RUSSIA – On January 18, 2017 the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR) and The Lutheran Church in Norway (LKN) entered into church fellowship.
The decision came following talks in St. Petersburg between ELCIR Bishop Arri Kugappi and LKN Provisional Bishop Torkild Masvie. Also participating in the talks were senior advisors from both church bodies.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia and The Lutheran Church in Norway are both members of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.
UKRAINE – The heads of several Lutheran churches in the former Soviet Union recently met together in Ukraine for the Eastern European Bishops Conference, along with the heads of their North American partner churches.
The conference, held in Odessa in late February, was hosted by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (DELKU) and its Bishop Sergey Maschewski. DELKU, long associated with the state (territorial) Lutheran churches of Germany, has in recent years begun aligning itself with more conservative bodies like The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC). In addition to the presidents of LCC and LCMS, DELKU also hosted the bishops (or their representatives) from several other Lutheran church bodies in eastern Europe, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (LELB), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania (ELCL), the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine (SELCU), and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). The conference also welcomed a number of ecumenical guests.
During the conference, the bishops reported on their respective churches and the challenges they face. A number of these churches have to do their work over long distances: SELC, for example, is stretched out over a vast territory spanning 7,000 kilometers. DELKU, as another example, struggles with a severe clergy shortage, currently operating 28 congregations with only nine pastors. Many of these congregations are distant from the nearest neighbouring pastor or parish.
The bishops also discussed opportunities for future cooperation between their churches. “United by much of our common history and—what is of more relevance today—by similar theological outlook, we felt that there was a need for closer cooperation in the future,” explained Rev. Alexey Strelstov, rector of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church’s seminary in Novosibirsk, Russia. Rev. Strelstov presented on education in a confessional Lutheran context on the final day of the conference.
Part of that future cooperation may well take place on theological education. One evening of the conference, the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine invited participants to visit their seminary in Usatovo, a suburb of Odessa. Representatives of the Siberian church expressed interest in forging closer ties with SELCU on seminary education. There were discussions on assisting the Ukrainian seminary in procuring more Russian-language theological books for its library, as well as the possibility of SELC seminary professors coming to teach short-term courses in Usatovo. “The interaction between these Russian speakers, all keenly interested in the faithful biblical training of pastors, was a real joy to watch,” noted LCC President Robert Bugbee. LCC has long-supported SELCU’s seminary education program.
Morning and afternoon devotions at the bishops’ conference were held in DELKU’s Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of the Apostle Paul in downtown Odessa, restored in recent years after having been destroyed by the Soviet regime decades ago. “Although this church was rebuilt on a somewhat smaller scale, it once seated 1,200 worshippers and was the centre for spiritual life of the entire German community before the communist repression,” noted LCC President Bugbee. Lutheran churches were severely persecuted during the soviet era.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church are both members of the International Lutheran Council, as are Lutheran Church–Canada and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine is a partner church of LCC, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania are partner churches of the LCMS. The German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine, meanwhile, has been seeking closer relations to the LCMS in recent years.
RUSSIA – In this time of disintegration of institutional Christianity in the countries of the developed world, it is noteworthy when the opposite trends mark the desire of confessional Lutheran Christians to abide in the unity of faith and love.
There was a time when the Lutheran Church of the old Russian Empire constituted one of the major Lutheran Churches worldwide. Well-known events of the communist revolution and atheistic purges of the 20th century have tragically changed the course of Christianity in that part of the world. Lutheranism in today’s Russia is relatively small and insignificant, only a shadow of what it once has been. However, even now the Lutherans in Russia trace their origin and history to that old Imperial Church. A sense of history is important for the Russian Lutherans. Along with that those Lutherans who are serious about their confessional subscription to the Holy Scripture and the Book of Concord naturally tend to not be in isolation from each other.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR) and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) are two voices of the confessional Lutheran movement in Russia today. These are two sister churches and share certain parts of their history. The Ingrian Church is the older of the two, with some of her parishes dating back to the early 17th century. Being in origin a church focused mostly on serving ethnic Finns on the territory of Ingria (Ingermanland), the ECLIR has grown today to combine Finnish Ingrian tradition with an appeal to people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. SELC, which formerly was a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Estonia, has included people of various cultures from the beginning.
SELC Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin and SELC Seminary Rector Alexey Streltsov recently visited the General Synod of ELCIR in October, the first such General Synod visit in 18 years. There has been remarkable progress in relationships between the two churches in recent years. Bishop Lytkin shared in the Eucharistic celebration with ELCIR Bishop Arri Kugappi at St Mary’s Church in St Petersburg, and preached for the service. Earlier this year, Rev. Alexey Streltsov preached at the service in the Moscow ELCIR parish of St. Peter and Paul in April and at Christ the Savior parish in Novosibirsk in November of this year.
Plans are being made for a joint seminar in spring of 2016 between the clergy of the Siberian deanery of ELCIR and SELC clergy. While instructor of the ELCIR Theological Institute, Dr. Sergey Isaev has been coming to the Theological Seminary of SELC in Novosibirsk for a number of years. And now, for the first time, Novosibirsk lecturers are scheduled to teach in Koltushy in 2016. ELCIR students residing in Siberia are likely to enroll at the seminary in Novosibirsk for the 2016-17 Academic year.
In short, some remarkable progress has been made within the last year. Bishop Kugappi observed at the Synod that such representation of the SELC at the Ingrian Synod was a major sign of unity of the two conservative Lutheran Churches in Russia. Bishop Lytkin states that never before in the history of the two churches were relations as close as they are now. He also expressed his admiration for the church’s strong witness of the declaration on the “Same sex relations” that was accepted at the ELCRI Synod. Their position is all the more admirable, he said, given the strong pressure from liberal European Churches that the ELCIR comes under for its confessional position on human sexuality.
Relations between the two Russian Lutheran churches have not always been as close as they are now. While conscientious Lutherans in both churches have hoped that obstacles would be overcome in the future, it is remarkable that such positive changes have occurred already in this generation. While there were historically challenges between the two churches, the fellowship between the sister churches was never broken: SELC seminary graduates served in the ELCIR parishes, there was interchange in hymnody, and in the work in the youth summer camps. Now relations between the two churches have grown to a strong new level.
There is an important lesson to learn here as well as great cause to give glory to God for the true unity in faith that comes only from Him. When people are serious about their confession and tradition, they naturally tend to join together in common witness for the truth. We are stronger together. In such a traditional society as Russia’s, it is extremely important to present Lutheran values in the public square not as a strange modernist antinomian phenomenon but as a historic Christian confession with clear emphasis on Christ and His Gospel, a serious attitude toward the commandments of God, and a respect for the liturgy and sacraments.
As Russian Lutherans move forward, they are hopeful that they will be able to keep faithful to their roots and present a viable alternative to apostate voices in which the voice of the Shepherd can no longer be recognized.
Rev. Alexey Streltsov is Rector of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Lutheran Theological Seminary.
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