Disclosure of the application by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox church for membership in the World Council of Churches was keyed to draw attention to an otherwise uneventful annual meeting of the WCC’s U. S. Conference in Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania, last month.
Dr. Franklin Clark Fry, chairman of the 90-member, policy-making WCC Central Committee, announced that a letter requesting admission had been received from Patriarch Alexei of Moscow. A similar announcement was made simultaneously at World Council headquarters in Geneva.
Fry said the request would be acted upon early in the council’s Third Assembly scheduled to begin in New Delhi, November 18, along with applications from eight or more other churches. The other churches include two Pentecostal churches in Chile, and a Moravian church in South Africa.
Patriarch Alexei, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, listed 30,000 priests and 73 bishoprics inside the U.S.S.R., plus 20,000 parishes and 40 monasteries. The eight theological schools maintained by the church in Soviet territory were said to include two academies and six seminaries. No figures on church membership were given (estimates range from 30 to 90 million).
Favorable action on the Russian request was forecast. Fry urged admission of the Russian Orthodox on the ground that this step has less risk now than when the church was invited to the First Assembly in Amsterdam in 1948. Places were reserved at that meeting for Russian delegates.
“Nothing has occurred in the Russian church to make it less acceptable as a member in 1961 than it was in 1948,” he said. “A reversal in the World Council’s position would reflect an alteration in our outlook on ecumenicity.”
Fry declared that the Russian church will now be entering a council with established characteristics and procedures. “There are abundant precedents out of the formative years; we are now sure that every study and activity will be based on biblical theology, not political casuistry.”
He considered the decision of the patriarchate to be the outcome of renewed conversations that began after the Russian Orthodox church received the Evanston Assembly declaration on world peace and disarmament. Exchanges of visits and information were agreed on in a meeting in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 1958. Out of this grew the visit of an international delegation of WCC staff to Russia in 1959, led by Dr. W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, WCC general secretary. Russian Orthodox observers have been present at recent meetings of the Faith and Order Commission, the Executive Committee of the Commission of Churches on International Affairs, and the WCC Central Committee. Representatives of the patriarchate have also studied the functioning of WCC headquarters.
According to Fry, no such thorough examination has ever been made by an applicant church. He asserted that the top cadre of the Russian church now knows more in detail about the WCC than do most of the member churches.
In reply to inquiries as to the possible size of the Russian delegation at New Delhi, Fry indicated that the assembly has been limited to 600 members, and that only a dozen seats were at present unclaimed. Perhaps as many as five or six seats might be assigned to the Russian Orthodox delegates, he estimated. U. S. churches will be represented by 161 delegates, although no one church will have more than four.
Mr. Ivan M. Czap, delegate of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America, questioned the bona fide character of some of the bishops who might be sent to represent the Russian church. He suggested that WCC recognition of some representatives might be a disservice to Russian Christians.
Dr. Roswell P. Barnes, executive secretary of the U. S. Conference of the WCC, stressed evidences of vitality in the Russian church in the face of government pressure against religion. He declared that present Communist policy is to avoid making martyrs of Christians, and that the government has permitted the churches to accumulate funds. Fry endorsed the opinion that the application of the Russian church is tolerated rather than designed by the Soviet government.
Roman Catholic observers have also been invited, and optimism was expressed as to the likelihood of their attendance.
Public relations aspects of the move to admit the Russian church were discussed, in view of anticipated criticism from crusading anti-Communists in the United States. Inclusion of Orthodox Catholic churches in the WCC is not an issue, since the council is not a Protestant body. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchates of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and other Orthodox churches belong to the council at present. The opening worship service at the Buck Hill Falls meeting was conducted by Archbishop Iakovos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Prayers used invoked the intercessions of Mary and the saints.
In the concluding speech of the conference, Dr. O. Frederick Nolde, director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, viewed admission of the Russian church as a step towards world peace. He declared that the position taken by WCC leaders in insisting upon the admittance to the United States of Evanston Assembly delegates from Communist countries was “a first and major step in breaking the rigidity of United States policy on people-to-people relations.”
Nolde weighed “the competing claims of fellowship and fidelity.” He recognized that “views which the member churches of the WCC hold and advocate about national and international life may be not only different but radically contradictory.” The more inclusive the WCC membership becomes, the more acute is this problem. According to Nolde, however, a unified witness must be continued on specific international and national issues. He cited withdrawal of two South African churches from the council after the Johannesburg race consultation as indicative of the price that might have to be paid in fellowship for maintaining a witness.
In the extension of fellowship to the Russian Orthodox church, problems for the WCC witness must be anticipated, Nolde said. “However, I am concerned with a Christian witness to the world of nations in behalf of peace with justice and freedom, and on that basis I come to an affirmative conclusion.”
Nolde then elaborated principles for maintaining unity in witness in this situation. “The ideology of Marxist communism must be opposed,” he said, “but victory is neither possible nor should it be sought by military means.” He deemed military defense against aggression justifiable, but declared military action against communism as “foolhardy as it is dangerous.”
He further asserted that while justice and freedom must be sought, “no economic or political system can be designated as exclusively Christian or even distinctively Christian.”
The proposed incorporation of the International Missionary Council into the WCC structure was rapidly reviewed. This action, to be taken at New Delhi, will create within the WCC a Division of World Mission and Evangelism. A parallel Commission on World Mission and Evangelism will also be set up. Church and missionary councils, unwilling to affiliate with the WCC, will be encouraged to enter a consultative relation to this commission. Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary, New York, reported that of the IMC member councils, only the Council of Brazil voted against merger. The Congo Protestant Council withdrew from the IMC, however, and the Council of Norway was also said to oppose the consolidation.
Van Dusen declared that two steps would be taken to bring mission to the heart of the WCC as a result of the integration. First, 25 additional persons were being nominated for seats in the assembly by the IMC, and five members were to be added to the Central Committee of the WCC from the Commission on World Mission. Second, mission emphasis would be developed in the WCC.
The Buck Hill Falls conference did not present or discuss questions concerning the biblical basis of missions or the missionary calling of the church. No information was furnished on the progress of reports on questions being prepared by the studies division of the WCC for the section on Witness at the New Delhi assembly.
Brief consideration was given to the revised basis of the WCC which will be proposed by the Central Committee to the Assembly. The present basis: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.” The proposed revision: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
It was pointed out that this revision is Trinitarian in a doxological setting. Some churchmen distinguish such contexts from factual prose. The placing of the phrase “according to the Scriptures” may vary in other languages. Each is to hear in his own language. The change from “our Lord” to “the Lord” is significant. The first phrasing was regarded as too restricted.
Objections to the new basis have been reported from the Swiss Protestant Church Federation and from the General Mennonite Society and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Netherlands. Certain individual objections may be sent by American churchmen to the WCC General Secretary, challenging the exegetical basis of confessing Christ to be God and Saviour and criticizing the omission of direct reference to the humanity of Christ.
Dr. Paul S. Minear, newly-named director of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC, presented the theme of the coming Assembly, “Christ the Light of the World.” Describing the distribution of the study pamphlet, he said, “Never before in history has so gargantuan an effort been made to enlist congregations in every country and language to share in a study of the same biblical passages, the same problems of thought and action, during the same months.” The Buck Hill conference, however, included no discussion of these biblical passages. Dr. Samuel McCrea Cavert, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, asserted at one point, however, that American churches have gained from the ecumenical movement “a new dimension of theological depth, corrective of their own pragmatic temper.”
The conference displayed ecumenical statesmanship of a high order and zeal for definite positions on controversial political issues. But exposition of the gospel of Christ, the Light of the World, in theological depth was postponed—possibly for New Delhi.
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