Eastern European Lutheran bishops meet in Ukraine

Caption: Back: Bishop Alexander Yurchenko (SELCU), Vice President Oleg Schewtschenko (SELCU), Rev. Daniel S. Johnson (LCMS-SELC), Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis (LELB), Rev. Olav Panchu (ELCIR), Valera Partizan (DELKU). Front: President Matthew C. Harrison (LCMS), Bishop Serge Maschewski (DELKU), Rev. Dr. Albert Collver (LCMS), President Robert Bugbee (LCC), Rev. Andris Kraulin (ELCL), Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin (SELC).

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.

Ecumenical guests at the Eastern European Lutheran Bishops Conference. (Photo: Facebook page of the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of the Apostle Paul).

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.

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Latvian Lutherans consecrate confessional Swede as Bishop

by Christopher C. Barnekov

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL) has consecrated as bishop a Swedish theologian previously barred from ordination in Sweden because of his confessional Lutheran faith. Rev.

Archbishop Vanags presents Hans Jönsson with the pectoral cross of a bishop. (Photo: Rihards Rasnacis).
Archbishop Vanags presents Hans Jönsson with the pectoral cross of a bishop. (Photo: Rihards Rasnacis).

Hans Jönsson, 48, was consecrated August 6 at the cathedral in Riga to serve as bishop of Liepaja Diocese in southwestern Latvia.

Bishop Jönsson graduated from Lund University in Sweden. While studying in Lund, he supplemented his studies with lectures in Lutheran theology sponsored by the Swedish Luther Foundation, which was formed in 1955 to promote theological education grounded in the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran confessional writings, thus opposing increasingly liberal trends in the Church of Sweden.

Because of his confessional Lutheran views, Jönsson was denied ordination in the Church of Sweden. He was, however, certified as qualified for ordination by the Church Coalition for The Bible and Confessions, an umbrella organization encompassing several Swedish Confessional Lutheran movements that was founded in 1958 at the initiative of Bishop Bo Giertz to defend traditional Lutheran faith in the Church of Sweden. The Coalition was formed in the context of the debate over women’s ordination, which its members viewed as clearly contradicting Scripture.

Bishop Jönsson is also an associate member of the pastoral collegium of the Mission Province in Sweden. Dr. Bengt Birgersson, Mission Province Secretary, who attended the consecration, noted, “Sweden’s loss is Latvia’s gain. Many gifted young men were forced to leave Sweden in order to serve Christ abroad, having been denied ordination in the Church of Sweden because they were faithful to Scripture. This is why the Mission Province was formed: to provide a path to ordination and service in Sweden.” Since the founding of the Mission Province in 2003, approximately 40 men have been ordained in Sweden and in the Mission Dioceses in Finland and Norway who would otherwise have been excluded because they believe the Holy Scriptures limit the pastoral office to men.

The ELCL has a close historical relationship to the Church of Sweden. Unlike the Church of Sweden, however, the Latvian church has remained faithful to Confessional Lutheran theology. In 2000, Jönsson was invited to serve in Latvia while learning the language, receiving financial support from the Swedish Luther Foundation. He was subsequently ordained in Riga in 2003, and most recently served as pastor in Madona, about 40 miles east of Riga. He was also given responsibility for managing the national church’s finances and currently serves as chairman of the board for pastoral education.

Rev. Jönsson was elected June 3 to replace the retiring Bishop of Liepaja. The diocese consists of 124 congregations served by 40 pastors.

Bishop Jönsson with Archbishop Vanags after the consecration.
Bishop Jönsson with Archbishop Vanags after the consecration.

Archbishop Janis Vanags conducted the consecration, which was broadcast in its entirety by Latvian national television. Archbishop Vanags was assisted by Latvia’s bishops as well as Bishop Tiits Salumäe of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). Bishop Voigt is also Chairman of the International Lutheran Council. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was represented by Dr. Albert Collver, Director of Church Relations and Assistant to the President. Provisional Bishop Torkild Masvie of the Lutheran Church in Norway also participated in the service. Representatives also attended from the Nordic Mission Dioceses, as well as the Swedish Luther Foundation and other confessional Lutheran movements.

With nearly 300 congregations, the ELCL is the nation’s largest church. It is in fellowship with the LCMS and also has close ties to the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany. In June, the ELCL amended its constitution to reverse a policy imposed during the Soviet domination that opened ordained ministry to women (although no women had been ordained since shortly after Latvia’s liberation).

Although ELCL is still a member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), it rejected heavy pressure from the LWF in moving to limit ordination to men. Advocates of women’s ordination argued that this decision would strain relations with LWF members. In addressing the June synod, however, Archbishop Vanags expressed the intention of drawing closer to the International Lutheran Council and its member churches, including the LCMS, which ordain only men. Relations between ELCL and the Church of Sweden have also been greatly strained since the CoS accepted same-sex marriage.

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Latvian Lutherans reinstate male-only clergy

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The 2016 Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia meets in the Cathedral of Riga. Photo via the ELCL.

LATVIA – On June 3, 2016, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (Latvijas Evaņģēliski luteriskā baznīca – ELCL) officially adopted a policy allowing only males to be ordained as clergy. The decision came during a meeting of the church’s Synod held in the Cathedral of Riga from June 3-4, with the vast majority—77.3%—of those present voting to amend the church’s constitution in favour of returning to the historic practice of the Christian church.

Questions over the ordination of women have been an issue of concern in the ELCL for several decades. Archbishop Janis Vanags and the ELCL’s bishops ceased ordaining women in 1993, but the change in practice was never made official church policy until the 2016 Synod.

“We are an apostolic church, as confessed in the Creed,” explained one lay participant, speaking in favour of the change prior to the vote. “The apostles are our teachers, not the spirit of our time. I will vote in favour of the amendment.”

The change is expected to have a significant impact on the Latvian church’s ecumenical relationships. In advance of the synod, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKiD) had warned that a return to a male-only clergy would force a change in church relations between the EKiD and the ELCL. Delegates from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) had likewise met with ELCL officials in advance of the Synod to discourage the church from changing its constitution. The LWF has since expressed its disapproval of the Latvian church’s decision. Questions about the ELCL’s relationship with the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church Abroad, which is led by a female archbishop, have also been raised.

Archbishop Vanags addressed the Synod about these concerns, noting that the decision brings the ELCL closer to a number of other Lutheran churches that do not ordain women. In particular, he noted the need for the ELCL to draw closer to the International Lutheran Council (ILC) and its member churches, including The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). The ILC’s member churches do not ordain women. Archbishop Vanags and several other bishops indicated a desire to meet with LCMS in the near future to discuss areas where the two church bodies may continue to walk together and proclaim the Gospel as partner churches.

In other business, the Synod adopted a new strategy plan for the next four years and elected a new bishop, Hanss Jensons, for the Liepajas diocese. A provision to allow for the formation of monasteries and convents, at the approval of the College of Bishops, was also adopted.

With nearly 300 congregations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia is the nation’s largest church. Approximately 700,000 Latvians identify as Lutheran, of which approximately 43,000 are active participants in the life of the church. The ELCL is a member church of the Lutheran World Federation. While not a member of the ILC, the ELCL is in fellowship with one of its member churches: the LCMS. It also holds close ties to the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany, another member church of the ILC.

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Responding to Ebola in West Africa

Bishop Amos Bolay.
Bishop Amos Bolay at the LCMS 2013 convention. (Photo: LCMS Communications.)

WEST AFRICA – The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) notes that partnerships that began with the Lutheran Malaria Initiative (LMI) are now making the response to West Africa’s Ebola crisis easier—an unanticipated benefit of the project.

“With our experience in doing the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, we had no problem organizing an Ebola-relief project to assist the church and people of Liberia,” said Bishop Amos Bolay of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Liberia (ELCL). “With a good structure in place, you can easily do other new projects.”

Bishop Bolay said that, with support from the LCMS and Lutheran World Relief (LWR), the ELCL is readily able to provide relief supplies to churches, hospitals and quarantine centers in Liberia in response to the crisis.

“When people are being quarantined, the next problem becomes the need for food. And so, we quickly responded with large supplies of food, especially rice and oil, along with chlorine and buckets for hand-washing as prevention against the deadly Ebola epidemic,” he said.

Partnerships with governmental and nongovernmental agencies also are essential to responding to Ebola. Such partnerships have been established faster than normal through LMI.

“One of our goals in helping our partner churches build capacity is accessing additional funding once all of the LMI funds have been depleted,” said Martha Mitkos, the LCMS’ campaign director for the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, a cooperative project of the LCMS and LWR. “In order to do that, we must help [partner churches] establish relationships with their local governments and organizations like The Global Fund, The President’s Malaria Initiative and USAID. It can take years for these relationships to develop. However, things have moved really fast in Liberia because of the connections and expertise of our local consultant, Dr. Mosoka Fallah.”

Mitkos said Fallah is an epidemiologist and public health specialist with extensive knowledge and expertise in the areas of malaria, Ebola, and other endemic health issues affecting developing nations. She said Fallah also used his expertise to help the ELCL obtain a seat with Liberia’s National Malaria Steering Committee to assist in determining how malaria funds are spent in the country.

“Because of the trust that has been established through LMI in the local communities in and around Monrovia, Liberia, the ELCL has been able to provide Ebola relief under the same umbrella and through the same volunteers that serve LMI,” said Mitkos. They have been able to access communities where LMI is currently working to educate and help end malaria deaths. Ultimately, the trust and relationship building afforded through the church’s gifts to LMI have helped the people of Liberia to see the church as a place of hope with the crucial goal of [proclaiming] the life-saving Gospel of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for our sins.

Nurturing long-term partnerships is crucial to the future success of both LMI and the response to Ebola, said Tracy Quaethem, project coordinator for the LCMS Office of National Mission.

“The way that the LMI is structured provides a great match for Ebola [response] efforts in West Africa,” said Quaethem. “Rather than ‘outsiders’ who come in and then are quickly gone again, LMI focuses on those who have vested, caring bonds within the community.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Liberia was founded in 2009 following the merger of four separate Lutheran groups in Liberia. The church has 350 congregations, 30 schools, and 11,000 members. It established altar and pulpit fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in 2012, with the LCMS ratifying that agreement at its 2013 national convention. The LCMS has more than 2.3 million members and is part of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran churches.

Earlier this year The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod announced a number of initiatives to help combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The church has provided financial support to Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. In November the church also announced travel scholarships for medical personnel who wish to support African partners in treating Ebola.

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Adapted from a LCMS Reporter article.

Latvian and German Lutherans hold meetings

Dean Andris Krauliņš, Romāns Ganiņš, and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt.
Dean Andris Krauliņš, Romāns Ganiņš, and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt.

GERMANY – From March 24-25, representatives of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCL) visited Hanover for meetings with Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). Dean Andris Krauliņš of Latvia’s Jūrmala circuit and Romāns Ganiņš, Head of Administration at the Consistory in Riga, represented the ELCL. SELK was represented by its Bishop, Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt.

Discussions over the two days focused on church-congregational life in the two partner churches. Michael Schätzel of the German church’s council gave Romāns Ganiņš a detailed description of the financial systems of SELK, focusing on congregational budget-planning systems. Dean Andris Krauliņš and Bishop Voigt shared together the different structures of organization in the two church bodies, with the latter describing the meeting structure of the church’s council.

“Last year I visited the synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia,” Bishop Voigt noted. “Whenever I meet together with our brothers and sisters in Latvia, I appreciate our closeness in the liturgy of the Lutheran worship service and in our confessions. We need to support one another as we face our secularizing European culture.”

The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany has 187 churches, 124 active pastors, and approximately 35,000 members. Its bishop, Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt, also serves as Chairman for the International Lutheran Council.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, a member of the Lutheran World Federation, is one of the largest Christian church bodies in Latvia, with nearly 300 churches throughout the nation served by 140 pastors and ten evangelists. Of Latvia’s 2.3 million population, approximately 430,000 identify as Lutheran, with about a tenth of these active in the life of the church.

The German and Latvian churches signed an “Agreement of Partnership” in 2002 on the grounds of common subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. The two churches are in the process of seeking full altar and pulpit fellowship. In addition to SELK, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia has ties to other ILC churches, including The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod with which it achieved altar and pulpit fellowship in 2001.

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Lithuanian Lutherans welcome Syrian refugees

Lithuania-logoLITHUANIA – By invitation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania (ELCL), forty Syrian refugees arrived in Lithuania February 26, 2014. The Syrian families arrived at Zokniai Airport (near the city of Šiauliai) by means of a Spartan military transport plane Wednesday afternoon.

According to Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis, the Syrians will live in parish houses and in housing provided by private persons all over Lithuania. Fifteen of the refugees are coming from Homs, a city in Western Syria which was for a long period of time surrounded by the military forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

“Christians are the most vulnerable group in Syria,” Bishop Sabutis stated. “Every day, they are murdered, persecuted, and robbed.” He noted that the ELCL was encouraged to invite the Syrian refugees to Lithuania because of the refugee experience of Lithuanians themselves. “We ourselves [in Lithuania] are a minority church,” he explained. “We endured much suffering [during the Soviet era], and therefore we have to respond to the pain suffered by others.”

He continued: “We remember our refugees who found asylum in Germany and the United States. Unlike Sweden, the Germans and Americans did not send the refugees back to the Soviet Union. We understand what it is like to be in situations from which there is no way to escape, and what it means to receive help in such situation,” Bishop Sabutis stated.

Bishop Sabutis expressed his gratitude for the help provided by Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense in this project. There have been more than 130,000 casualties in Syria’s civil war. The conflict started in March 2011. President Bashar al Assad used military force against the protests that later grew into armed resistance. Later in the civil war, fighters from abroad joined the conflict on both sides.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania has 21,000 members and is a member of the Lutheran World Federation. It also has close ties to the International Lutheran Council (ILC). In 2000, the ELCL declared itself to be in full-fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (ratified by the LCMS at its own convention in 2001). In 2013, the ELCL hosted the ILC’s 2013 World Seminary Conference in Palanga, Lithuania; the convention’s theme was “Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom as a Mark of the Church.”

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