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.

ILC World Seminaries Conference opens in the Philippines

Attendees of the opening worship service of the 2019 ILC World Seminaries Conference.
President Antonio del Rio Reyes welcomes World Seminaries Conference participants on behalf of the Lutheran Church of the Philippines.

PHILIPPINES – The 7th World Seminaries Conference of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) opened Tuesday morning in Baguio City. The conference runs from October 15-18, 2019.

The morning began with Divine Service at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, which will be the venue for regular worship during the conference. President Antonio del Rio Reyes of the Lutheran Church of the Philippines, the host church, took the opportunity to welcome participants.

ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt also brought greetings to the conference.

Guiding Theme

Dr. Werner Klän introduces the conference theme.

In the morning, Rev. Dr. Werner Klän introduced the theme which will guide discussion in the first part of the conference: “Confessional Lutheranism: Doctrinal Identity in Different Cultural Contexts.” Dr. Klän is Professor Emeritus of Lutheran Theological Seminary (Lutherische Theologische Hochschule) in Oberursel, Germany, a theological institution of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany.

“All the confessional Lutheran churches in the ILC are committed to determining our decisions solely on the basis of the Word of God, and not on social, cultural or practical considerations,” Dr. Klän explained. But the challenge remains: “What is demanded of us is a theological answer to the challenges we as confessional Lutheran churches, pastors, and scholars are facing in our time and day, and to our specific situations and living conditions in our various countries, continents, and climes.”

Dr. Roland Ziegler speaks during the 2019 ILC World Seminaries Conference.

In a follow-up, Rev. Dr. Roland Ziegler expanded on the theme of “Doctrinal Identity in Cultural Context.” Dr. Ziegler is Professor of Systematic Theology and Confessional Studies at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a seminary of The Lutheran Church—Missouri SYnod.

“In the ILC we find churches that recognize in other churches… doctrinal identity in different cultural contexts,” he explained. “For Lutherans, the Book of Concord is of continuing importance as a true exposition of Scripture, that serves the unity of the Church by confessing the truth and rejecting error in whatever context the church finds itself.”

Asian and European Contexts

Dr. Samuel Thompson speaks on “Christology in Asian Context.”

Over the course of the course of the conference, five presenters will address their common Lutheran faith and identity from within their own regional context. The afternoon saw the first two of these presenters speak.

Rev. Dr. Samuel Thompson spoke first, presenting on “Christology in an Asian Context.” Dr. Thompson is Professor of Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Nagercoil, India, a theological institution of the India Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Dr. Thompson outlined the varying approaches Asian cultures have taken in their approaches to Christology, with special reference to the situation in India especially among liberation theologians and theologians focuses on inter-religious dialogue. In these schools’ justifiable desire to be relevant to Asian concerns, he lamented, “sometimes fidelity to the biblical message is compromised to the extent that one ends up creating a novel ‘Christ’ fashioned after one’s own imagination.”

“The task ahead for a Lutheran theologian operating in an Asian context is two-fold,” he concluded; it requires first of all “an unconditional commitment to God’s witness as revealed in the Scriptures,” as well as “serious attempt to engage and relate the biblical message to contextual realities.” The Lutheran Confessions and the Ecumenical creeds have an important role to play in this work, as they ensure Asian cultural wrestling with the doctrine of Christology remains within “the boundaries within which authentic Christian theology and life take place.”

The second half of the afternoon saw Rev. Dr. Christoph Barnbrock provide a European perspective on the theme, presenting on “Lutheran Identity in a Post-Christian Context.” Dr. Barnbrock is Professor of Practical Theology at Lutherische Theologische Hochschule in Oberursel, Germany.

Dr. Christoph Barnbrock speaks on “Lutheran Identity in a Post-Christian Context.”

Dr. Barnbrock noted the irony that a speaker from Germany, the birthplace of the Reformation, must now speak of his cultural context as that of a post-Christian nation. He outlined some of the symptoms of contemporary German culture, explaining that the ultimate “welfare and woe of Lutheran churches depend less on our ability to lead this church than on whether we trust in Christ as Lord of the church—even against all trends that are emerging.”

The work on articulating confessional Lutheran identity is never finished, he concluded, because the cultural contexts in which we live are continually changing. “At the same time,” he said, “we may know that our identity as children of God and brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ no longer has to be worked out, but is given with baptism and remains the decisive point of reference for our identity throughout our lives. All work on ecclesial and denominational identity is then secondary, without becoming obsolete.”

After each presentation, time was scheduled for plenary discussion by the wider conference.

The day ended with a service of vespers.

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