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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20 Years of Summer Theological Seminars in Siberia

Participants in this year's Summer Seminar.
Participants in this year’s Summer Seminar.

RUSSIA – Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) and its Theological Seminary recently held their 21st Summer Theological Seminars in Siberia under the general title “1996–2016: Ad Fontes” (To the Sources). But what are the “fontes” or “sources” of the seminars themselves?

The history of the seminars dates back to meetings with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) in St. Louis in 1994 and Fort Wayne in 1995. Following this initial acquaintance with confessional Lutheran theology, Rev. Vsevolod Lytkin (then a pastor of the Lutheran parish in Novosibirsk) requested the LCMS’ Rev. Dr. Wallace Shultz to provide theological education for the Lutheran people in Siberia.

Thanks to leadership from Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne) and a generous grant from the Schwann Foundation, the founding of Lutheran seminars in Siberia became a reality. But the enterprise’s real success had to do with the fact that the initiative came from the local people. When asked “How can we help you?” they responded: “Please provide theological education to us. We need solid Lutheran training.”

Rev. Dr Timothy C.J. Quill was a key contact on the American side who participated in the process of selection of teachers for the Siberian program. The first two seminars of 1996 and 1997 were perhaps the most representative and best attended ones, because they were held almost exclusively in Novosibirsk. People came to Novosibirsk from as far as St. Petersburg in the west and Sakhalin Island and the Kamchatka Peninsula in the east. The first speakers included, among others: Rev. Dr. William Weinrich, Rev. Dr. Arthur Just, Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, Rev. Kurt Marquart, Rev. Dr. David Scaer, Rev. Dr. Horace Hummel, Rev. Dr. Ronald Feuerhahn, and Rev. Dr. Scott Murray.

During the second seminar of 1997, the first building of the Lutheran Seminary in Novosibirsk was dedicated by Rev. Dr. Dean Wenthe, with classes starting in September of that year. Alexey Streltsov, aged 23 at the time, was installed as rector of the seminary. Establishing the Seminary was a major result and culmination of the Summer Seminars, as well as the ultimate realization of the initial request of Rev Vsevolod Lytkin.

But the Summer Seminars did not cease merely because a seminary was established. They continued as the ground base for providing theological education for laity and church workers. These seminars were used for different purposes: missionary, catechetical, recruitment of the new seminary students, and so forth. Over the years the seminars expanded to include such location as Tomsk, Novokuznetsk, Ekaterinburg, Khakassia, Chita, and others.

While the circumstances varied year to year, Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church was deeply committed to the Summer Seminars as a form of sharing theological expertise with the wider circles of the church. With no external funding, the activities were still performed in the local congregations and by local people. With no speakers to come from the outside, the Seminary instructors took upon themselves the responsibility of caring for the theological well-being of the SELC flock.

The 2016 Summer Seminar was like the first seminar in a number of ways. More than 110 people participated in this event with people attending from different parts of Siberia and Russia: Krasnodar and Moscow in the west, and Chita in the east. And this seminar’s speakers included three of the original teachers: Rev. Dr. William Weinrich, Rev. Dr. Arthrur Just, and Rev. Dr Timothy Quill. Also teaching was Rev. Dr. Albert Collver who has also participated in previous seminars. The topics had to do with exegetical, dogmatic, and pastoral theology. Besides lectures, there were numerous discussions of the seminar participants both with the presenters and among themselves in the small groups.

The content of the lectures and the seminar’s overall warm family atmosphere has left a long lasting impression on the clergy and laity of SELC. Now as SELC and her seminary move toward greater ecumenical engagement with the world around Siberia, it was good to remember how it all started and be reinforced in the depths of confessional Lutheran theology.

The second week of the seminar activities saw Rev. Dr Arthur Just hold a number of teaching session on a smaller scale. Dozens of Lutherans in Novokuznetsk, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg, Beloretsk, and Moscow were able to listen to his lectures on St. James and the theology of the Gospel of St. Luke.

Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church rejoices in such opportunities to gather around the faithful teaching of God’s work and to exercise genuine Christian fellowship at an event where doctrine and worship go hand in hand, strengthening the faithful for life in this world.

Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are members of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.

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ILC member churches in Russia strengthen ties

Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin and Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR) Bishop Arri Kugappi.
Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin and Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR) Bishop Arri Kugappi.

by Rev. Alexey Streltsov

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.

The SELC and ILCR bishops serve as communion celebrants together.
SELC Bishop Lytkin and ELCIR Bishop Kugappi serve as communion celebrants together.

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.

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Rev. Alexey Streltsov is Rector of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Lutheran Theological Seminary.

ILC welcomes new member churches

Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin (SELC), President Marvin Donaire (ILSN), and Acting Bishop Torkild Masvie (LKN)  after their churches were received into membership in the International Lutheran Council.
Representatives of the newest member churches of the International Lutheran Council (left to right): Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin (Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church), President Marvin Donaire (Lutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua), and Acting Bishop Torkild Masvie (Lutheran Church in Norway).

ARGENTINA – On September 25, the International Lutheran Council (ILC) welcomed three new church bodies from Russia, Nicaragua, and Norway into membership. The ILC is currently holding its 2015 World Conference in Buenos Ares, Argentina.

The Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC), the Lutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua (ILSN), and the Lutheran Church in Norway (LKN) were all accepted unanimously into membership during the afternoon session of September 25. Their acceptance brings the current number of ILC member churches to 38, with a number of other Lutheran church bodies around the world expressing interest in joining the ILC.

Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin (SELC), President Marvin Donaire (ILSN), and Acting Bishop Torkild Masvie (LKN) were all present at the convention on behalf of their church bodies and celebrated their admissions into the International Lutheran Council. ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt greeted each of the church leaders personally to express his congratulations, while the convention at large applauded each of their inductions in turn.

ILC Chairman Hans Jorg Voigt welcomes each of the new member churches immediately following the votes to accept them.
ILC Chairman Hans Jorg Voigt welcomes each of the new member churches immediately following the votes to accept them.

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New ILC Members at a Glance

SELC-webSiberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC)
Сибирская Евангелическо-Лютеранская Церковь
2,100 baptized members
25 congregations
19 clergy (1 bishop, 14 pastors, 4 deacons)

While Russia at one time counted more than a million Lutherans as citizens, the 1917 revolution led to the exile or execution of most Lutheran pastors and the closure of Lutheran churches by 1939. SELC grows out of evangelistic efforts by their current bishop, who began preaching Christianity in Novosibirsk, Siberia in the early 1990s. The mission became associated with the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1993, and eventually became an autonomous church body in 2003.

Prior to that, SELC formally contacted The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) for doctrinal discussions in 1998. In 2010, the two church bodies declared fellowship with each other, an act that was subsequently ratified at the LCMS’ 2013 convention.

Among other work, the church has established its own seminary program to serve SELC and other Russian speaking Lutherans.

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ILSN-webLutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua (ILSN)
Iglesia Luterana Sínodo de Nicaragua
1,800 baptized members
23 congregations (plus missions in Nicaragua and Costa Rica)
26 pastors
37 deaconesses

The Lutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua was born through the mission efforts of Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC), which began work in the Central American country in 1997. Following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and subsequent relief efforts, receptivity to LCC’s outreach increased dramatically. By 2008, the Nicaraguan people were ready to found their own church body and the ILSN was born.

In addition to serving Nicaraguans, the ILSN participates in mission work in Costa Rica and Honduras. It runs a very successful Children’s Education Program (led by the church’s deaconesses) through which more than 700 children benefit from nutritious meals, after-school tutoring, and Christian education.

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LKNThe Lutheran Church in Norway (LKN)
Den Lutherske Kirke i Norge
50 baptized members
1 congregation
8 preaching points
3 pastors (plus 1 retired pastor)

The Lutheran Church in Norway’s origin dates to the 2005 founding of The Church of the Messiah. The LKN currently operates through a multi-site ministry strategy where services in one location are live-streamed to preaching points elsewhere. Audio and video links allow several hundred people to benefit from the church’s services regularly. A majority of the church’s members are young adults.

The pastors of the LKN all formerly served in the Church of Norway. Because the church is small, three of the pastors serve on a voluntary basis, while the Acting Bishop, who serves as pastor in Oslo, receives a half-time salary. The church also offers a theological education program called AdFontes. Despite its small stature, the Lutheran Church in Norway has begun to receive significant media coverage as more Norwegians worried about the theological direction of the state church begin to look for alternatives.

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Ukraine’s bishop asks for prayer

SELCU Bishop Gräfenstein (left) and ILC Vice-Chairman Bugbee in Ukraine (file photo).
SELCU Bishop Gräfenstein (left) and ILC Vice-Chairman Bugbee in Ukraine (file photo).

UKRAINE – The situation in Ukraine continues to be tense, following the occupation of the Crimean peninsula by Russian military and pro-Russian militia. And things are only getting worse, according to Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein of the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine (SELCU).

“The situation is deteriorating every day,” Bishop Gräfenstein reports in a March 4 letter. “Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. One of our brothers from Odessa, who is currently serving in the armed forces, reported that all soldiers are armed and constantly in a state of readiness for war.”

“Of course the Crimean Peninsula is the primary focus,” the letter continues. “Crimea formerly belonged to Russia, but was transferred to Ukraine in the Soviet period. Now, while Ukraine grapples with the question of whether to line up with Russia or with the European Union (EU), Russia threatens Ukraine with war, especially if Ukraine goes with the EU. Most Crimean residents are Russians who wish to be part of Russia. So now Russia uses this sentiment to hold the Crimea back from the EU.”

SELCU has five congregations on the Crimean peninsula, but Bishop Gräfenstein notes that, while the situation is tense, the people are still safe. “Our brothers and sisters are not doing badly at this moment,” he writes. “People in general are rushing to stockpile groceries, and nearly all the store shelves are empty. Everyone is concerned that, if it comes to war, a famine will break out.”

Bishop Gräfenstein ends his letter with a request for prayer: “We pray that the Lord would give to the responsible leaders grace and wisdom to govern in peace,” he writes. “Thank you for your prayer support.”

We pray that the Lord would give to the responsible leaders grace and wisdom to govern in peace.

SELCU is a young church body, with thirteen congregations throughout Ukraine. It has strong ties to Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) which has long supported its ministry, especially with theological education and missions. Late last week, Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee (President of Lutheran Church–Canada and Vice-Chairman of the International Lutheran Council) called on the wider church to hold up Ukraine in prayer.

“We ask the Lord to comfort the sorrowing who have lost loved ones,” President Bugbee wrote. “We ask Him to meet the legitimate needs of the Ukrainian people, regardless of their preferred languages and political orientation. We implore him that the work of our mission partners in the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine may not be disrupted by the trouble.”

“Above all,” he continued, “we ask God to give courage to our pastors and people there in the mist of turmoil to point their neighbours to Jesus Christ, the great Prince of Peace.”

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Published concurrently at The Canadian Lutheran.