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Quaker and Ecumenical essays by Eden Grace
© 2022 Eden Grace

Worship in the World Council of Churches:
the tradition of “ecumenical worship” in light of recent Orthodox critique

Episcopal Divinity School
May 2001

This paper is also published in the Ecumenical Review,
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 theological diversities.

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 ecumenical discussions.”3

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:

  • 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 many traditions
  • 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
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

“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)
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
sung acclamation
Gospel reading
sung acclamation
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)
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.

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

  • 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 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.

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 roles.

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 name.16
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 function.

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 of Churches.

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 ground.

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 the Church.”29

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 eucharistic communion.

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 ethos.31

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 of God.

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 Special Commission.

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 ecumenical movement:

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 following issues:

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 follows:

The issue of common prayer during ecumenical meetings is a more serious problem that it might seem, for several reasons.

  1. 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:

    1. 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.

    2. 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 all concerned.

    3. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 prayer is.45

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 prayer.

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 in need.46

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 account:

  • 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 to God.
  • 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 be explained.

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 stated that:

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 to it.

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 other.”56 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 the church.”59

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 “deliberately interdenominational”.

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 unity.

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), p. 78-96.
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), p. 6.
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), p. 27.
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), p. 8.
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), p. 8-9.
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
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 (, 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
31 The Damascus report is available at
32 The New Skete report is available at
33 The staff paper of September 1998 is available at
34 Peter Bouteneff’s feature story is available at
35 The Moderator’s report is available at The General Secretary’s report is available at The report of Policy Reference Committee I is available at 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 and
39 Metropolitan Chrysostomos’s paper is available at
40 The Morges outline for a working agenda is available at
41 Ioan Sauca’s paper is available at
42 ibid.
43 The Vilemov report is available at
44 ibid.
45 Bishop Vasilios’ paper can be found at
46 The Crete report is available at
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
51 Vilemov report.
52 Addis Ababa report.
52 ibid.
54 ibid.
55 ibid.
56 ibid.
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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