Bishop Seraphim : Report
Porto Alegre, Brasil
14-23 February, 2006

The purpose of this journey was to be a part of the delegated representation of The Orthodox Church in America at the Ninth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre, Brasil. In advance of this, there had previously been several preparatory conferences, both in the USA and in Canada. These conferences included the Orthodox representatives from various Churches, and also others. One such conference included the various representatives who were being sent from amongst the member-churches of the Canadian Council of Churches.

It is crucial that it be understood that the Orthodox Churches participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) (and in other such organisations more locally) for two primary reasons. The first reason is that the Orthodox demonstrate, speak about and witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, the Truth, in the Orthodox way. It is an evangelical purpose. The second reason is that this participation facilitates conversations between and amongst the many Orthodox Churches, since there is no convenient vehicle for such conversations amongst all the Orthodox otherwise. It is in such situations that the Constantinopolitan and Oriental Orthodox can manage sometimes to talk. Since 1992, Patriarch Bartholomew I has very occasionally convened meetings of the Heads of Autocephalous Churches, but these meetings are very limited in numbers.

On Saturday, 11 February, I set off from Ottawa for New York, and I had expected to be leaving early the following day for Brasil. Instead, there was a heavy snowfall on the east coast (about 70 cm), which closed the æroports. I therefore stayed at the chancery of the OCA until the next possible time of departure, the evening of Wednesday, 15 February. This delay gave an arrival on Thursday, 16 February, towards mid-day. The route was through São Paulo to Porto Alegre, and our arrival was a day-and-a-half late.

One part of the delegation of The Orthodox Church in America had made an earlier departure, so the Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky had managed to arrive in Brasil before the storm (as did Alexis S Troubetskoy, who was representing other related entities). The remainder of the delegation of the OCA and of the Office of External Church Relations (consisting of Priest Alexander Rentel, Professor Paul Meyendorff, Matushka Valerie Zahirsky, and me, together with the observers Constantine and Arlene Kallaur) arrived late.

After arriving at Porto Alegre, and after having checked into the Ritter Hotel (it is like an older European hotel), we made our way to the Pontifcia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (São Paulo Pontifical Catholic University), the site of the assembly, and we tried to orient ourselves. We immediately joined the sessions, but we had also arrived at the university in time for dinner. After this break, we joined the afternoon Plenary Session on economic justice, and the evening business session for nominations. I found the translation services to be excellent and efficient, and the overall organisation was very good. However (as we would find), the commuting from all the hotels was a significant inconvenience and obstacle. Morning and evening, there was a prayer service, at which Orthodox attendance was conspicuously low. This was also the case in the past, apparently. The reason for that is ostensibly that previously, these services were an artificial blend contrived for each occasion, which the Orthodox often tried to avoid. However, there had been a change in rules about the nature of these services, so that they would be presented by a “denomination” according to its own manner of serving. Nevertheless, either because of fatigue, or resistance, the Orthodox attendance was low at these services. However, evening services apparently tended to be organised on a more local basis (not necessarily governed by these rules), and the nature of them was unpredictable and to many Orthodox indigestible. At these services, the Orthodox were even less visible. Supper was at our hotel.

On Friday morning, 17 February, there was a visit from the President of Brasil. He gave a speech that generally covered the recent accomplishments of his government, and also some future intentions, with particular reference to the concerns of the WCC about the environment and the right treatment of human beings. We then joined our various groups of “Ecumenical Conversations” on various topics. I, myself, with Arlene and Valerie and some other Orthodox, participated in a conversation about environmental concerns. The afternoon was devoted to the topic “Christian Identity”, and the chief speaker on the subject was Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. His presentation was hitherto the most substantial of any presentation we heard. It is important to understand that we had not heard Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, because he had already spoken by the time we arrived. His words in printed form were excellent, and I regret not having heard him in person. This was followed by regional meetings. The North American meeting was devoted to deciding on the North American presidential nomination for the WCC, its rationale, history, and future alternation between the USA and Canada. It was also recognised that Mexico and Central America are visibly absent from this North American region. Nevertheless, the Antiochian Metropolitan Damaskinos of São Paulo, Brasil, was the head of the delegation that represented all Latin America, including Cuba. It was averred that Mexico and Central America appropriately belong to the greater Latin American body. Supper was at the hotel ; and as it happened, the North American and Czech-Slovak delegations (with much humour) sat together. The latter delegation was led by Archbishop Kryštof of Prague, who also shared his hopes about his future visit to the USA.

On Saturday, 18 February, with everyone gathered, there was a morning Bible Study, following the morning prayers. The final session of Ecumenical Conversations followed this. After dinner, there was a long presentation on combatting violence. This was immediately followed by a caucus of the Orthodox (which included all Orthodox, both “Eastern” and “Oriental”). This meeting was chaired by Metropolitan Gennadios of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. One of the major concerns entertained was the number of seats per Church on the Central Committee. Besides this, there were calls for a Council of reconciliation between the “Eastern” and “Oriental” Orthodox, and a revival of all conversations and processes needed to accomplish this. There was a steady concern for the inclusion of the youth and of women (of which there were many representatives present). There was dismay expressed by some that on Sunday (the next day) there would be both a “Greek”, and a “Russian” Divine Liturgy, and that there would be thus a visible division (besides that which required the “Orientals” to serve separately, anyway). The justification given was that both the Russian and Greek Temples and communities in this city are very small, and that they really wanted the visitors to come to them, rather than joining a larger assembly at the university. If everything were at the university only, the people of São Paulo would have almost no contact with the visitors, nor the visitors with the local people. The number of persons present at the caucus was about 300, and the atmosphere amongst them all was warmly fraternal. Supper was at the hotel. This night, according to the local custom, the clocks were changed back one hour.

On 19 February, the Sunday Divine Liturgy, in Russian/Slavonic, at Saint Sergius’ Church, was the one which most of our delegation attended. Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Vienna served (with 4 priests and 1 deacon). The senior priest was our Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky, who also gave the homily after the Gospel. The choir was made up of both visitors and local singers, and the languages used were Slavonic, English and Georgian. Most of the non-celebrating clergy received Holy Communion, along with a large number of faithful, many of whom also went to the Mystery of Confession both before and during the Divine Liturgy. The hierarchical service was somewhat simplified, because of a lack of personnel and “kiri”, but it was very pleasant indeed. Present amongst the bishops (besides me) were 2 Bulgarian observer-bishops : Metropolitan Dometian and Metropolitan Kyrill. Hospitality was as I have found it everywhere in such situations : the people were very happy to receive us, but they were not properly organised for one reason or another. Regardless, warm hearts always prevail over disorganisation. While speaking with the Bulgarian bishops, I was told that they are waiting for a visit from our Church to the Bulgarian Church. I explained that we are presently a bit short of money, but that we hoped to try to accomplish such a visit later on. Once again, in the course of our conversations, it was reinforced to me what sort of positive reputation we have abroad. Metropolitan Niphont, the Antiochian Representative in Moscow, expressed regret to Father Leonid Kishkovsky that the OCA was passing through its present controversy. He emphasised that the OCA is generally regarded by the others with a favourable attitude, even if there are sometimes tests. Lunch was as we could find it.

In mid-afternoon, we took the buses to the PUC campus, and joined the afternoon Plenary Session. This session consisted of a combination of audio-visual and live presentations, greetings, and explanations of Latin-American life and history. This was supported by actors/singers/dancers, with life-size “dummies”, who made a sort of play of the narrative. The main point of the presentation was to express something about the 500 exploitative/oppressive years since the arrival of the conquistadores ; and, although admitting that life before them was not perfect, to express the great hope in the present for improving life in general, while keeping this improvement in the context of remembering the living past. The over-riding concern in Latin America at present seems to be the destructive activities of big corporations, such as sellers of bananas and soy-products. There was a lot of attention given also to the negative effects of dictatorships and revolutions. The various ecclesiastical communities appear to be co-operating in the work of rescuing people, and attempting to right wrongs. It was a reasonably well-presented entertainment, but its specific contents do raise some serious questions. Always, our perception is that what is presented during these sessions could be more specifically Christocentric. We took supper at the hotel, because we did not feel up to taking in the various other regional entertainments which were offered, and we hoped to retire a little earlier.

Monday morning, 20 February, was taken up, first, by various conversations : with Metropolitan Ambrosius at breakfast, and then with the Priest Heikki Huttunen (both of Finland) at the PUC. Then followed the first of the day’s plenaries. There were various speakers on the topic of church unity. A couple of Oriental Orthodox speakers raised good and useful points, but the Protestant speakers expressed ecclesiologies that were ignorant of the Orthodox ecclesiology. The last and most famous of the speakers was Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa. There were, in my opinion, some good points in his emotional speech ; but he went far beyond the limits of our tolerance in his embracing of all human beings in a particularly indiscriminate manner. It is to be understood that he would feel inclusive, given his life’s experience, but an Orthodox could not go so far, and particularly not in this sort of speech. One might describe his attitude as being somewhat Ghandian. There appears to be a confusion between holding a respectful attitude towards human beings in general, and what is the truth about Who Christ is, and about the Church as the Body of Christ. After this, I had coffee with Archbishop Nifon of Targoviste, Romania, who has participated in the WCC for 15 years. I expressed to him my sense of struggle concerning the way things in general have been being expressed so very vaguely, so loosely all-encompassing, and so altogether over-inclusively at these meetings. He indicated to me that before the 1998 Harare Assembly, and before the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC (, it was much, much more difficult to bear. I then thanked him for whatever he had contributed towards making it better. It is beneficial to be aware of the history of these developments, and I regret my lack of such detailed knowledge. The words and sentiments of Archbishop Nifon were repeated by several others in other conversations. Conversations such as this did stress the utility of our participation in such a body as the WCC, for two reasons. First, we Orthodox have a forum in which to speak with each other that does not otherwise exist. Second, we have an opportunity to witness to the value and stability of the Orthodox Church.

There was a Syndesmos-sponsored forum on the Orthodox presence and service in the world — its nature and purpose. (Syndesmos is the World Federation of Orthodox Youth.) It was mostly Orthodox people who were present at this forum ; but there were some observers also, who asked pertinent questions. After a break, there was a session devoted to various nominations, as presented by the Nominating Committee, and there were various questions about the rationale of these nominations. After this, there was a break, and there was a session devoted to proposals for “resolutions”, according to the criteria of the rules of the WCC. This was a very complicated consideration, concerned with wording and the intentions of the words, and some adjustments were made. This was a test of the “mood cards”. These were coloured cards used to indicate the disposition of the delegates, in order to determine consensus during such deliberations. This concern for consensus is one of the products of the “Special Commission”, and otherwise only referred to indirectly hitherto. Final consideration of these proposals would come later. After the close of the session, there was a meeting of the Heads of Delegations for the purpose of addressing the concerns expressed (chiefly by the Church of Romania) about the number of Central Committee seats allotted. After a lengthy discussion about the reason for the present distribution (both in the context of the history, and also in that of the current rules), it was agreed to accept the nominations as presented at this time. A further consideration of the question of candidacy for Moderator would be entertained on the following morning at a separate meeting. Supper was at the hotel.

Tuesday morning, 21 February, began with a meeting of the Heads of Delegations. In the Orthodox meeting, we first discussed the overall disposition of the Orthodox representatives at the WCC, and then we discussed the Orthodox liturgical service of Wednesday evening, which was to be an abbreviated Vespers, followed by an artoklasia. After some discussion, and after a strong contribution by Archbishop Anastasios, it was decided that Metropolitan Damaskinos of São Paulo, Brasil (who claims 1 ½ million adherents) would preside at the artoklasia, together with seven priests, each from a different Church. At the end, there would be no anointing, and bread would be distributed by the priests, who would not wear an epitrakhil for the distribution, nor manually distribute the bread, but simply hold a basket from which those who wish might take blessed bread. It was agreed that, as prepared, the pamphlet would explain clearly that this is a non-eucharistic service. Then there was a discussion about the candidates for Moderator, and Vice-moderator. In due time, Father Leonid Kishkovsky became a candidate for Moderator. He made sure that we all understood that he was not “attached” to this nomination, but that he regarded it as an opportunity to serve the Church if God blesses it. One of the recurring themes throughout all the conversations, however, is that there is general ignorance (even amongst the Orthodox) of what exactly is the OCA.

The Morning Session was the last of the “theme” sessions, and it was given in the form of a “talk-show” panel on the theme. The presentation was well-received. At the noon break, there were also the usual noon sessions, and many attended the one on Orthodoxy in Latin America. As usual, the OCA’s presence in its Exarchate of Mexico was not remembered by many. It was noted that São Paolo (the world’s third-biggest city) has a very large, and very old Antiochian presence. It is claimed that Orthodox have been present in South America for well over 100 years, and that all the Orthodox in Latin America number several million. Then followed two business sessions devoted to several documents, with the usual numerous comments and corrections. The Nominating Committee was ultimately challenged about the constitutionality of the number of seats, and the slate was returned for correction. The repeated question about the number of youth representatives (always considered too few) finally brought a derogatory comment from Father Vsevolod Chaplin of Russia. He was then derided by many delegates for saying the “quality level” of the youth participants was low. Others, however, agreed with him in private conversations later. At the end, several of us attended the evening prayers, as presented by a local Council of Churches (the nature and content of evening services are not controlled by the main office in Geneva, as previously noted), at which we found it rather difficult to be present, because it was much more a secular presentation on violence than a service. We left rather earlier than the end of this event.

Then we went with a group to another hotel for a reception by, and discussion about, Syndesmos. This included Archbishop Ieremiasz from Poland, the Priest Heikki Huttunen of Finland, our Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky, Matushak Valerie Zahirsky, others and me. We discussed both our own histories with the movement, and ideas about its future possible work. Improving communication with North America was considered to be important, because it is necessary at present that we travel to Europe, primarily, to make our connexions with its services. Its annual budget, even with a Greek subsidy, is only about €90,000. Syndesmos ( is at this time the only available Orthodox vehicle to make possible some sort of nearly “normal” inter-Orthodox communication, because it has regular and frequent meetings. It seems important that we attempt to support that institution through encouraging the participation of our now-numerous Orthodox Christian Fellowships at many universities. The President of Syndesmos, Christopher D’Aloisio, is married to Lydia Obolensky, and they live in Brussels.

On Wednesday morning, 22 February, because of various delays, we arrived at the PUC only after the end of morning prayers, and I preferred at this time not to go to a Bible Study. Instead, I talked to some persons, and read some documents in preparation for the impending sessions. Like other western international bodies (such as the UN), the WCC stresses the importance of documents and adherence to the words of them. As a result, a considerable amount of politicking is associated with the formation of all documents. The first, second and third plenaries of this day were given to re-working various documents, approving others, and voting on the candidates for the Central Committee and the Presidents. There was a considerable discussion, and some documents were significantly improved. At the lunch-break, Paul Meyendorff and I participated in a discussion with Archimandrite Irinej (Dobrijevic) and Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky about the impending conference in Kosovo and about the situation there. We also talked with Archbishop Ieremiasz of Wroclaw about the impending elections. I had a good conversation with Metropolitan Dometian of Bulgaria about the difficulties in ever achieving the hoped-for goal of the visible unity (as it is expressed repeatedly in the WCC documents). We agreed that, under the circumstances, it is only possible for the Orthodox to hope to work together with others in areas of practical Christian action, and in making some common statements. Several times, during the course of these days, there were warm and constructive conversations with Metropolitan Georges of Harare, and also with Archbishop Makarios of Nairobi, who represented the Coptic Orthodox Church. During this day, our Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky was again elected to the Central Committee. Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and Patriarch Paulos of Addis Ababa were both elected to the presidency (this is a responsibility which changes yearly). In the evening, there was a service of reduced Vespers by the Orthodox, with a blessing of bread, as planned. After returning to the hotel, Matushka Valerie Zahirsky and Paul Meyendorff participated in the dinner with the American regional delegations. Father Leonid Kishkovsky, Father Alexander Rentel and I attended a late supper at another hotel for delegation-heads-plus-two, hosted by Metropolitan Damaskinos, for the “Eastern” and “Oriental” Orthodox.

On Thursday, 23 February, we approached the PUC for the last and full day of sessions for text-modifications and decision-making. Already, many persons were leaving. Bishop Hilarion had, the previous day, commented that the regular WCC general assembly was for him always the most difficult of all meetings he attends, largely because of its great length. Because our departure was necessary immediately after the second of the day’s sessions, we were unable to participate in the finalising of the various texts and statements. Because of our departure, the actual outcome of the election for Moderator and for Vice-moderator was also unknown to us until later.

At the end of the third session, Professor Meyendorff had made a public comment about the lack of theological reflection and content in many of the documents. This comment was strongly supported by many Orthodox, and by many Protestants. The fact that our representatives not only are capable of making such constructive observations, but also that they have the vision and the personal strength to make them, underlines (in my view) the importance of our presence in these forums, despite the often negative and tense atmosphere, and despite the many personal difficulties and sacrifices that are required to participate in such conferences and assemblies.

The final documents and statements of this assembly are available electronically on the WCC’s web-site for the Assembly :