Georgian Orthodox Church to leave WCC and CEC

Ecumenical News International
ENI News Service
26 May 1997

Georgian Orthodox Church to leave WCC and CEC

By Andrei Zolotov

Moscow, 26 May (ENI)—The Georgian Orthodox Church in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia has decided to leave two major ecumenical bodies - the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC), both based in Geneva.

The decision was taken at an emergency meeting of the holy synod of the church on 20 May, following strong pressure from Georgia s leading monasteries against further participation in the international ecumenical movement. The sudden decision of the synod came as a surprise even to those who had campaigned against the church s membership of the WCC.

It is the first time that an Orthodox church has taken the decision to leave the WCC or CEC. The decision of the Georgian church, according to some observers, will strengthen anti-ecumenical movements in other Orthodox churches.

According to the Metaphrasis religious news agency, based in Moscow, the Georgian synod cited the "WCC leadership's continued efforts to endow the organisation with unified ecclesiological functions" and the WCC s alleged "failure to take interests of Orthodox churches fully into account" as reasons for its decision.

The WCC has more than 330 member churches from around the world, including the main Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox churches, but not the Roman Catholic Church.

The Georgian Orthodox Church joined the WCC in 1962. Its present leader, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, has had an outstanding record as an ecumenical leader, serving as one of the WCC s presidents from 1979 to 1983.

The emergency synod meeting followed the publication earlier this month of an open letter to Patriarch Ilia by Archimandrite Georgi, Father Superior of the influential Shio-Mgvima Monastery, stating that his monastery was halting "communion with Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II because of his ecumenical heresy". Archimandrite Georgi was supported by the leaders of the other main monasteries in the country and on 19 May, a group of parish priests called on Patriarch Ilia to withdraw from the WCC, stating that their communities would follow the lead of the monasteries and also sever communion with the patriarch.

Patriarch Ilia met the protesting clergy, but the meeting failed to result in reconciliation.

According to observers, the decision of the synod resulted from a desire to maintain the unity and integrity of the church. As well as deciding to withdraw from the WCC, the synod also imposed sanctions on those who had led the anti-WCC campaign for their "attempt to split the church". The protesting clergymen, including Archimandrite Georgi and the leaders of the other main monasteries, were suspended from celebrating the eucharist and laymen from taking communion, according to Metaphrasis.

Georgi Andreadze, one of the leaders of the Dzelevai Orthodox society in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi told ENI in a telephone interview that nobody in the Georgian Church, even the advocates of withdrawal from the WCC, had expected the Synod to take such a "sudden decision".

Andreadze added that the anti-ecumenical views of the leading monks had been previously expressed privately but had never taken such an open and decisive form.

"The very membership in the WCC was perceived as active participation [in the ecumenical movement] which [was viewed as becoming] heretical," said Andreadze.

Andreadze told ENI that there was a pro-ecumenical opposition to the Synod's decision in Georgia, but it had not yet been expressed officially.

Archimandrite Ioann Sheklashvili, one of the active supporters of withdrawal told Metaphrasis: "We expected a long struggle, [and] thought that the Synod would create a special commission which would slowly consider this issue."

He added: "The Synod's decision was absolutely unexpected for us and we do not think that this is the best decision in the current situation."

The concerns most often citied by Orthodox critics of the international ecumenical movement and the WCC include what they claim are its vague ecclesiological concepts, and concern about developments in what they describe as "Western Protestantism" including the endorsement of women priests, the revision of Christian views on homosexuality, as well as use of inclusive language for the Bible.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is one of the world's 15 "autocephalous" (fully canonically independent) Eastern Orthodox Churches. It dates back to the first half of the fourth century when Christianity was adopted in Georgia as a state religion. The vast majority of Georgians identify themselves as Orthodox. Since the collapse of official Soviet atheism, the Orthodox Church in Georgia has enjoyed considerable growth, and is one of the main symbols of the newly independent Georgia.

The Georgian Church has particularly close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church in which the issue of participation in the international ecumenical movement is also highly controversial.

At a meeting in Moscow of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church in February this year, the central leadership of the church came under strong pressure from many bishops to switch from full membership to observer status in the WCC. But in the end, the council agreed a compromise decision to hold consultations with other Orthodox churches before making any further moves.

Archpriest Victor Petlyuchenko, deputy chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations and one of the Russian Orthodox Church's senior ecumenical officers told ENI that the decision of the Georgian Patriarchate was a decision of an autocephalous Orthodox Church and "thus does not automatically lead to the withdrawal of other Orthodox Churches".

Archpriest Petlyuchenko said he did not think that the monasteries were the initiators of the anti-ecumenical movement, but believed it had been "provoked by the massive proselytising activities of various churches, some of which are our partners in the WCC".

The work of foreign missionaries in traditionally Orthodox parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has become one of the most divisive religious issues in the region. Many Orthodox churches strongly resent any incursions by other religious organisations into what they see as their own "canonical" territory, denouncing the practice as "proselytism".

"People react not to the WCC, but to the proselytising activity that they confront on a daily basis," Petlyuchenko told ENI.

According to Metaphrasis, the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church has sent messages to the headquarters in Geneva of the WCC and CEC informing the organisations of its decision.

In Geneva a spokesperson for the Conference of European Churches confirmed to ENI that the organisation had received the letter from the Georgian Orthodox Church and was awaiting further clarification.

A spokesperson for the WCC told ENI: "The general secretary of the World Council of Churches has now received official notification from the Georgian Orthodox Church of its decision to leave the World Council of Churches. Becaue of the seriousness of the situation, the general secretary will make no comment on the matter before he has reported to the officers of the WCC central committee at their next meeting. The officers are due to meet in Geneva 5-6 June." [1149 words]

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