Relations between the Eastern Orthodox churches and other members of the World Council of Churches have always been somewhat tentative because of differences in theology and practice. But after stormy disagreements in the final days of this year's World Council assembly in Australia, many leaders of Christendom's Eastern traditions see trouble ahead.
Orthodox representatives issued a three-page statement enumerating their concerns with the the Geneva-based World Council, predominantly a Protestant body.
Eastern Orthodoxy, which will celebrate Easter this year one Sunday later than western churches, already differs with Protestant bodies over the latter's ordination of women and tendency toward liberal theology.
Father Leonid Kishkovsky, ecumenical officer for the Orthodox Church in America and president of the National Council of Churches, said the World Council "ought to take notice that the next seven to eight years are going to be critical." That is the expected interlude before the next assembly is held. Kishkovsky predicted "a steady assessment of what's occurring theologically."
The Orthodox were very upset after a provocative presentation by South Korean feminist theologian Chung Hyun Kyung, a Presbyterian.
Combining verbal fireworks with a performance by Korean and aboriginal dancers, Chung rendered a dramatic evocation of a female Holy Spirit. She linked that spirit to that of Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman in Genesis who Chung said was "exploited and abandoned" by Abraham and Sarah. Chung burned paper bearing the names of other exploited spirits, naming Holocaust victims, freedom fighters, murdered advocates of nonviolence, and others.
Most of the audience gave Chung a standing ovation, but many of the Orthodox--joined by some Anglicans, Lutherans and Africans--responded with shouts of "apostate," "pagan," "un-Christian," and "syncretistic."
Kishkovsky warned: "If the theological direction which was in part represented by Chung--and enthusiastically received by the audience--becomes the spirit of the next decade, then it's a new discussion."
In Canberra, Orthodox representatives suggested that the World Council has strayed from its fundamental goal of creating church unity and from its basic Christian framework. They noted that missing from council documents issued since the previous assembly held in 1983 in Vancouver, Canada, are affirmations of Jesus Christ as the world's savior.