KENYA – The Rt. Rev. Francis Nyamwaro Onderi, former Chairman and Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK), entered into glory on November 17, 2020.
In 1996, Rev. Nyamwaro was installed as the first bishop of the ELCK, following a decision of the church a year prior to transition to an episcopal structure. Prior to that transition, he also served as the church’s last chairman. Rev. Nyamwaro would continue to serve as bishop until his retirement.
In a post announcing his death, the ELCK highlighted some of his accomplishments as head of the church body. “It was during his watch that the Lutheran Church grew, and reached all the then-nine provinces of the Republic of Kenya,” the church notes, including work among Somali refugees in the north-east of the country. The church also praised his work among the Borana in Marsabit and the Digo in Kwale, as well as new outreach to the Kalenjin, the Masai, Sumburu, Kamba, Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu. Work in traditionally strong Lutheran areas, like Kisii, Luoland, and amongst the Pokot, also expanded during this period.
“He was first of all a pastor and servant of God, and should be honoured as such,” the church writes.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya is a member of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.
FINLAND – The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (Suomen evankelisluterilainen lähetyshiippakunta – ELMDF) will hold an election for bishop in January 2021, following Bishop Risto Soramies’ request to be released from the duties of bishop.
“I turn 75 next year,” Bishop Soramies notes in an announcement to the church. “I have had the joy and privilege of serving Lutheran congregations as the bishop of our church. As a young man, I missed the chance to serve in congregations where priests know their flocks and flocks know their priests. I couldn’t even imagine being allowed to serve such congregations and pastors in my old age.”
“In my opinion, now is the right time for a generational change,” he said, citing Ecclesiastes 3:1—“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” He further expressed his thanks to the pastors and congregations of the ELMDF for the opportunity to serve with them.
Bishop Risto Soramies was ordained bishop of the ELMDF on May 4, 2013, shortly after the official founding of the ELMDF as an autonomous church body. Prior to his elevation to the episcopacy, Bishop Soramies served as a missionary for more than 40 years to Turkish immigrants in Germany as well as in Turkey itself. He was the founding pastor of the Istanbul Lutheran Church in Turkey.
At a November meeting of the College of the Priests, the ELMDF’s clergy put forward two candidates for bishop: Rev. Esko Murto and Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola. The ELMDF’s Consistory has since examined both candidates and declared them eligible for election as bishop.
Rev. Murto was ordained in 2007, and currently serves as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Tampere. He previously served as Dean of the Luther Foundation Finland, and has served as assistant professor at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario). Rev. Murto holds a Master of Theology from the University of Helsinki and a Master of Sacred Theology from Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne, Indiana).
Dr. Pohjola was ordained in 1999, and currently serves as Dean of the ELMDF. He previously served as Dean of the Lutheran Foundation Finland, and as a visiting researcher at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario). Dr. Pohjola holds a Master of Theology from the University of Helsinki, a Master of Sacred Theology from Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne, Indiana), and a Doctor of Theology from the University of Helsinki.
The election of the bishop will take place January 16-18, 2021, in advance of an extraordinary diocesan meeting to be held remotely on January 23. The assembly must then confirm the results of the election. All clergy and representatives of each congregation are eligible to vote for the ELMDF’s new bishop.
The installation of the new bishop is planned for August 1, 2021.
FINLAND – Rev. Dr. Anssi Simojoki, a major figure in Finnish Lutheranism and African missions, passed away on July 6, 2020 at his home in Uusikaupunki. He was 75 years old.
Dr. Simojoki left a deep spiritual impact on Finland and more broadly on missions. He was known as a powerful preacher of the Gospel, a versatile theologian, a courageous ecclesiastical debater, and a prolific writer and wordsmith.
Dr. Simojoki was ordained by Archbishop Martti Simojoki at Turku Cathedral in 1972. He served the parishes of Kodisjoki and Pori before being elected pastor of Lappi in southwest Finland. During this time, he became acquainted with the spiritual heritage of the so-called Prayer Revival of Western Finland. He served as the longtime editor of the movement’s magazine Länsi-Suomen Herännäislehti.
Dr. Simojoki was a founding member and longtime General Secretary of the St. Paul’s Synod in 1975, a forum and think tank for the confessional Lutheran defence of the office of the ministry in public discussions—including in the theological debate on woman’s priesthood, a debate which led to deep divisions in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.
In 1989, Dr. Simojoki was invited to serve as a missionary of the Lutheran Evangelical Association of Finland to Kenya, where he served as a teacher at the Matongo Lutheran Theological Seminary and as pastor to a congregation in Nairobi. While serving in the field, he completed his doctoral thesis on the reception of the Book of Revelation in Finnish theology, which he defended at Åbo Akademi University in 1997.
In 1996, with the support of the Association of the Western Finland Prayer Movement, he joined the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, pioneering their work in Africa. In that role, he led numerous translation projects of Lutheran literature into dozens of African languages. He taught in many countries across the continent, including in Kenya, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Together with Rev. Dr. Robert Rahn and Rev. Andrew Mbugo, he helped found the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Sudan and Sudan. He also helped lead Gospel ministry efforts in hostile places like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Turkey. Before retiring in 2010, Dr. Simojoki completed a translation of the Lutheran Confessions into Swahili.
Dr. Simojoki helped to establish the Finnish Luther Foundation in 1999, and was subsequently also involved in the founding of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF). He served as chairman of the church’s Lutheran Hymns committee, producing a number of new hymns through original writing and translation.
His membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese led the Turku Archdiocese to defrock him from ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland in 2014. He spent his remaining years helping to build the Mission Diocese. In 2014, the Mission Diocese published a Festschrift in honour of his 70th birthday, the title of which summed up Simojoki’s spiritual heritage: It is True as it is Written.
In retirement, Dr. Simojoki continued to serve as pastor to the Laitila congregation of the Mission Diocese. His ministry there bore witness to the focal point of his teaching and ministry: that God works through His Holy Word. From week to week, he focused on teaching and preaching. The gifts of Christ were to be distributed as they were instituted, so that even the weakest may possess the grace of Christ. The day before his death, he preached his final sermon at the congregation’s summer festival in Pyhäranta.
Dr. Simojoki is survived by his wife Marja, their six children, and twenty-four grandchildren.
Rev. Dr. Simojoki’s motto was Ps. 118:17, a fitting memorial to the faith of the great theologian and churchman: “Non moriar sed vivam, et narrabo opera Domini – I shall not die but I shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord.”
From a report by the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, with information also from a report by the Lutheran Heritage Foundation.
The ELMDF is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.
RUSSIA – Ten years ago, Bishop Vesevolod Lytkin of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) consecrated a monument in the Estonian graveyard at Estono-Semionovka, commemorating the Estonians who suffered during the years of political repression under the communist regime. This time of persecution rapidly eroded the once-majority Lutheran faith among Estonians.
In the lead up to 2020, the SELC had been planning a commemoration prayer service to mark the tenth anniversary of the installation of the monument in Estono-Semionovka, with Bishop Tiit Salumäe of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) also intending to participate. However, the interruption of international travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic made his attendance impossible, so EELK Bishop Tiit instead sent a video address to Siberian Estonians.
During the commemoration service, SELC Bisho Lytkin reflected on the persecution of Estonian Lutherans, and what Christians today can learn from their story. The text of his remarks follow:
Brothers and sisters, friends,
We just read from the Gospel about the cross. But we did not only read; we stand near a cross. This cross is erected here in memory of our ancestor—the people who came to Siberia to live and to work, to build a happy new life for themselves and their children.
You know, some people often say that Lutheranism is a “German faith.” But, according to the statistics, at the end of the 19th century there were more Estonian Lutherans in the Tomsk province than German Lutherans. So, we can say that on this land, Lutheranism was an Estonian faith.
But in fact, Lutheranism is a non-ethnic faith. In Siberia, there were many people who spoke different languages and confessed Lutheranism. Someone estimated that Lutherans spoke 26 languages. Can you imagine?
Our ancestors, no matter who they were by ethnicity, suffered many trials. When they arrived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they did not know what awaited them. At that time the Russian government was trying to populate Siberia. A great many people from the western outskirts of the Empire came here to start a new life. It was difficult here, but there was freedom. Labour brought results and joy—as it should be.
The immigrants built houses, farms, and then schools, and in some settlements even churches. And where there were no churches, pastors from bigger towns came to visit the parishioners. Those who lived here in this place were parishioners of the parish of Saint Mary in Tomsk.
They did not know what awaited them. They hoped for the best. And then it began… The Russian revolution, civil war, forced collectivization, the confiscation of property, persecution for the faith, and the enlargement of villages, reorganized in order to deprive people of their roots—of their past.
We must keep the memory of them. Because without memory, we simply do not have anything left. Without memory of our ancestors, we ourselves are nobody.
Moreover, how wonderful it is that the top of this monument is crowned with a cross. Frankly, I remember how ten years ago, when I was asked to consecrate this monument, I was a little worried. What would be in it? What is this monument? But when I saw the cross on top, I calmed down and rejoiced. When I saw the cross.
Why are crosses placed in cemeteries? Because the cross is a sign of victory over death. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth to die on the cross for our sins. He died and then He rose from the dead. If we believe in Christ, we will live forever. Earthly death will be for us not a cessation of existence but a gate to paradise.
Christ died on the cross for the sins of each of us. And now for every person the cross of Christ means a choice: either we ourselves will answer in the Last Judgment before God for our sins, or we will believe and trust in Christ, Who died for us, instead of us. Either God’s judgment will condemn us to eternal perdition, or Christ will become our Savior.
This is what I want to say: I am so sad to see that among the descendants of the settlers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there are very few who still believe in God. They live like unbelievers, sometimes even like pagans. They don’t remember God, they don’t pray, they don’t go to church.
But our ancestors believed in God. And they lived and died with faith in Christ. That is why we are gathered here today: to thank God for the faith that He gave to our ancestors. For eternal life—the symbol of which is this memorable cross.
Siberian Estonians were persecuted for their ethnicity, for the fact that they knew how and wanted to work, for the faith that they did not renounce even in the face of death. Their life was terribly difficult: they got into the most terrible meat-grinder. But they carried their cross to the end. They lost their lives for the sake of Christ and saved their souls for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now they are in heaven. And that means we will meet them again. And we will embrace them and bow to them—our brothers and sisters, who during the earthly life carried a heavy cross… and now live forever.
WORLD – Lutherans across the world continue to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with spiritual and physical care. In this post, we highlight the response of member churches of the International Lutheran Council in Germany and Nicaragua.
Germany has reported 183,564 cases of COVID-19, with 8,605 deaths. The country acted quickly to enact lockdown measures after the disease began to spread, leading to the closure of schools, the closure of national borders, and the imposition of curfews and stay-home orders in various parts of the country. Restrictions were also placed on church gatherings. Recently, some of these pandemic containment measures have begun to be relaxed.
From the beginning of the crisis, Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) has worked hard to provide continued pastoral care to members in unusual circumstances. A special crisis group was struck to provide pastors and congregations guidance and assistance about how to deal with the situation, as well as offering comfort and spiritual guidance. Churches moved quickly to offer services and other programs online, as well as offering services over the phone for older parishioners. Devotional resources for holding home services have also been made available.
“All the things that developed in our congregations with the various online services are a cause for much gratitude,” noted SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt. “How many possibilities are suddenly arising in our congregations which—without this insidious virus—we would likely never have thought of.” Bishop Voigt is also Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.
The SELK was clear from the beginning the Lord’s Supper could not be consecrated online. Some churches have been able to resume in-church services since May 17, albeit with reduced numbers of parishioners, so pastors are working hard to administer communion to members who have gone without—sometimes conducting two or three services each Sunday in order to accommodate the reduced number of participants allowed to attend each service.
In this time of turmoil, Bishop Voigt encourages Christians to take comfort in the words of Jesus Christ: “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
“In these days,” Bishop Voigt comments, “may this promise be our strong consolation.”
Nicaragua currently reports 370 cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths. The country has refrained from mandating the social distancing and quarantine measures common in other parts of the world.
The Lutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua (Iglesia Luterana Sínodo de Nicaragua – ILSN) reports widespread concerns that there may be more sick than currently verified by testing. In the midst of this unease, the church is offering spiritual support and guidance to people as they are able.
The ILSN took steps early on to keep members and their communities safe, suspending normal church meetings and activities. Large gatherings were suspended, with pastors instead meeting with small groups of people at a time to administer the means of grace. They have also distributed printed devotional material as well as offering services and messages online.
Some programs have had to be suspended for the time being, including the church’s large education program for children. The children’s feeding program, however, continues to be offered by deaconesses and volunteers, as it supports people in some of the poorest parts of the country. The program has been adapted to follow appropriate safety guidelines: rather than gathering children together in church buildings for meals, prepackaged food items are instead being delivered to the houses of impoverished children and families.
“We see how blessed our deaconesses in Nicaragua are in their dedication and service to the poor in their communities,” notes a recent update on the ILSN situation via The Canadian Lutheran magazine. “Their faith has opened their eyes to the needs of the people, and has inspired and led them to find ways to address those needs, even in the face of a daunting pandemic.”
For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.
WORLD – Lutherans continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the globe. In this report, we focus on the response of ILC member churches in Ghana and Haiti.
Ghana has reported 2,719 cases of COVID-19, with 18 deaths. In response to the crisis, the country banned all public gatherings on March 15, including worship services. Several regions have been gone into partial lockdown or quarantine.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana (ELCG) has urged its members to follow all government protocols and remain at home. At the same time, the church is working to identify members at risk because of the lockdowns. “We note that in some communities, the majority of people live from hand to mouth, and cannot stay at home and isolate themselves, because that would bring about their swift starvation,” notes ELCG President John Donkoh. Thanks to support from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the ELCG is rolling out a range of various activities to reach out to the needy and less privileged in their communities.
The church is also launching an interactive online program in collaboration with the Lutheran Media Ministry, to keep faith alive for youth, women, compassion children, and their parents. Each Sunday, regional pastors preach in turns live via Facebook, and sermons are translated into local Ghanaian languages where broadcasts are taking place. At the same time, the church encourages its members to also engage in personal study of Scripture, to pray, and to continue studying the Catechism.
The Lutheran Media Ministry Studio in Accra is also assisting with Christ-centered programs to share the good news of Jesus with the whole country. From Maundy Thursday through Easter, the church presented a series of messages on suffering, death, and the resurrection of Christ to the nation via FM radio.
The church is also responding to questions of faith and fear from the general public as well as major media on various theological topics.
“This is a very challenging time, but we don’t lose heart because Jesus has overcome the world,” says ELCG President Donkoh. “The period of lockdown has been uncomfortable for many…. People are grieving that life has not worked out as they had hoped.”
“We seem to be living in a broken world,” he continues. “A world with bad news. COVID-19 is indeed disorganizing our normal life.” And yet, he says, “the Holy Spirit through the blessed Word relieves us from the fear of death, and gives us the power to triumph over this great and final foe. Through the great power of the Gospel—the good news of Jesus’ blessed death for those who are subject to death, and His glorious resurrection from the dead—we are gifted with hope in this world.”
The country of Haiti has reported 100 cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths so far. To arrest the spread of the disease, the Haitian government has restricted gatherings of more than 10 people, including at churches.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti (Église Évangélique Luthérienne d’Haiti – ELCH) is reaching out to people during this difficult situation, which is aggravated by recent instability in the region. The church reports that a lack of infrastructure in the nation also creates challenges; a majority of the population, for example, do not have access to electricity.
The ELCH is relying on WhatsApp—a form of communication in widespread use in the country—to distribute messages, sermons, and other information to congregation members. But this is often an imperfect solution, as those without regular access to electricity may not be able to read or hear sermons until several days later.
Visitations are also prohibited in order to prevent the spread of disease, effectively preventing pastors from visiting the sick.
“In this time of distress, we focus on God,” notes ELCH Secretary Thomas Bernard. “As we are battling with this pandemic, God is the only one who can save us with His message of grace and forgiveness. As Christian leaders, we encourage our members to remain faithful in times of suffering because through suffering we may be equipped to comfort others. We know that even in times of suffering, ‘God is still our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble.’”
ELCH President Eliona Bernard sends greetings to Lutherans around the world, encouraging pastors and church leaders: “May our Lord continue to equip and strengthen you all so that you continue to faithfully serve His flocks!”
For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.
GERMANY – Like many churches and organizations around the world, the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School (OLS) in Wittenberg has been dramatically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Together we rejoice in the victorious resurrection and gracious reign of our Lord Jesus Christ over all, even as we mourn the suffering worldwide under the pandemic,” writes Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Weber, Managing Director of the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg (ILSW), in an Easter update. “Lord, have mercy.”
Worship services across Germany have been banned to help curb the spread of the disease, but Dr. Weber continues to reach out to the people of Wittenberg with mp3 sermons. In normal times, the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School provides a place for people to learn, grow, study, meet, retreat, and experience the Gospel in Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Reformation.
Like many businesses, the bookstore at the Center was closed for an extended period due to government regulations, and was only able to reopen on April 20. But the hospitality business—including hotels—remains suspended indefinitely, significantly impacting that aspect of the International Lutheran Center’s work.
“We are still very much in shut-down mode here in Luthercity,” Dr. Weber notes. “Things have practically come to a standstill: no tourists, no buses, no ships on the river, no cyclists, the market square deserted, and parking bays available all over.” With tourism suspended, the work of the ILSW in sharing the Reformation witness to the Gospel has been complicated. Several future events scheduled to take place at the Center also remain up in the air.
Dr. Weber encourages Christians everywhere to pray for those affected by COVID-19. “We prayerfully bring before God those suffering and facing hardships due to this pandemic,” he says. “May the Triune God continue to grant healing and salvation as we call on Him in our good Lord Jesus’ name. We pray for a vaccine son. We thank Him for those many people who have been healed and who continue on the way of recovery.”
The International Lutheran Council is part-owner of the ILSW and the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School in Wittenberg. For more information on its vital work, visit www.oldlatinschool.org. You can support the ILWS through online giving via the ILC website. Just select “Wittenberg Outreach.”
You can also donate by mail:
International Lutheran Council
P.O. Box 18775
St. Louis, MO 63118
For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.
NOTE: Since the writing of the article there has been some developments locally in Siberia. When writing about possible suspension of the regular worship services, I thought about it as a theoretical possibility, based on what was happening elsewhere. Well, now it is a reality for Siberian Lutherans also. The governor of the Novosibirsk region has issued an order to stop all religious gatherings beginning from Saturday, April 18. The last service with the Lord’s Supper was conducted in St Andrew’s parish in Novosibirsk on Friday evening, April 17. Siberian Lutherans are very fortunate as compared to the Russian Orthodox in that they were able to celebrate Easter service in an almost normal mode in most of the parishes of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC); Eastern Orthodox Easter is one week later this year. As it stands now, no laypeople may enter the church buildings and take part in any religious ceremonies. Of course, as Lutherans, we can’t conduct the Eucharist with no laypeople present. Mass is not a sacrifice, it is about eating and drinking. So what shall we do now? Local pastors including those who are Seminary instructors would divide the area of larger Novosibirsk into parts based on where they are located, and so they will visit parishioners in their homes and serve Holy Communion to them as they are able. Siberian Lutherans are determined to do their best not to leave their people without spiritual care. ~AS
This is a document which was prepared for the Russian speaking Lutheran context in view of the questions the people of the Church had related to the Coronavirus Pandemic.
COVID-19 Pandemic and the Digitalization of the Church
by Alexey Streltsov
In 2020 A.D., the Church of God throughout all the world encountered a special trial that especially fell in the time of Lent, and now it looks like it will continue also through the Easter season, and perhaps beyond.
The rapidly growing threat of a dangerous viral contagion (or a declaration of such threat) has put the usual conduct of regular church services in jeopardy. These problems may have to do either with specific parish circumstances (like the temporary termination of rent in the case of our Moscow SELC parish), or with regional regulations of the authorities (for example, in St. Petersburg, where SELC does not have any parishes, but where all gatherings of people are now prohibited).
Practically every day brings additional news. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. In this context, the churches are likely to react ad hoc by making decisions spontaneously, or at least without serious preliminary reflection.
The main question that confronts the churches at the present time is the following: What do we do in the case that it’s no longer possible to conduct services, or if most people can’t get to them because of unforeseen circumstances even if the services do continue?
In many cases, a workaround has been implemented by means of a temporary transfer of services to a digital format.
A few people are trying to conduct sacraments over the Internet. Such cases have become widely discussed and, as a rule, are getting a very negative reaction. Such cases, when people attempt to conduct Baptism and the Lord’s Supper over the Internet, are rare and extreme.
The more typical situation looks like this: a minister conducts a service (without Holy Communion) on the church premises. He can be alone in the church, or accompanied by one or several assistants. Whatever happens at the altar is recorded on a camcorder, and is instantly displayed online via social media, such as YouTube, Facebook, or Vkontakte. It might be that there are a few other people in the church besides the liturgist, but it’s not that relevant here.
Parishioners are invited to participate in the services right from their homes by connecting to the live broadcast. In some cases, it is impossible to view a service online due to technical problems or some other reasons. In such cases, parishioners may watch it at some other time by clicking a link.
Are such decisions concerning the temporary “digitization” of the Church correct? It depends on how one understands the Church herself, that is, what the Church actually is. According to the universally recognized definition of the Church among Lutherans, which is given in the 7th Article of the Augsburg Confession, the Church is the gathering of the faithful, among whom the Word of God is preached purely and the Holy Sacraments are distributed rightly, according to the ordinances of God’s Word. This gathering happens in a specific location where people are physically present in one and the same place. The early Church, both in the New Testament and in the texts of the earliest Church authors, habitually used the language of gathering “for the same” or for the “common-union” ( ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ – epi to auto in Greek), which meant gathering for the Divine Service.
According to traditional ecclesiastical understanding and theology, characterized first and foremost by faith in God incarnate, the created things do matter. Body, things bodily, things fleshy do matter. Specific place matters.
At all times, God has acted salvifically through specific people, specific circumstances, and specific places. Before the Incarnation, the special place of God’s presence was Israel, and within Israel: Jerusalem, and then the Temple, within which there was the Holy place, and, finally, the Holy of Holies, where as it was proclaimed in divine revelation that Yahweh (the Lord) was present between the horns of the altar.
Now, there is no single place in the geographical sense for the faithful to receive the grace of God. Nevertheless, in every case, it is a particular and concrete place, that is, that place where the Word is pronounced and the Sacraments are distributed. This is what the priests of the church speak and do. There are specific places in Novosibirsk and Tuim, Novokuznetsk and Chita, and so forth, to speak of SELC parishes. In each of those places, there is a pulpit and an altar. And in each case, one and the same Church is gathered. The Church, which is one, is present in this place in her fullness, although there are different individuals within each gathering. This fullness, this completeness, this catholicity of the Church is due to the complete presence of Christ, whom the priest proclaims in preaching, and whom he administers in Holy Communion.
So, what happens during an attempt to transfer Church and the church gathering to a digital mode? At a minimum, there is a loss of significance of particularity of place in people’s perception, a loss of the concreteness of liturgical space, and a detriment of understanding by the faithful of the way of God’s presence in the world.
From the earliest times, the Church fought Gnostic influences in her midst, that is, those attempts at “spiritualization” of the Christian faith. In the early Church, Gnostics and Manichaeans claimed the presence of a “divine spark” within them that made services unnecessary. Gnostics ridiculed the Eucharist. In the early Medieval times, there were influences of Neoplatonism, in which a man was invited to ascend to God in his soul, instead of meeting Him in the means of salvation as the incarnate God who came to earth and bound Himself to His presence in particular places for the salvation of the people—although God, by nature, is omnipresent, and not subject to spatial limitations. Another danger of this spiritualization at the time was represented by the excesses of monastic asceticism. The monks fled to the desert in order to gain a special insight, and to sense the divine presence in their lives by way of strict spiritual discipline.
The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli proposed spiritualization at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. Bodily things were of little importance for Zwingli: “The flesh is of no help at all,” he said, and God is spirit, and He acts as He wills and where He wills. This was understood by the Zwinglians as an action detached from the physical realm. In this case, any possible connection between the heavenly and the earthly is no more than the association between reality and symbolic representation of this reality, which is inherently conditional according to Zwingli. In other words, the heavenly things can happen in the absence of any earthly representation, while the earthly things have no inherent significance. “The flesh is of no help at all.” Martin Luther considered this “spiritualistic” teaching of Zwingli to be the fruit of the devil.
Today’s temptation comes from the world of digital technology.
When we disrupt liturgical space, when we deprive specific sacred place of its sacred nature, when we try to represent the Divine Service as a kind of theater or circus, or as a function that can be reduced to the sound vibrations of the air, or to a footage sequence, we consciously or unconsciously change our perception of what the Church is.
Modern digital technologies are a great blessing that the Church has at her disposal. Radio and TV programs, films, TV Channels, multiple resources on the Internet—all those are an aid in the work of the Church’s evangelism in the wide sense.
The question, however, is whether it is done along with the traditional service, or instead of the traditional service. This is a very important question.
If it is impossible to conduct a service, then it can’t be done. One cannot perform something instead of a common liturgy and just call it “liturgy” anyway. If at least “two or three” cannot gather in one place, then Christ cannot be there in the sense in which He promised to be present in a Eucharistic gathering.
Therefore, in this case, one cannot pretend that everything is (almost like) normal, and that it is possible by a slight adjustment to conduct services in a digital mode as though everything were just fine.
A digital service becomes a surrogate of the church service. A danger of such Internet services is that people would come up with a valid question: “Was it a viable option after all?” And if it were a fine opportunity to pursue, what would prevent anyone from to continuing to do it in the future?
A number of areas of human activity are already being transferred, or will be transferred, whether fully or partially, into a digital mode. Perhaps, the COVID-19 situation will serve as a trigger for these further changes. The Church, however, cannot be subject to digitization due to her non-digital nature.
The ancient Pythagoreans thought that the whole world could be reduced to numbers, and described by numbers. Modern proponents of the Internet-church suppose that in the absence of traditional services, one could, in principle, get by with some online broadcasting. The danger here is that such actions would throw the baby out with the bath water, in this case, the baby being the bodily, creaturely dimension of the Church.
When there are no church services in the Church, it is an egregious thing. This is a crisis (the Greek word “crisis” means judgment). It is not just a minor warning sign, it is a loud bell calling us to repentance and to correction of our lives. The meaning of Lent is to show us that we won’t survive without God. God forbid us from being spiritually complacent! Rather, being bereft of an opportunity to attend regular church services, let us experience true spiritual hunger for the Divine Service, for the gathering of faithful brothers and sisters, where we might have a living connection with God through the gifts that God himself has appointed for usage in a particular place. God grant us to forsake false spiritual satiety and any sense that God owes something to us, and that the Church owes something to us!
As a faithful bride to her Lord, the Church acts according to her calling. She can’t simply stop being the Church. She can’t act in an unchurchly way. That would be an obvious contradiction, an impossibility.
God, however, promised not to leave His faithful. Even in the absence (temporary absence!) of church services, He will not leave the faithful!
If it is permitted for you to move about, get in touch with your priest and request communion to be administered to you. He will come. You will get Word and Sacrament in a home-service format.
If, for whatever reason, that is not possible, there will always be the prescribed readings according to the Church’s calendar, as well as home prayers.
You could ask the priest to send a text of a sermon. The reading of such a sermon (whether privately, or read aloud by the head of the household) would be instructive for the soul.
If you are currently conducting readings of Scripture and joint prayers in the family setting, then you may keep on doing the same, perhaps, with some additions in view of the absence of the main services. If not, now is the time to learn such spiritual discipline and prayer practice!
This time of quarantine, this time of external limitations, may continue for a while. Perhaps, it will last longer than we hoped for. However, it will not last forever. And at first opportunity, the doors of the Church will be opened once again, and the priests will conduct services just as they were doing before!
Fr. Alexey Streltsov Judica, 2020.
Rev. Dr. Alexey Streltsov is Rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosibirsk, Sibera (Russia), a theological institute of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). An earlier version of this essay was first published on Gottesdienst, where it is also available in Russian.
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