World church council sees way to end Protestant-Orthodox tensions

GENEVA - A 60-member commission seeking to bridge differences between Protestant and Orthodox churches proposed sweeping changes Thursday in voting and worship practices at the World Council of Churches.

"In both issues — common prayer and decision making — a solution was found which was not simply a compromise," Dr. Peter Bouteneff of the Orthodox Church in America told the council's governing Central Committee.

The 35-page commission report recommends that the council start deciding major issues by consensus rather than traditional voting in which the majority wins. That will give more voice to the minority because the emphasis will be on winning their support or at least acceptance, it said.

Orthodox delegates had sought control of 50 percent of the seats, but Touteneff said, "The numbers don't matter anymore if we are moving toward consensus."

The commission also urges the council to drop the term "ecumenical worship," which implies whole religious services that may cause theological problems for some denominations. Instead the council members would join in "common prayer," the commission said.

Deep divisions in the body of 342 churches had led to an Orthodox boycott of some council worship services and threats of a complete pullout from the body.

"Our divisions will not be resolved solely with theological dialogue and common service to the world," the commission said. "We must also pray together if we are to stay together."

The Central Committee is to vote on the proposal early next week.

Underscoring difficulties in the group that has been a leader in the movement seeking to bridge denominational differences, Orthodox delegates from Russia and Greece boycotted the opening sessions of the council's 50th anniversary assembly in 1998.

The assembly subsequently set up the special commission to address the concerns of the Eastern churches, which felt they were underrepresented and powerless in the council.

"It was the first time in the history of the council that the two Christian traditions entered into dialogue on an equal basis," with the Orthodox making up half the commission membership, noted His Holiness Aram I Catholicos of Cilicia of the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Orthodox delegates have complained that their voting power had waned drastically over the years as the number of member churches in the council grew with the addition of small Protestant denominations. Orthodox membership has remained fairly constant at around 21 churches.

The council says it is impossible to say how many individual Christians belong to the member churches, but it estimates the number to be in the hundreds of millions, about one-third of whom are Orthodox.

Many Orthodox leaders had expressed disquiet about liberal trends in U.S. and European churches, such as the ordination of women and homosexuals and the use of "inclusive" language.

"It is the expectation of the Special Commission that the use of consensus decision-making, with an increase in mutual trust, will make it easier for all to participate fully in the discussion of any burning ethical or social issue," the commission wrote.

Dr. Konrad Raiser, the German theologian who heads the council, said earlier this week that the ecumenical movement faces other problems. It no longer attracts enthusiastic youthful supporters, and conservative elements within member churches have always shunned the movement.

"For many even the term 'ecumenism' provokes suspicion and rejection," he said.

Raiser also noted that the council and many other ecumenical organizations face serious budget problems.

"There is currently a clear decrease in the availability of such funds," Raiser said.

The council, which had 359 employees in 1990, currently has 183 and plans to cut back to 162 next year, said council officials.

The Roman Catholic Church doesn't belong to the council but works cooperatively with it.