Representing the Orthodox Church in America at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Republic of Korea October 28-November 8, 2013 were His Grace, Bishop Alexander of Toledo; Dr. Paul Meyendorff of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary; and Cindy Davis of the OCA Chancery. The OCA representatives joined the other Orthodox delegations in offering an Orthodox presence and witness at the Assembly.
According to Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky, OCA Director of External Affairs, all the Orthodox Churches, with the exception of the Churches of Bulgaria and Georgia, are members of the WCC.
The Assembly theme was “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” Some 5,000 individuals, including 2,500 Koreans, participated.
Upon their return, the OCA representatives offered reflections on their experiences, which are presented below.
The World Council of Churches is one of those organizations that often appear tiresome and unnecessary. It is an easy thing to complain about, and people often do. I felt much the same way on departing for Busan, dreading the miseries of a trans-Pacific flight in coach. And my miseries were fully realized. Yet I was surprised to discover that, in fact, there is a singular purpose to this body, that there is nothing quite like it, and that it has served the Orthodox well and importantly over the years since its foundation. This was brought home to me in the several meetings. I speak not of the meetings per se, which were long, tiresome and reminiscent of nothing so much as a fairly polite parish meeting. What I am speaking about are the meetings among the Orthodox first of all and, secondly, the dozens of encounters with good and decent Christians from all over the world. I was genuinely moved by this, especially the second, and I came to realize that this body presents us with a forum unlike any other in the world—one which, over the decades, has proven invaluable. The Orthodox, for example, would rarely meet were it not for this body which, in the shape of the central committee, brings representatives of the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches together yearly. A lot of business gets done in these—business, for example, such as the theological discussions in the 1960s and following between Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox. These revealed that in fact the two families have vastly more in common than had been thought, especially in the centuries following their official divide over Christology. Still faced with the misery of the long trip over the Pacific, yet I left Busan gratified and illumined, having learned much. And convinced of the value of this body, I will defend it henceforth in the councils of the Orthodox Church in America and, in spite of the long flight, I actually look forward to seeing those again whom I had met.
Dr. Paul Meyendorff
The official program consisted of numerous plenary sessions on the assembly theme, “God of Life, lead us to justice and peace,” business sessions (committee reports and elections), and numerous workshops. Because I am a member of the Faith and Order Commission, I participated in the workshops on F&O documents, particularly the recently issued convergence text, “The Church: Toward a Common Vision” (4 sessions), and “One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition” (1 session). These texts in particular are significant because of their ecclesiological implications for the Orthodox, and because Orthodox theologians have made significant contributions in their preparation. The text on “The Church” is being sent to member churches with a call for formal reactions to the text. I was informed that there are plans for an Orthodox consultation to prepare a common Orthodox response.
During the business plenaries, the Assembly approved a number of statements, focusing primarily on the situation in Syria, Egypt, and the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Other statements were more political in language and orientation. In the Orthodox meetings, a recommendation was made calling for greater theological depth to some of the statements that were issued. It was not only the Orthodox who held this view.
Obviously, one of the chief benefits of participating in the Assembly is the opportunity to meet other Christians, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, from throughout the world. In my own case, I focused primarily on persons and issues linked with Faith and Order. I learned that the Faith and Order Commission is to be restructured in a way that will enable it to function more effectively. After the Harare assembly 14 years ago, there have only been two plenary meetings of the 120-member Faith and Order Commission, and much of the work of the commission was done by the Standing Commission (executive committee, some 24 members). In the proposed format for the coming period, the commission will consist of some 40 members nominated by the churches. Members must have solid backgrounds that will make their participation substantial, and the entire commission will meet more regularly.
The worship services followed the guidelines established by the Joint Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC following the Harare assembly. There were no eucharistic liturgies as part of the official program, and the prayer services were simple and sober – nothing to cause scandal.
Finally, I would say that our OCA delegation was well-received by the other Orthodox. Bishop Alexander participated in the meetings of the Orthodox delegation heads, and, pursuant to his nomination by the OCA, was duly elected to the Central Committee.
Much information on the Assembly is available on the Word Council of Churches website.
“It’s not about what is accomplished by the WCC here [in Korea], it’s about the connections you make,” said a fellow colleague upon my reflecting on the purpose of the ten day assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan this year.
I was asked to be a delegate representing the Orthodox Church in America, along with Dr. Paul Myendorff and His Grace, Bishop Alexander. Not having had any experience with or exposure to ecumenical activities, I had no idea what to expect once I arrived at the 10th Assembly of the WCC. I had (and continue to have) some reservations about the ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement in general. Moreover, not being a theologian or an Orthodox academic scholar, I questioned what contribution I might make to the dialogue. Despite my reservations, however, I decided to accept this unique opportunity, to go with an open mind and heart, to welcome whatever it was I needed as an Orthodox Christian woman struggling in the world, and to be a witness to our faith as best I was able.
I should mention here that ten days prior to my trip to Busan, I traveled to Alaska for the Diocesan Assembly. My time there was blessed by being able to witness the profound spirituality found among the Alaskans. I was moved by their ongoing struggles which they face every day. The journey there culminated in a personal pilgrimage to Spruce Island where Saint Herman labored and reposed, and to Kodiak where his relics and metal chains rest today.
With as many as 5,000 participants, the WCC Assembly was a microcosm representing nearly every nation in the world. Peoples from almost every indigenous background and Christian confession converged on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. As delegates, our days were filled with numerous activities including business plenaries, ecumenical conversations, workshops, and theme presentations. While there were at times moments of tension and disagreement during the business meetings, the dialogue was peaceful, open, and honest. I was impressed by the level of participation by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, whose delegates helped to raise awareness of the persecution of the Orthodox Christians in Egypt and the Middle East. An important statement was released on the plight of the Christians in the Middle East during this 10th Assembly of the WCC which “urges the United Nations, and the international community, especially countries that are in positions of political power, to create policies that promote and reach comprehensive peace with justice for all peoples of the region, and to expand every effort to support cessation of violence and military activities.” (The full statement can be read here.)
Walking through the Madang, a large meeting place with booths dedicated to numerous organizations working for justice and peace, I came face to face with the suffering so many people endure due to discrimination, war, marginalization, and lack of resources. I heard many personal stories of persecution and violence. I had a conversation with a woman in one of the workshops I attended who is an Orthodox Christian living in Syria. She described her day-to-day existence surrounded by sounds of explosions throughout the city where she lives. While it was initially terrifying to her, the sounds are now commonplace and almost fade into the background. When I asked her how she copes with the violence and uncertainty, she replied, “I just pray.” I also witnessed the astounding resiliency of a Korean woman who became a prisoner forced into sexual slavery during the World War II Japanese occupation of Korea. Her spirit of survival, forgiveness, and expression of solidarity with women suffering the same plight in other countries today was truly inspiring.
Amid the stark reminders of global pain and suffering, there were just as many reminders of how much good is happening in response to such injustices. It was heartening to see many Christians from all confessions putting their faith into action and calling the rest of us to action. If we are truly living our faith, first cultivating the important inner spiritual life, diakonia becomes an organic outpouring of that faith. Thinking back to my time in Alaska, I believe it was the outpouring of that faith that urged Saint Herman to venture into unknown territory, risking his own life, to “make disciples of all nations.” Saint Herman not only converted the Native Alaskan people to Christ, but he spent a lifetime caring for their physical, spiritual, and emotional needs.
Remembering the words of my friend, I realized this event really was all about making connections. I am grateful to have made vital connections with numerous young Orthodox Christian men and women living in Finland, Serbia, Poland, Slovakia, and Syria. What I personally experienced during this ecumenical gathering was unity with others through common suffering. As Orthodox Christians, we are constantly praying for the sick and the suffering throughout the world. And in our own suffering, knowing that we are not alone somehow gives us the strength to endure the trials which are sent to us. This also can inspire us to take every opportunity to help others. While it is beneficial to travel to another country where there is great need, it is certainly not a requirement to be a missionary. A kind word to our neighbor, being patient with those who are angry with us, and feeding the poor in our own backyards are simple ways to offer Christian service and witness to our faith.