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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Mathew Block

Mathew Block serves as Editor for the International Lutheran Council's news service. He is Communications Manager for Lutheran Church–Canada, editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine, and a blogger with First Things.

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