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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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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