Antioch exits National Council of Churches

Summer is the season for church conventions that talk about hot issues.

Last week's 47th convention of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America passed a resolution that addressed both sexuality and the Iraqi war. But this time the lofty words led to an historic change.

The assembly voted to oppose "divisive and dangerous" positions taken by "left-wing" and "right-wing" groups. To be specific, it rejected "support for same-sex marriage, support for abortion, support for ordination of women to Holy Orders, support for the concept of war that is 'pre-emptive' or 'justifiable' and the labeling of other faiths and their leaders with hateful terminology."

The archdiocese -- a blend of Arab-Americans and many converts -- vowed to avoid groups that "promulgate these extreme positions" and renewed its commitment to seek Orthodox unity in North America.

Then the delegates cheered as Metropolitan Philip Saliba announced his decision to withdraw from the National Council of Churches USA.

The archdiocese joined the old Federated Council of Churches in the 1940s and had been active in the ecumenical movement ever since, said Father Olof Scott, of the church's interfaith relations office. But recent decades have been tough.

The Orthodox believe "we're getting further and further away from the primary goal of looking to bring Christianity back into a unified fold," he told Now, the "churches of the mainline Protestant world really don't want to hear our message. It is with that frustration that we felt that we can put our efforts to better use elsewhere."

The national council has not responded to the departure of one of its 36 churches, said the Rev. Leslie Thune, its spokesperson in Washington. General Secretary Bob Edgar -- a former Democratic congressman -- is currently out of the office, but has promised to meet with Metropolitan Philip as soon as possible to discuss his concerns.

"We did not even know that this was in the works," said Thune.

However, she noted the council's oft-repeated stance that it does not take stands on divisive doctrinal issues, since many of its member churches have clashing beliefs on such matters.

Nevertheless, Scott said the Antiochian archdiocese quit the council, in large part, because of what he called an "almost a politicized agenda" under Edgar -- with a strong emphasis on sexual liberation and opposition to conservative Christianity.

A turning point came in 2000 when Edgar removed his signature from "A Christian Declaration on Marriage," a statement signed by representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals. The text defined marriage as between man and a woman.

After speaking at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Breakfast during an NCC general assembly, Edgar issued an apology and affirmed his support for same-sex unions. He told Presbyterian News Service: "I support marriage, and I support more than marriage the love between two people, and I don't differentiate whether it is between a man and a woman or a woman and a woman or a man and a man or whatever. We need fidelity and care in relationships."

There have been many signs of tension. Two years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church cut all ties with the U.S. Episcopal Church following the consecration of the openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Russian Patriarch Alexy II recently said he was worried about the leadership role that churches offering a "free interpretation" of sexual morality hold in the World Council of Churches.

Last month, the Orthodox Church in America -- which has Russian roots -- studied a document that said the "most advisable course" for its ecumenical work "would be eventually to withdraw from the NCC and the WCC." After all, said this "Orthodox Relations" text, there are more Protestant and Pentecostal Christians outside of these councils than there are inside and neither includes the Roman Catholic Church.

The Antiochian archdiocese agrees. Decades ago, said Scott, Orthodoxy needed a seat in the National Council of Churches in order to "put a face" on its often mysterious rites and parishes. But now the momentum is toward work with more conservative believers.

"We don't need the NCC," he said, "for the identity of Orthodoxy in the new world. People know who we are. We are strong. We are vibrant. We are growing."