"Without its Religious Heritage Europe will not be Europe"

Interview with Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches

Dr Raiser, you have been the WCC General Secretary for more than ten years. What do you think you have been able to achieve and what needs to be achieved in the future?

It is difficult to speak of achievements, because a lot of my work during these ten years has been concentrated on trying to maintain the integrity and the capacity of the World Council of Churches to fulfil its mission. I consider the main achievement to be the effort that was undertaken prior to the Harare Assembly to articulate in a fresh way the basic self-understanding of the WCC in the wider ecumenical movement and in the contemporary situation at the beginning of the 21st century. This was an intensive process of reflection which involved many member churches, and it has since then served as the basic perspective orienting the work of the World Council.

It has become a commonplace to refer to the ‘crisis’ of the ecumenical movement. How would you describe this crisis? What are its principal causes, and where is the way out?

The ‘crisis’ for the most people has very negative, critical, and even irritating connotations. I have always tried to be guided by the Chinese way of speaking about crises: this term in Chinese points to the double-faced character of a particular situation as dangerous, but at the same time offering a creative opportunity. Therefore the basic challenge in a situation of crisis is to so shape the situation that the potential for creative opportunity becomes greater than the dangerous potential.

The reasons which had led the World Council into this situation are complex. First of all, the relationships between the churches have significantly changed over the 50 years of the World Council’s existence, and some people interpret this change as a sign of the success of the Council. We now have a very widespread and intensive network of bilateral relations between churches, which do not need or pass through the World Council any more because they have accepted each other as partners and are involved in cooperation and exchange. The same is true in many areas of practical, material, concrete assistance, which in the first decades was organized through the World Council, while now many churches have their own way of carrying this out. So the World Council has little or no role any more in coordinating particular projects of development, of reconstruction, of rehabilitation, of refugee assistance etc. So, you could say that this is a sign of success.

Secondly, we are passing through a period during which, for many churches, maintaining and strengthening their own identity and integrity at a time of rapid change and a very confusing social and world situation has become more important than fostering new lines of cooperation. We see an increase of denominationalism, or in some instances even features of fundamentalism in the Christian community, which run counter the ecumenical spirit and the effort of the World Council of Churches to draw churches into closer fellowship with one another.

Finally, a lot of this has to do with financial conditions. The World Council has benefited during the first 40 years of its existence, until the historic changes in 1990s, from the ability of a few churches in Europe and North America to essentially provide for its financial needs. There was a surplus and this could be generously shared and distributed. Now, with the overall changes of priority in the way public finance is handled under the impact of economic and financial globalisation, there is less and less money available for the work of the churches themselves. And this, of course, has its influences and consequences for the World Council of Churches. In 7 years the World Council has lost more than 50 % of its income and therefore has had to reduce its staff and the range of its programs accordingly by 50%.

All of this contributes to generating a sense of crisis, but I would come back to the beginning: I think the real challenge is to identify within this situation what the creative opportunities are and then to strengthen them.

How do you evaluate the work of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC and how will its decisions be implemented?

I have a very positive assessment of the work of the Special Commission: here I distinguish myself from some ecumenical friends in my own country. I think the Special Commission made a very honest and serious effort to respond to the challenge that was accepted by the World Council at the time of the Harare Assembly. The Special Commission marked the first time that we seriously worked in a setting where the Orthodox participants in the dialogue were not in a minority. For many of us from other traditions it was the first time to be in this kind of configuration, where the Orthodox partners did not have to defend the Orthodox point of view. This defense happens so easily when you find yourself in a structural minority and you take it for granted that whatever you say will not have much of an effect anyhow, and so you defend yourself behind a line that is defined for all Orthodox Churches alike.

In the Special Commission we also became a part of the dialogue between different Orthodox voices, and suddenly there were alliances across the dividing line between Orthodox and those from other traditions. I think this alone was a very positive achievement. It has allowed for a new sense of trust, of openness, of readiness to listen, which, of course, we now have to transfer out of the limited, protected setting of the Special Commission into the wider framework of the World Council. And this, I think, is the main challenge for its implementation. The recommendations of the Special Commission focus on specific areas of concern not only for the Orthodox Churches, but particularly for the Orthodox Churches. But what is most important is that the change of atmosphere, of ethos, of mutual perception that has begun to take shape in the Special Commission be continued and that we can build on it. But we do not know yet how this can be done. Probably the proposed change of decision-making could help us in this direction, therefore this would be one of the follow-up points on which we will work carefully.

Secondly, the Special Commission has identified the area of initiatives and statements of the World Council on social and ethical issues as a potential area of tension. This will be followed up. In particular, we are now envisaging a consultation with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church as one of the Orthodox Churches having publicly identified its own approach – methodologically, theologically and ethically – to social issues. We must be engaged in a dialogue comparing different pathways which our traditions follow in responding to social and political challenges.

A third area concerns changes in the Rules and Constitution, and here the Special Commission has already provided fairly detailed guidelines, and these will be presented to the Central Committee at its next meeting for preliminary action. The final confirmation can only take place at the Assembly.

The question of common prayer now needs – after the careful consideration that the Special Commission has given to it – to be transferred into the framework of pastoral guidance, in particular for those who have to take responsibility for compiling worship texts.

One area that in my understanding needs careful further thought beyond the work of the Special Commission is the area of ecclesiology. Here we hope that the Steering group of the Special Commission, which will continue the work and which will for the time being take the place of the Permanent Committee on Consensus and Collaboration, can help us. It may not be possible at this stage to fit the work that needs to be done in this area into the program of the Faith and Order Commission. This program is fairly tightly organized in view of the next Plenary Commission next year, and I do not think that we should allow the renewed sensitivity to the ecclesiological issues at the heart of the Special Commission to dissipate.

At the last session of the WCC Central Committee it became evident that some members of the Central Committee were dissatisfied with the decisions of the Special Commission. One prominent CC member, Ländesbischofin Margot Kässemann has even resigned from the Committee in protest against its decisions. This resignation was followed by a heated debate among German Christians about the current state of affairs in the ecumenical movement in general and in the WCC in particular. Would you be able to comment on the content of this debate?

Of course, the debate was sparked off to some extent by the person and personal decision of Bishop Margot Kässemann, who is a very widely known and appreciated person, who has symbolized a strong ecumenical commitment, particularly among women and the younger or middle-aged generation – those who have been involved in the so-called conciliar process after the Vancouver Assembly. If she, with all the involvement that she has had in the World Council, comes to the conclusion that she cannot responsibly continue, then this is taken as a signal by many of those who have much less information about what is really taking place that something must be radically wrong. So there was an emotional response initially – long before people had had the opportunity to consider more carefully the contents of the report of the Special Commission and what the nature of the decisions of the central Committee was. We have since then passed beyond this emotional stage and now have a number of serious, though not uncritical, discussions referring to the substance of the Special Commission’s report.

The second point would be that this discussion has revealed that, in spite of all the intensive dialogue between German and Orthodox representatives over the years, particularly with the Russian Orthodox Church, but also with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Romanian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches, as well as the presence of a very large Orthodox diaspora community in Germany, the average ecumenically interested church member in Germany has not been able to appreciate the particular place and voice of Orthodoxy in the ecumenical movement and in the World Council of Churches. To put it a bit flatly, Orthodoxy has been an uncharted territory, and one has always taken for granted that it will be part of the World Council of Churches. There was even some particular attachment to the Orthodox presence because of the enthusiasm for Orthodox spirituality, liturgy, etc. – it was the attraction of what is different from what you have yourself, for Orthodoxy seems to bring something more than your own tradition can provide. But behind all this and after so many decades of Orthodox participation, even well-informed people took it for granted that we do not have in the World Council the same problems with the Orthodox that we have with the Catholic Church. It was a great challenge to be confronted with the fact that the official Orthodox point of view was very similar to the one in ‘Dominus Jesus’ – that the churches of the Reformation are not churches in the full sense of the term (at least Orthodox ecclesiology would withhold judgement about the ecclesial status of these churches), that there is no mutual recognition of sacraments (at least from the Orthodox side), and that even mutual recognition of baptism cannot be taken for granted (at least with regard to the Church of Greece). All of this was not known, and so suddenly it was like a bucket of cold water being poured over your head: you do not know where it comes from and what it means.

So we have a long way to go to overcome a sudden feeling of estrangement from one another. This could also be interpreted as a healthy situation. Some have described it as a healthy dose of ecumenical realism. Others have said that at least the question of ecumenism has been discussed publicly again, so it is not simply taken for granted any more and there is some genuine exchange and discussion.

And the final point. Probably for many in my generation, particularly in Germany, there has been a need to identify with the WCC, because it was through the ecumenical movement that the German churches were able to come out of a period of self-searching after the Nazi period and the Second World War. The German churches have received so much through the ecumenical movement that the response was a grateful identification. And now suddenly you have to realize that the real image of the World Council of Churches and of the ecumenical community perhaps does not correspond to the idealized image that has been developed. That is always a very painful process of readjustment. So it is complex and has a lot to do with the particular internal German situation, in particular, as I said, with the developments in church and society in Germany after the Second World War. Therefore it needs some support from the side of the World Council rather than a confrontational debate.

What in your opinion is the role of Christianity and other religious traditions in the united Europe and how should this role be acknowledged in the European Constitution?

This is a very interesting and important question to which I do not have a ready-made answer, because I think it requires of us to reassess – in Europe in particular – our understanding of secularism, which has become a base-line assumption for the churches in assessing their place in European society. This is true for the churches of the Reformation as much as for the Roman Catholic Church. It has been taken for granted that our role is to address an essentially non-religious, secular public situation and therefore also to accept that the churches would have less and less of a recognized voice in public affairs. I think the clearest expression of this is the French attitude of a strict separation of church and state – what is called the laïcité – which is defended almost as a belief-system by the French.

We are now being confronted with a situation that is rapidly changing, where certainly in some of the post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe religion is occupying a place in the transformation of society that we have not known in the West for quite some time. This may indicate that even in our allegedly secularized societies religion is changing its role, its influence. It is no longer a purely private phenomenon, as it was qualified for a long time under liberal assumptions. In many countries it has manifested itself as a public phenomenon, and even those responsible for politics cannot neglect the strong influence that religious belief and religious loyalties have on the minds of people and therefore also on the way they act and behave in society and in public.

We therefore find in many countries, particularly in post-communist countries, an ongoing discussion about how to define the place of religion and religious communities constitutionally. Different models have been developed and tried out. The Council of Europe has provided a certain frame of reference or comparison.

All of this is now geared towards the language to be used in the Constitution which the Convention on the Future of Europe will produce. I would be glad if a way could be found in this constitutional document to acknowledge that without its religious heritage Europe will not be Europe, and that this heritage has profound significance for the different peoples of Europe. To follow simply the minimal level provided by the French by not mentioning the influence of religious beliefs because it might be controversial, is the worst compromise.

On the other hand, I think that any mention of religious values and the centrality of faith convictions for the European people must acknowledge that Christianity – whether Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant – has never been the only religion in Europe, but that in all European countries we have always had the presence of Jews and Muslims and now have more and more communities of different religious traditions. This diversity, which we know through living next to one another in the different cultures of Europe, refers also to the religions. An attempt to define Europe in Christian terms alone would not be responsible and viable in view of the obvious challenge of religious plurality that we experience right in our midst.

I hope that this debate will become public in the different countries of the European Union and will not only be handled within the limited confines of this Convention, because I think it is a debate of decisive significance for the future of European people and for the future health of the European Union.

For the Russian Orthodox Church there is no question of insisting on exclusively Christian roots of Europe. We would rather use as a model the inter-religious situation which exists in Russia and in many other countries of the former Soviet Union, where Christianity, in particular Orthodox Christianity, has coexisted for ages with Islam, Judaism and other religious traditions. The situation is Europe is somewhat similar, though it differs from one country to another.

What is the position of the WCC on the proposed war in Iraq? What has the Council done and is doing to make this position known to the political leaders of the world?

The World Council has for a long time taken the position to de-legitimatise war as a means to resolve international conflicts. Of course, the Council has had to acknowledge that there are situations where the use of military force may indeed be the last resort. In that sense the World Council has been a staunch defender of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, which, firstly, in Article 2 includes a general renunciation of the use of force in international relations and, secondly, apart from the right of legitimate self-defence, acknowledges in Chapter 7 that in cases where the actions of one member state constitute a threat to world peace, the Security Council of the United Nations may take decisions including military intervention to restore international peace. But this is something other than war: it is much more of a police action to maintain peace and international order, a defensive and a preservative measure. The World Council has not defended a principled pacifism that would even exclude this form of intervention.

Two years ago the Council debated – against the background of the war in former Yugoslavia – what should be done for the protection of civilian populations living under the threat of violence and whether the use of military means for the defence of human rights or in situations of mass violations of human rights would be justified. The opinions at this point are still diverse, but it is clear that even in such situations the World Council would regard the use of military force as really an exception, for which you cannot even formulate criteria (because as soon as you formulate criteria, it is not exception any more). A last resort cannot be legalized. A last resort is an admission that your politics have failed, that you have failed in all your efforts to resolve the conflict differently and that you rely on military intervention solely in order to prevent what is even worse from happening.

As far as the Iraq situation is concerned, the Word Council is of the firm conviction that a military solution is inappropriate, would violate the UN charter, could not be justified as either required for legitimate self-defence or prompted by a massive threat to world peace. The objective of achieving the complete disarmament and the compliance with UN resolutions does not lead you to the consequence of war. There is a whole series of measures, even in Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, that could be used, short of the use of military force. Therefore the World Council would say that the inspections regime, which has been very carefully designed and put in place, is a much safer and much more effective way to achieve real disarmament, if that is the objective, than trying to disarm a country by the use of weapons of mass destruction. The weapons that will be used in an eventual war against Iraq will be weapons of mass destruction, while Iraq is accused of having weapons of mass destruction. So there is a self-contradiction here, which is a moral self-contradiction, but which is also a contradiction in terms of international law. And here the World Council would want to defend the rule of international law.

I leave aside now all the devastation, all the destabilization in the region that would be the consequences of the war. These are the geopolitical and humanitarian arguments against the war. At the moment I have limited myself to ethical and legal arguments. The World Council has maintained and further refined this position ever since the Iraq debate began, in particular, in its two submissions to the Security Council and in the statement of its Central Committee in August-September 2002. The latest initiative that we have taken was, on the invitation of the Evangelical Church in Germany, to convene a meeting of church leaders from different European Countries in Berlin on February 5, to formulate a statement ‘Church Leaders United against War in Iraq’, which was released the same day and has found a very wide echo in the international media. It has also been presented to the Federal Chancellor Mr Schröder as the head of government that presently holds the chair of the UN Security Council. The last Executive Committee has formulated a further statement, but it follows the same line.

What are your wishes to the readers of Europaica bulletin?

I think the readers are privileged to be on the distribution list of the bulletin, because this is a very welcome and very useful means to increase the flow of communication from the Russian Orthodox Church to churches particularly in other parts of Europe, but also eventually beyond Europe. Since we were deprived of this kind of communication from Russia, from Byelorussia and from the Ukraine for so long because of political reasons, I think this bulletin is a very helpful means to increase that flow of communication. My wish is, therefore, that by following the news distributed by the bulletin the readers will feel enabled to actively participate in shaping the relationship between the Orthodox Churches, in particular the Russian Orthodox Church, and other churches of Europe, and thus underline and manifest the fact that a new, united Europe cannot and must not be built and constructed without the Orthodox tradition, without the peoples, the countries and the churches of Orthodox tradition.

Too much in the post-war European construction has been pushed forward on exclusively Western-European assumptions. I think it is high time that we use this and other means to bring the Orthodox voice fully into the spectrum of what now is the new European reality.

May I conclude this interview by thanking you for all your efforts to promote Christian unity and for your continuous support of the work of the Special Commission on Orthodox participation in the WCC. Thank you also for responding to the questions of ‘Europaica’.

Interview taken by Bishop Hilarion of Podolsk