descent of the Holy Spirit in the day of Pentecost made the
Apostles speak about the Good News in all the languages of the people
present at that event, showing that all the languages and cultures
are equally able to convey and to make meaningful the Gospel.
Ethnicity is therefore a reality. Even in the eschatological Kingdom
“the nations will bring their glory” (Rev. 21:21). Consequently,
ethnicity has two implications:
- The Gospel of Christ has to be fully incarnated and inculturated.
By the values of the Gospel, the culture itself will be transformed
and transfigured through an inner process.
- In cases where the process of inculturation went so far
that one can no longer distinguish between culture and Gospel,
State, Nation and Church, transformation is needed.51
This statement points to the particularly Orthodox problem of national
identity (although any “established” church would face
a similar problem). “It would be inappropriate to identify
completely any culture or nation as fully or irreversibly Christian
to equate the nation with the Church.”52 Such nationalism
is antithetical to Christian love, which is unity in diversity.
The Vilemov report, with its eschatological emphasis, implies a
certain priority of H.R. Niebuhr’s “Christ the transformer
of culture” position, over the other options. The gospel has
an inherent, permanent counter-cultural essence. The magisterial
nationalism/triumphalism which is always a temptation for Orthodoxy
is as much excluded as the Protestant tendencies. Thus while I fully
support the pastoral need to walk gently with the Orthodox churches
at this time, the ecumenical movement may have a role to play in
recalling Orthodoxy to its incarnational and pentecostal tradition
of creativity in worship.
In apostolic times, doctrinal unity allowed for liturgical diversity.
It seems as though, currently, liturgical unity is serving to preserve
Orthodoxy in confusing times. What is the principle of unity and
diversity in Orthodoxy? When does diversity cease to be “non-divisive”?
In the early church, “Every community that celebrated the
Eucharist also confessed the one Apostolic Faith. So one faith and
one Eucharist in the bond of mutual love became the binding force
of diverse communities.”53 There was no single liturgy. “The
greater the unity in faith, life and worship among the various Churches,
the greater their variety of expressions, the deeper their oneness,
the richer their diversity.”54 The development of a rule
of faith and of creeds was not meant to create uniformity or stifle
diversity, but was meant as a test of apostolicity by articulating
an “essential minimum conceptual consensus”.55
The early church developed a concept of catholicity rather than
the universality of one particular context. “The catholicity
of Apostolic Faith is experienced and expressed by each local community
of faith in its own particular context. … All cultures
have the potential to receive and express the universality of the
Gospel…. Particular churches whose life is shaped by such
local expressions of the faith must be in conversation with each
Catholicity is expressed through the organic relationship of each
church to the others, rather than to a central seat of authority.
“Non-divisive diversity” is diversity that does not
sever relationships. Paul’s controversy with the Jerusalem
leaders over whether Jewish practice should be required of Gentiles
is an early struggle for the paradigm of catholicity, over against
an imperial paradigm of universality. At the very least it should
be clear that 19th century Protestant missiology was in error in
this regard, in universalizing the contextually-specific expressions
of the gospel in western culture.
But I would claim that the 20th (and 21st) century Protestant approach
to universality through eclecticism is equally in error. This, in
fact, may be one of the fundamental sources of the discomfort experienced
by the Orthodox in ecumenical worship. A personal account of the
worship at the Vancouver Assembly begins to reveal these issues:
[The Vancouver worship was] in one way entirely traditional;
most of the individual prayers and texts stand recognizably in
the tradition of one or other of the world’s churches. Yet
the mix is for all of us unfamiliar, as are most of the prayers
to any one person. And the fact that full place is given to newer
songs, prayers and paintings from the contexts of the growing
churches in the South gives the book a feel of the coming
universality of the 21st century, when Africa, Latin America
and the Pacific will be the heartlands of Christian faith.57
This spirit-filled unfamiliarity is exactly what people respond
so positively to, in ecumenical worship. Yet there is a concept
of catholicity embedded in this statement that provokes Orthodox
discomfort. Catholicity, here, is conceived as universality; an
experience of catholicity is had through participating in the widest
possible diversity of Christian expression worldwide. “The
services were drawn up so as to convey a strong sense of a worldwide
community, using its many cultures and styles so as to delight in
the diversities, so as to hold to God no one limited community but
the human family as a whole.”58
This is a vision of the catholicity of the church which is inherently
congenial to a Protestant ethos. Conway revels in the universality
of the experience, which for him is identical to catholicity: “there
could be no doubt that we were sharing in the worship of
Yet to equate catholicity with universality (in the sense of universal
diversity or a universalized experience) belies the deeper meaning
of catholicity as a mark of the church, at least as understood by
the Orthodox churches. Catholicity is a mark of the local
church which is in organic unity with all other local churches.
Catholic worship must be incarnate in a particular ecclesial
community if it is to be “universal” in intent. It can
not be disembodied and theoretical, as in Conway’s sense of
“the worship of the church.” The incarnation
of God in Christ is the theological model for inculturation. “Inculturation
is not an option but an imperative, for through it Christ breaks
into the life and history of nations.”60
Christ becomes incarnate in particular nations and communities,
not in a generalized invisible one. Yet as Conway clearly experiences
it, ecumenical worship belongs to no particular community. It is
The Orthodox have been understood to be calling for a re-confessionalization
of ecumenical worship, but this is perhaps a misunderstanding of
the root of the concern. They are calling, not for a particularist
or exclusivist worship, but for an incarnate worship, one
that is worshipped by an existing ecclesial community. What I believe
the Orthodox find lacking in ecumenical worship is a sense that
the liturgy which we enter today (not just each individual piece,
but the whole liturgy as a coherent narrative gesture) has been
“traditioned” by a living community. It may be that,
at the heart of their discomfort, is a perception of a “Docetic”
doctrine of catholicity.
In this light, it is necessary to return to the various recommendations
from the Special Commission. Vilemov recommends that we “explore
more the use of various Church liturgies with ecumenical participation.”
Crete recommends we aim at “situating worship and prayer within
a living tradition.” Cairo recommends that common prayer “arise
out of the living liturgical traditions of WCC member churches.”
The Orthodox are calling for worship that is incarnate in a living
tradition, that is owned and “traditioned” by one particularity
in organic relationship with all others.
What, then is the living liturgical tradition which worships ecumenical
worship? Metropolitan Chrysostomos has indeed revealed the crucial
question: “What exactly is a ‘living liturgical tradition?’”
Is the solution, as some propose and other fear, to reinstitute
“confessional” worship at ecumenical events?
While “confessional” worship can be a useful tool for
educating each other about our various traditions, it has serious
limitations as ecumenical worship. “Confessional” worship
is unnatural and artificial in an ecumenical setting, removed from
its home community. It would be completely artificial for me to
“put on” a Quaker worship, without a community of Quakers
to worship the worship. It becomes a theatrical show of outward
forms, not a sharing in the life of a community at prayer. In such
an experience, it is difficult to avoid the sense that the worshippers
are observers, present for a didactic rather than doxological purpose.
A much better way to learn about each other’s worship traditions
is to visit each other in our home churches.
Worship in the World Council of Churches moved beyond demonstrating
our worship traditions for each other for good reason. There was
a desire for the actual assembled community to worship together,
based on the same convergence approach which was undertaken in the
theological work. This deliberate shift resulted in the ecumenical
worship tradition alive today. While this tradition could certainly
benefit from some correction and renewal, a retreat into confessional
worship would be a tremendous setback in the quest for Christian
Worship belongs to the community worshipping it. It can’t
be transplanted without reappropriation. “But what is then
the appropriate form of worship for a community whose members come
not from one tradition only, but from many traditions? What form
of worship best corresponds to the distinctive identity of such
a community — an ecumenical community?”61 Crawford
and Best propose, and I would have to agree, that the ecumenical
worship tradition is uniquely inculturated in the ecumenical community,
and has become, in effect, a living liturgical tradition.
The next question which can, and perhaps should, be pressed in
this conversation is to inquire about the ecclesial significance
of the ecumenical gathering itself. It is certainly the case that
the ecumenical movement has developed a worship tradition, a body
of prayers, a hymnody, a collective memory, based on its own experience
of Christ in the midst. At what point does it become possible to
say that ecumenical worship, incarnate in the particular community
of the ecumenical movement, gives to that community something of
an ecclesial quality?
This question is always raised in the most sensitive of ways, for
good reason. The ecclesiological protections of the Toronto statement
are absolutely essential to the existence of the ecumenical movement.
Yet the question does get raised.
“What is the meaning of that koinonia which we
experience increasingly in worship within the ecumenical movement?
… Does this common experience of the Spirit in worship push
us beyond the barriers which our theological discussions have
not yet been able to dismantle? At this point could worship lead
theology, pointing us to a new understanding of our oneness in
the one body of Christ?”62
“It would be fruitful to consider at greater length the sense
in which this meeting [Lima], like many ecumenical meetings, had
the character of ‘church’”63
“What is the place and role of the worship which we offer
together in our ecumenical gatherings? How does it relate to the
worship of the various churches? (This is related to the wider question
of the ecclesial significance of ecumenical meetings and bodies.)”64
This is such a fragile and tender question, it is often only broached
in parentheses and footnotes. But it is the question toward which
all the Orthodox criticisms are pressing, and it must be asked.
The World Council of Churches has consistently refrained from claiming
any ecclesial significance for itself — it does not propose
to become a church in the proper sense. But is it possible that
the lived experience of the movement has in fact overtaken the careful
brackets of the Toronto statement? Is there a way in which the Assembly
becomes the “local church” which owns and incarnates
the prayers of the gathered body? If this is true, what does this
mean for our understanding of the Council, the ecumenical project,
and the catholicity of the church?
The phenomenon of Orthodox critique in some way supports this hypothesis.
As I have described, the Orthodox feel uncomfortable in ecumenical
worship precisely because they are implicated, because they are
members of the worshipping body rather than guests, outsiders or
observers. There is, de facto, a community gathered in worship which
involves them. Moreover, the fact is that no one feels entirely
at home in this community, yet everyone is as at home as everyone
else. If the Orthodox are under the impression that there are segments
of the ecumenical community who find ecumenical worship entirely
congenial, they are mistaken. Yet there is a way in which this discomfort
is brilliantly inculturated to ecumenical worship. It is consistent
with the ecumenical movement, with the particular character of this
living tradition, in a way that it would not be in any one confessional
body. We can no more transplant ecumenical worship into our home
churches than we can transplant our confessional worship into the
ecumenical context. Ecumenical worship belongs to the ecumenical
tradition which creates, sustains and “traditions” it.
I don’t mean to dismantle the Toronto statement, but it may
be possible to say something better, more reflective of the lived
reality of the ecumenical movement. My hope is that the Special
Commission process can serve as a catalyst for the renewal of the
entire ecumenical movement. I began this project with two prior
commitments which have at times taken me in opposite directions.
I have a commitment to understand sympathetically the current concerns
of the Orthodox churches. I also have a desire to defend the worship
of the ecumenical movement, as I have experienced it. Perhaps the
unifying impulse for me is a firm belief that this is a time of
opportunity for the World Council of Churches. If we move through
this current “crisis” with care, sensitivity, creativity,
and hope, I believe we will emerge with a deeper worship experience
and a stronger understanding of our unity in worship in the World
Council of Churches.
1 There are several fine
chronological descriptions of this development which I do not intend
to duplicate here. My thematic treatment of the subject can be supplemented
by historical surveys in Per Harling, Worshipping ecumenically
(Geneva: WCC Publications, 1995); Theresa Berger, “Unity in
and through doxology? Reflections on worship studies in the World
Council of Churches,” Studia Liturgica 16
(1986/1987), p. 1-12; and Janet Crawford and Thomas Best, “Praise
the Lord with the Lyre … and the Gamelan? Towards koinonia
in worship,” Ecumenical Review 46 (January 1994),
2 Janet Crawford and Thomas
Best, “Praise the Lord with the Lyre … and the Gamelan?
Towards koinonia in worship,” Ecumenical Review 46
(January 1994), p. 85
3 Theresa Berger, “Unity
in and through doxology? Reflections on worship studies in the World
Council of Churches,” Studia Liturgica 16 (1986/1987),
4 Eugene L. Brand, “Worship
and the Ecumenical Movement” Ecumenical Review 51
(April 1999), p. 187.
5 Gordon W. Lathrop, “The
Lima Liturgy and beyond: moving forward ecumenically,” in
Eucharistic worship in ecumenical contexts ed. by Thomas
F. Best and Dagmar Heller (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1998),
6 Crawford and Best, p. 87.
7 Martin Conway, “Surprise
and Joy: the renewal of worship in the World Council of Churches”
Epworth Review 25:3 (1998), p. 76.
8 Crawford and Best, p. 90.
9 Sheila Maxey, “Reflections
on ecumenical worship” One in Christ 35:1 (1999),
10 Maxey, p. 5.
11 Samson Prabhakar, “The
Church of South India Liturgy of the Eucharist: Authenticity and
Relevance” in So we believe, so we pray: towards koinonia
in worship ed. by Thomas F. Best and Dagmar Heller, (Geneva:
WCC Publications, 1995), p. 74.
12 Jaci Maraschin, “Ecumenism and Liturgy in Latin America:
reflections from local experiences and examples,” in So we
believe, so we pray: towards koinonia in worship ed. by Thomas F.
Best and Dagmar Heller, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1995), p. 70.
13 Per Harling, Worshipping
ecumenically (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1995),
14 “Report of the
Consultation,” in So we believe, so we pray: towards koinonia
in worship ed. by Thomas F. Best and Dagmar Heller, (Geneva:
WCC Publications, 1995), p. 4.
15 Harling, p. 9-10.
16 Rodney Matthews, “A
participant’s introduction: ecumenical liturgy in principle
and practice,” in Eucharistic Worship in ecumenical contexts
(Geneva: WCC Publications, 1998), p. 10.
17 Maxey, p. 9.
18 ibid., p. 3.
19 Crawford and Best, p. 79.
20 Harling, p. 1, describing the 1989 World Conference on Mission
and Evangelism, in San Antonio TX USA.
21 Mary Tanner and Gunther
Gassmann, “Preface” in So we believe, so we pray:
towards koinonia in worship ed. by Thomas F. Best and Dagmar
Heller, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1995), p. vii.
22 Berger, p. 11.
23 1971 Louvain Faith and Order Conference, from the conference
papers, as quoted in Crawford and Best p. 87.
24 Thomas F. Best, Janet
Crawford, Dagmar Heller and Terry MacArthur, “Introduction,”
in So we believe, so we pray: towards koinonia in worship
ed. by Thomas F. Best and Dagmar Heller, (Geneva: WCC Publications,
1995), p. ix.
25 ibid, p. xiii.
26 Maxey, p. 4.
27 Crawford and Best, p. 79.
28 The incident at the Canberra Assembly of the WCC in 1991, in
which Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung equated the Holy Spirit with the spirits
of traditional Korean religion, is often cited as an example of
where inculturation crosses the line into syncretism. It must be
noted that this incident was not in the context of an Assembly worship,
and that Dr. Chung was speaking for herself and not on behalf of
the Council. Nonetheless, her presentation sparked considerable
backlash which provides the opportunity to consider the difficult
application of all-too-easy platitudes about inculturation. Is it
possible for a non-Korean to judge whether Dr. Chung transgressed
a boundary? To whom is she accountable?
29 Ioan Sauca, from his paper to the Vilemov subcommittee meeting
of the Special Commission, August 2000, available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/vilemovpost-03-e.html.
30 Much, although not all,
of the material cited in this section has been published in print.
The best print resource for the pre-Harare period is Turn to
God — Rejoice in Hope: Orthodox Reflections on the Way to
Harare, ed. by Thomas FitzGerald and Peter Bouteneff, 1998.
However, the majority of the material since Harare is not publicly
available in print. I have based the research for this paper on
the materials on the World Council of Churches web site devoted
to the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World
Council of Churches (http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/special-01-e.html),
as this is the most comprehensive collection on the topic. It is
from this source that I will footnote. The Thessaloniki report is
available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morges-06-e.html.
31 The Damascus report is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morges-07-e.html.
32 The New Skete report is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/vilemov-07-e.html.
33 The staff paper of September 1998 is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morges-08-e.html.
34 Peter Bouteneff’s feature story is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morges-15-e.html.
35 The Moderator’s report is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morges-10-e.html.
The General Secretary’s report is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morges-11-e.html.
The report of Policy Reference Committee I is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morges-12-e.html.
All three of these documents are also published in the report of
the Harare Assembly, edited by Diane Kessler.
36 The General Secretary made this comment in informal conversation
in Nashville TN in April 2001.
37 The report of the Chambesy pre-Morges meeting is available at
38 These two papers can be found at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morgespost-01-e.html
39 Metropolitan Chrysostomos’s paper is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morgespost-03-e.html.
40 The Morges outline for a working agenda is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/morgespost-04-e.html.
41 Ioan Sauca’s paper is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/vilemovpost-03-e.html.
43 The Vilemov report is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/vilemovpost-01-e.html.
45 Bishop Vasilios’ paper can be found at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/cretepost-02-e.html.
46 The Crete report is available at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/cretepost-01-e.html.
47 Metropolitan Chrysostomos’ comments have been circulated
to the members of the Special Commission in a photocopied dossier.
To my knowledge, this paper is not publicly available.
48 as quoted in Crawford and Best, p. 96.
49 I am grateful to Peter Bouteneff of St. Vladimir’s Seminary
and formerly of the WCC staff, for generously sharing his time and
insights with me, to help me better understand the Orthodox experience
of ecumenical worship.
50 I am drawing in particular on two sources: An Inter-Orthodox
Consultation held in 1996 in Addis Ababa as part of the Gospel and
Cultures study, the report of which is printed in the book edited
by Thomas FitzGerald and Peter Bouteneff; and the Subcommittee II
Vilemov report, available at http://wcc-coe.org/wcc/who/vilemovpost-01-e.html.
51 Vilemov report.
52 Addis Ababa report.
57 Conway, p. 78, italics mine.
58 Conway, p. 79.
59 ibid, italics in original.
60 Anscar J. Chupungco,
O.S.B., “Liturgical inculturation and the search for unity,”
in So we believe, so we pray: towards koinonia in worship
ed by Thomas F. Best and Dagmar Heller, (Geneva: WCC Publications,
1995), p. 57.
61 Crawford and Best, p. 91.
62 ibid, p. 93.
63 Lathrop, fn 4, p. 28.
64 “Report of the [Ditchingham] Consultation”, p. 19.
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