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Why One Orthodox Church Left the National Council of Churches
by Johannes L. Jacobse
Few people noticed when the 390,000-member Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese (AOA) withdrew from the National Council of Churches (NCC) last summer. But the importance of the move was not lost on ecumenical observers. When a long-term member walks out of the NCC, it indicates deep problems—in this case, that an Orthodox jurisdiction felt that the politicization of the NCC was hampering it from preaching the gospel in American society. If the Antiochians acted, how many others among the 35 member churches (and not just among the Orthodox) felt the same way?
The NCC is no stranger to controversy, often mixing politics with religion, with consistently mixed results. It pursues a smorgasbord of policy objectives, from tsunami relief to support for a mandatory minimum wage and the Kyoto Global Climate Accords to opposition to the Bush administration’s Social Security reforms. While both sides of the political aisle agree on some of these goals, the conservative members complain that the NCC has become increasingly more political than religious, and that its politics has a decidedly leftward slant.
The organization had also become increasingly associated with pro-homosexual and anti-marriage causes.
In 2000, the NCC’s General Secretary, the Reverend Bob Edgar, signed and then under pressure withdrew his name from A Christian Declaration of Marriage, “expressing concern that a statement meant to support married couples is being misused to attack gays and lesbians,” in the words of an NCC press release. “I would not want this statement to be misconstrued as if it were an oblique comment on same-sex unions,” which he supports, he said.
The NCC’s politicization and defense of immoral causes was a frequent complaint that the AOA had considered for quite some time. Last summer, however, a line was crossed with the release of a fundraising letter written by Edgar, a United Methodist minister and former Democratic congressman. The letter identified the NCC with the political left and characterized his opponents—mostly religious conservatives—in terms that were at best unbecoming to an ecumenical organization like the NCC, and at worst crass party politics.
The letter compared President Bush and his supporters to “committed Communists” who had “liquidated” millions, “convinced National Socialists” who had prepared the way for the Holocaust, and “Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers.” It also boasted that the NCC “worked closely” with the leftist groups MoveOn.org and TrueMajority.org.
At its Archdiocesan Assembly in Dearborn, Michigan, last summer, the archdiocese decided it was time to pull out.
Orthodox involvement with the NCC started as Orthodox Christians began to assimilate into American culture around the middle of the last century. Fr. Olaf Scott, the Antiochians’ former liaison to the NCC, told me that the Orthodox originally joined the NCC for very practical reasons:
We wanted to get the Orthodox recognized in American culture. We had men in the military for example, but on enlisting they were categorized as P, C, or J—Protestant, Catholic, or Jew—on their dog tags. The armed forces had no idea Orthodoxy even existed. We wanted to change that and the NCC looked like a good way to make ourselves known. They were the only game in town.
Organized in the early 1950s during a period of Protestant cultural ascendancy, the NCC held a good measure of authority in American religion in “The Christian Century,” as the flagship magazine of the Protestant mainline proclaimed it. At the same time, Orthodox Christianity was making its first tentative steps towards integration into American religious culture.
The NCC was modeled on the League of Nations and charged with uniting the Christian communions in America. The Orthodox were not interested in becoming Protestant, but membership gave them a chance for inter-religious participation they were reluctant to lose.
And the NCC had some notable accomplishments in this early period, including the creation of the RSV translation of the Bible. These successes were not lost on the conservatives and represented the important work that could be accomplished if the NCC returned to its mandate to foster cooperation between the churches. There was always hope the creeping politicization would be reversed.
It was a shaky marriage from the start. As soon as the Orthodox signed on, mainline Protestantism underwent the start of a wrenching crisis during which confidence in traditional Christian doctrine and morality began to erode. It caused a deep internal divide in nearly every denomination. Each faced a crucial question: Would it follow the faith as practiced by previous generations, or did the changing popular culture require a change in the ways the traditions were interpreted and applied?
The major denominations split into conservative and liberal camps. Conservatives tended to remain closer to their received traditions while the liberals embraced the changes and incorporated many of them into their parishes.
One egregious example was the adoption of “liberation theology,” which reads the Christian obligation to care for the poor through Marxist political categories. The NCC’s infatuation with Marxism is a dark chapter in its history, for which it has yet to give account.
A famous mission study published in 1978 compared Mao to the Good Samaritan, for example. In 1982, Reader’s Digest revealed that through a charitable front group of the World Council of Churches, the NCC was funneling money to Marxist guerilla groups that killed missionaries and other innocents in Angola, Nambia, and other places. Even today, NCC statements on Korea do not mention the human rights abuses and persecution of Christians in North Korea.
Early Orthodox participants saw this, but they saw their role in the NCC differently than they do today. “On the inside there was a lot of resistance to the public statements and stands of the NCC,” said Scott. “But policy statements were decided by a majority vote and the minority voice was never heard. They would promise us that the statements would include a minority report, but then they would conveniently forget to include it.”
At the same time, conservative delegates from other bodies begged the Orthodox to stay (and still do). “Orthodoxy gives the NCC a credibility it would otherwise lack,” said Scott. “This was especially important to other conservative delegates. If we left, they lost their authoritative voice. We stayed because we agreed that we had a responsibility there.”
Further, since the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Protestant churches refuse to join, the NCC depends on the Orthodox to save it from appearing to be a mainline Protestant enterprise. As a result, the NCC aggressively courts the Orthodox for visible positions of leadership. Its past presidents include Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky (1990–1991, Orthodox Church of America) and Elenie K. Huszagh (2002–2003, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese). The president-elect (2007) is Bishop Vicken Aykazian of the Armenian Orthodox Church.
Today, the tables have turned for the mainline majority of the NCC. Mainline churches have lost over 35 percent of their members since the 1970s, and many suffer bitter divisions between their conservative and liberal wings. The NCC has lost the cultural power it once held. Its funding has dropped, and it has had to cut staff and restructure itself after near-bankruptcy five years ago.
For the Antiochians, Edgar’s letter “crystallized our misgivings,” said the church’s spokesman, Fr. Thomas Zain. “It is clear that the NCC is no longer a body of Christian unity but has become completely politicized.”
“I always encountered objections from our priests and the rank and file at our General Conventions,” said Scott. “Many of them came from converts who had first-hand experience with the corrosiveness of theological liberalism. I explained that we saw our role as apologist and not as ecumenicist because of our alliance with the other conservatives that still remained in the NCC.”
The disaffection came to a head at the Antiochian Archdiocesan Convention in Dearborn, Michigan, last July. On recommendation from the Interfaith Relations Committee, a proposal was brought to the floor recommending the NCC pullout. The committee’s chairman reported that in his 29 years representing the archdiocese to the NCC, he had seen nothing fruitful that justified continued participation.
The issue never came to a vote. Instead, Metropolitan Philip, upon hearing the report, stated, “Enough is enough,” which was met with near unanimous applause. Antiochian participation in the NCC came to an end.
Orthodox leaders from other jurisdictions were critical of the unilateral nature of the move, including former Orthodox presidents Huszagh (who has privately scolded Edgar for the letter) and Kishkovsky. “It’s true we did not consult other jurisdictions,” Fr. Scott told me, “but that is because we see the NCC as no longer concerned with the gospel as it has been handed down from the apostles. Our commission is to bring the gospel to the unchurched of America and the NCC stood in the way. We decided not to wait any longer.” “We’ll see if others follow,” he told Ecumenical News International.
The Antiochian withdrawal was “particularly alarming” and caused “profound anxiety” to other Orthodox members of the NCC, claimed Kishkovsky, now chair of the NCC’s Membership and Ecclesial Relations Committee. He reported that Edgar’s meetings with Orthodox leaders, including Metropolitan Herman of the Orthodox Church in America, were reassuring.
The Antiochian withdrawal also caused dissension in NCC ranks, reports the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a conservative Protestant watchdog group. At a recent NCC General Assembly in early November, conservative delegates voiced similar concerns about political activism. Kishkovsky attempted to quell objections. He suggested that the pro-homosexual stands of NCC member denominations contributed to Antiochian dissatisfaction but remained silent on the Antiochian reaction to NCC political stands or the June fundraising letter.
Zain stressed that the withdrawal does not imply support for the conservative wing of American Protestantism, however. “We are not right-wing Evangelicals, and we have particular problems with Christian Zionism,” he said. Instead, the withdrawal “frees us to focus our efforts on ‘making disciples of all nations.’”
The Antiochian withdrawal portends a change in the way Orthodox Christianity approaches American society. The influx of converts to Orthodoxy from other Christian communions plays an important part in this shift. Over half of the priests in the Antiochian jurisdiction are converts, for example. Many of them, coming from mainline denominations, are familiar with the corrosive effects of theological liberalism and the long series of small compromises by which liberalism came to dominate these churches.
Among the other Orthodox jurisdictions in America, the Greek Orthodox Church is still active in the NCC and resistant to calls for withdrawal. One reason is that the Greek Church’s ties to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople elevate international politics over the moral divide in American culture. Its hierarchy has been criticized for their support of Greek Orthodox Senators Paul Sarbannes and Olympia Snowe despite their advocacy of partial-birth abortion and other culture-of-death positions.
The NCC remains useful to the Greek Orthodox Church, but in return it remains vulnerable to the politicized agendas of the NCC. Recently the NCC authored a curriculum that highlights “peace-making” and other shibboleths of the political left, intended for use in Orthodox Sunday schools. The NCC has a public record of coddling totalitarian regimes (Cuba in particular, North Korea more recently) and lays the lion’s share of the blame for international conflicts on America’s doorstep. Whether Greek Orthodox priests will use the curriculum as the political orientation of the NCC is clarified remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the debate in the Orthodox Church in America remains out of sight, although insiders report increasing support for withdrawal from the NCC. Prominent OCA clergy have been involved in the NCC and support continued participation (Kishkovsky led the search committee that appointed Edgar).
Some Antiochian observers believe that if the Antiochian withdrawal had preceded the OCA’s national convention, the OCA would have withdrawn as well. The puzzle to outsiders is how the OCA—with members who experienced Communist tyranny first-hand—could support the NCC, given its history as an apologist for Marxism.
For the Antiochian Orthodox, the cultural estrangements of the immigrant era and the search for accommodation by the nation’s religious elites are over. They are replaced by a determination to preach the gospel of Christ unencumbered by the political ideologies that shackle groups like the NCC. The work they do may point a way for the rest of American Orthodoxy to follow.
Official information on the National Council of Churches can be found on its website (www.ncccusa.org). For critiques of the NCC, see the Institute for Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org). For more on Orthodoxy and the NCC, see Alexander Webster’s The Price of Prophecy (Eerdmans, 1993).
Johannes L. Jacobse pastors St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church in Naples, Florida, and edits the website Orthodoxy Today (www.ortho doxytoday.org). A past fellow of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, he has written for Front Page Magazine, Break Point, Town Hall, and other magazines and websites. He lives in Naples with his wife and daughter.