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.

Opposition as Church of Norway approves same-sex marriage

NORWAY – On April 11, 2016, the Bishops’ Conference of the Church of Norway (CN) moved to approve the marriage of same-sex couples, creating a liturgy to allow such weddings to take place in the church. The decision came in a 88-32 vote, but there are still many expressing their objection to the change in the church’s teaching on marriage.

Earlier votes on the subject of same-sex marriage had been rejected, most recently in 2014. The Church of Norway is the state church of Norway, and is a member of the Lutheran World Federation. It has allowed the ordination of practicing homosexuals since 2007, further straining relations in the church.

Rev. Dag Øivind Østereng
Rev. Dag Øivind Østereng

“[The newly-adopted teaching on marriage] is contrary to the Bible and gathered ecclesiastical and ecumenical tradition,” wrote Rev. Dag Øivind Østereng following the vote. “To abolish man/woman as the basic unit in marriage is contrary to God’s revealed will and natural law that can be discerned in creation itself. The Church has bowed herself before a gender ideology which is in direct violation of the Bible’s word and to what I as a pastor am committed.” Rev. Østereng is a prominent figure in the CN’s confessional wing, having been a member of the group Carissimi.

The vote to approve a same-sex wedding liturgy included allowance for priests and other church workers to refuse to participate in gay marriages. But this is not enough, Rev. Østereng says. “The Norwegian Church as a community has now changed her understanding of utterly fundamental aspects of the Word of God,” he explained. “These are not merely points with which I personally disagree; I cannot belong to a church that teaches in this way.”

“It is with great sadness and deep anguish, and at the same with the peace that conviction gives, that I must announced that within the next few weeks I will submit my resignation,” he continued, “and after the resignation-notice period withdraw from service as a priest in the Church of Norway and as a member of the Church of Norway.”

It is unclear how many Norwegian clergy and laypeople may follow Rev. Østereng’s example. Just before the vote, 200 priests released a Declaration on the Ecclesial Situation expressing doubt about their continued participation in the Church of Norway if same-sex marriage were to be approved. An online poll taken by Norwegian news site Dagen revealed that 44% of respondents intended to leave the Church of Norway over the issue, and that an additional 34% are uncertain whether to continue their membership. As the poll was conducted online, it is unclear how accurately it represents the sentiments of Norwegians overall.

While the Church of Norway is the nation’s largest church, there are other Lutherans options in the country. The Lutheran Church in Norway (Den Lutherske Kirke i Norge – LKN), for example, is a small church body affiliated with the International Lutheran Council (ILC) since 2015. The LKN traces its origins to 2005, and its pastors are all former ministers of the Church of Norway. While small, the LKN has begun to receive greater media attention as more Norwegians seek alternatives to the Church of Norway.

Norway is also home to the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Norway (Det evangelisk-lutherske stift i Norge), which officially separated from the Church of Norway in 2013. It entered into communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Finland and the Mission Province in Sweden in 2015, forming the Communion of Nordic Diocese. All three churches have recently met with the International Lutheran Council to begin discussions on becoming members of the ILC.

The International Lutheran Council is a global association of confessional Lutheran churches.