COVID-19 and ILC churches in India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom

President S. Suviseshamuthu brings a video Easter greeting to the India Evangelical Lutheran Church.

WORLD – Members of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic currently gripping the world.

In this second post in our series, we highlight the situation of ILC member churches in India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

India

A nationwide lockdown in India was implemented on March 23, and will continue at least through the end of April. So far, India has reported more than 12,700 cases of COVID-19 and 423 deaths.

The situation has proven challenging for the India Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELC). Worship services are banned, which was particularly difficult during Holy Week and Easter. Some pastors and congregations are able to broadcast services online, and some members are able to watch from their homes. The church, however, is unable to administer Holy Communion during the lockdown.

Movement from one place to another is also restricted. And while some pastors are allowed to visit nearby homes to pray with members, in other places this is not allowed.

On the eve of Easter, IELC President S. Suviseshamuthu sent a message of encouragement to the church on YouTube and WhatsApp, likening the situation facing them to that described in the first chapter of Joel. Joel describes a crisis that had “never happened during the time of old men, the inhabitants of the land,” President Suviseshamuthu writes. “The priests, the Lord’s ministers, mourn. The field is wasted. The land mourns. Joy is withered away from the sons of men. The meat offering and the drink offering are withheld form the house of your God.”

“But in the very next chapter, Joel speaks of the day of the Lord,” President Suviseshamuthu continues. If we “rend our hearts and turn unto the Lord our God,” we will find “He is slow to anger, and of great kindness, if we repent from evil.”

“This makes us to realize that Jesus is the only way,” President Suviseshamuthu explains. “He loves us profoundly. That is the only reason He laid down His life on the cross. Jesus loves each one of us without discrimination. Let us separate ourselves from the world to be united only with our Saviour. Let us confess daily. May the Lord protect us and lead us through the wilderness.”

South Africa

In South Africa, more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19 have been reported, with 34 deaths. On March 23, the country enacted a nationwide lockdown, which will be in effect at least until the end of April.

This has led to major challenges for the St. Peter Confessional Lutheran Church of South Africa (CLCSA). Churches are not allowed to gather in groups of more than ten, funerals are limited to just family, and no weddings are allowed. Easter services were cancelled in South Africa, as in many nations.

Online preaching from the St. Peter Confessional Lutheran Church of South Africa.

Many churches around the world have turned to electronic means of ministering to members during the current crisis, and the CLCSA is no different, reaching out via social media. But many of the CLCSA’s members are elderly and not familiar with this sort of technology. Many are also rural, living in remote areas which do not have easy access to the internet.

“Our church is in a learning curve as to how to serve our membership,” explains CLCSA bishop Mandla Khumalo. “We have learned and are learning even more the importance of households becoming the church, with fathers effectively being encouraged to go back to using Luther’s Small Catechism to minister to their families.” Bishop Khumalo notes especially the value of the daily services in the catechism. “This is leading us to understand more fully what fellowship means on the family level—how the church begins at home, and how the worship building is only a place of fellowship.”

The CLCSA is facing other difficulties as a result of the coronavirus too. Holy communion and visitations, including to shut-ins, have been suspended, and pastors can only attend to members in extreme cases after receiving permission from the authorities. Some international staff have also been repatriated, further affecting the ability of church and its agencies to minister to its members.

The church is also facing financial difficulties since many of its members are unfamiliar with telephone or online banking, and are unable to give in person. And this has a cascading effect on the church’s education and social ministry work. The church receives no government funding, and with schools closed, there are challenges paying staff and covering overhead costs. What is more, many of the students depend on the church’s food program and now face food insecurity as a result of the lockdown.

Despite these challenges, Bishop Khumalo also sees an opportunity to reach people anew with the good news of the Gospel during this crisis. Some people who normally “would not attend church in any way” are nevertheless deciding to tune-in to the CLCSA’s online outreach “because of the curiosity created by this pandemic.” The church is proclaiming the message of Jesus to those newly willing to listen.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has so far reported more than 103,000 cases of COVID-19 and 13,729 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. On March 20, the government initiated a lockdown which resulted in churches being closed for public worship and which strictly limited the public’s ability to leave their homes.  While clergy have been categorized as key workers, and can thus leave the home to work, congregants are not allowed to attend churches.

ELCE Chairman George Samiec livestreams his sermon for Easter Sunday.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of England has reacted quickly to the situation to ensure continued pastoral care for members. By March 29, all congregations had begun offering alternate worship arrangements, including online video conferencing, live online worship services, pre-recorded worship services, and written material emailed or posted every week for members to read on Sunday.

“The absence of the Divine Service in the life of the Church is painful,” notes ELCE Chairman George Samiec. “We look forward to the time when we can worship together and receive from the Lord of the Church all His blessings.”

In the meantime, congregations continue to use alternate means to continue ministry. Some congregations are also now broadcasting Matins and Compline during the week, while Bible Studies and confirmation are being conducted via video conferencing. Congregational WhatsApp groups have been formed. And pastors are regularly phoning members to provide care.

The ELCE’s theological institute, Westfield House, has moved to provide classes online. And Lutheran Radio UK has amended the Daily Offices on Sundays to include sermons and prayers.

The ELCE ministerium is also using video conferencing to consult with one another, Chairman Samiec noted, to “learn from each other in terms of technology, to think collectively about how to go forward and what to do to minimise any ‘digital divides’, and how best to resume public worship if COVID-19 fears still exist.”

The situation also puts a strain on the fiscal well-being of congregations. To that end, the ELCE Executive Council has established a ‘hardship fund’ to help congregations deal with financial stresses.

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

Chairmen of ILC and GAFCON meet in Wittenberg

Participants in the latest round of ACNA-LCC-LCMS talks meet in Wittenberg, Germany. Representatives of the Anglican Church in North America during these meetings included: ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach; the Rev. Peter Frank, ACNA pastor; the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Riches, Reformed Episcopal Seminary rector and professor; and Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) Presiding Bishop Ray Sutton, ACNA Dean of Ecumenical Affairs. Representing the Lutherans were LCC Past President Robert Bugbee; the Rev. Joel Kuhl, Chairman of LCC’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR); the Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, Executive Director of the LCMS’ CTCR; and the Rev. Larry Vogel, Associate Executive Director of the LCMS’ CTCR. International guests included: the Rev. Dr. Christoph Barnbrock, Rector and Professor at SELK’s seminary Lutherische Theologische Hochschule; outgoing Evangelical Lutheran Church in England (ELCE) Chairman Jon Ehlers; Free Church of England (FCE) Bishop John Fenwick; Reformed Episcopal Church in Germany (Anglikanische Kirche in Deutschland – AKD) Bishop Gerhard Meyer; Reformed Episcopal Church in Croatia (Protestantska Reformirana Kršćanska Crkva – PRKC) Bishop Jasmin Milić; SELK Bishop Emeritus Jobst Schöne; SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, and the Rev. Dr. Vatroslav Župančić of the United Methodist Church in Germany (Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche – EMK.

GERMANY – The respective chairmen of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, and of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), Archbishop Foley Beach, met in Wittenberg on October 30 during the latest round of dialogue between confessional Lutherans and Anglicans from North America.

ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt and GAFCON Chairman Foley Beach meet at the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School in Wittenberg, Germany.

Bishop Voigt is the spiritual leader of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) of Germany, and has served as ILC Chairman since 2010.  Archbishop Beach is Primate of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and is currently Chairman of the GAFCON Primates’ Council. The ILC is a growing association of confessional Lutheran church bodies committed to the authority of Holy Scripture as God’s written Word, and to the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ as the heart of the Church’s faith and mission. GAFCON was born out of the realignment of world Anglicanism, as those who uphold the authority of Scripture banded together to respond to theological and spiritual decay within the Anglican communion. The churches associated with GAFCON now represent around 50 million of the 70 million Anglicans around the world.

“The theological and historical background of GAFCON deeply impressed me,” noted Bishop Voigt. “Their understanding of Holy Scripture is very close to that of ILC churches,” he continued, while acknowledging there remain differences of theology between the two organizations which would benefit from further dialogue.

For nearly a decade, representatives of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), Lutheran Church-Canada (LCC) and the ACNA have carried out semi-annual dialogue meetings, rejoicing in their discovery of substantial biblical teaching held in common. The decision was made to hold this fall’s round of talks at Wittenberg’s Old Latin School, an agency of the LCMS, SELK and ILC, to afford the regular participants an opportunity to be introduced to each other’s European partners and mark the 502nd anniversary of the Reformation together. In that context Bishop Voigt traveled to Wittenberg and had opportunity to speak with Archbishop Beach, who was present for the regular dialogue meetings. The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in England was also present, as were Anglican bishops from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Croatia.

Much of the week’s discussions provided an opportunity for those present to introduce the churches they serve. In addition, there was significant attention given to the possibilities for cooperation in theological education in Europe. Participants also toured historical Luther sites throughout Wittenberg, and in the town of Eisleben, where Luther was born and also died. On the early morning of Reformation Day, the group walked to the famous Thesentür (“theses door”) of Wittenberg’s Castle Church to offer prayers to the Lord and to acknowledge His grace in uncovering the truth of the Gospel at the time of the Reformation 502 years ago.

For more information on the dialogue meetings held in Wittenberg, see this release from the Anglican Church in North America, Lutheran Church–Canada, and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.

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Nordic Lutheran Dioceses enter fellowship talks with German and English Lutherans

Representatives to the Church Fellowship talks in Finland.
Representatives to the Church Fellowship talks in Finland.

FINLAND – Representatives of the Communion of Nordic Lutheran Dioceses began church fellowship talks with the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in England (ELCE) during meetings April 13-14, 2016 in Helsinki, Finland. The Nordic Lutheran Dioceses officially formed in 2015, and is composed of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, the Mission Province of Sweden, and the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Norway.

These three churches have attempted to operate within the confines of their respective national church bodies, but have increasingly come into conflict with them as the national churches have become increasingly liberal. The bishops and almost all clergy associated with the Dioceses have been defrocked by their national church bodies for their confessional stance.

Planning for these talks has taken three years and was first only envisioned to include the ELCE and the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. But as discussions progressed, it was considered prudent to include the other two Nordic Dioceses as well as the SELK so that the scope and breadth of these talks could be increased.

The discussions were held at the Finnish Diocese’s Koinonia Centre in Helsinki.

Meetings began with worship and discussion soon followed on the nature and identity of the Church. Each church body presented their constitution and spoke about how the Lutheran Confessions shape their self-understanding and ecclesiastical identities. Despite the influence of national and historic influences on the wording and structures of their constitutions, it was agreed that a clear and common understanding, founded upon the Lutheran Confessions, existed between the Nordic Missions Dioceses, the SELK, and the ELCE. The definition of “free” and “independent” churches were discussed and clarified, and the Nordic Dioceses made it clear that they were independent of all national church structures, governance, and practices.

The two day conference discussed twelve other topics as well, including the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the Holy Trinity, the person and work of the Son of God, the person and work of the holy Spirit, justification and sanctification, the end times, and ecumenical relations with other churches, both inside and outside Lutheranism. It was agreed these discussions were very helpful and that there was substantial agreement on these doctrines among all five churches.

The area that garnered most discussion was on the subject of the church and church structure. The Nordic Mission Dioceses and the SELK are episcopal, meaning they have bishops and a more centralised church structure. The ELCE, meanwhile, is more congregational and does not have a bishop. Dialogue here led to further discussions on the Office of the Holy Ministry. All participants agreed that while the particular form and structure of a church is important, what is ultimately important is how that structure assists the church to proclaim the Gospel and administer the sacraments as she carries out Christ’s mission in the world.

The participants have agreed upon a joint statement summarising the discussions, which will be taken back to their churches for consideration and consultation.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in England and the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany are both member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies. The churches of the Communion of Nordic Lutheran Dioceses recently began official discussions about becoming members of the ILC.
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