Latvian and English Lutherans seek closer ties

Representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England and Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia meet London for talks.

UNITED KINGDOM – The Evangelical Lutheran Church of England (ELCE) hosted a delegation from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL) for meetings June 12, 2019 at Luther-Tyndale Memorial Church in Kentish Town, London.

ELCE Chairman Jon Ehlers and ELCL Archbishop Jānis Vanags.

Attending the meetings were four ELCE clergy, including Chairman Jon Ehlers, and twelve ELCL clergy, including Archbishop Jānis Vanags. A major point of discussion was how the two churches might work more closely together to minister to the large Latvian population living in the UK. As of 2011, the United Kingdom counted more than 61,000 Latvian-born residents throughout the UK.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of England has one Latvian pastor serving in the church. The Latvian church currently has one pastor serving in the English Midlands and another pastor serving in Ireland.

“It was a pleasure to welcome Archbishop Vanags and the other pastors of the Latvian church,” said ELCE Chairman Ehlers. “Our two churches are both grounded in the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, which gives us a solid foundation for cooperation. It’s a joy to consider the ways in which we might partner more closely together for the good of the Gospel.”

As a result of the meetings, the Latvian church plans to connect their members living in the United Kingdom with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England. The ELCE, meanwhile, has pledged to provide assistance to the two Latvian pastors working in the region, and to invite them to participate in ELCE pastors’ study conferences and other opportunities for theological development.

During the meetings, the two churches took time to explain their history and church structure, as well as their respective understandings of altar and pulpit fellowship. “We spent a lot of time explaining the history of our churches and our polities, to help us better understand each other,” noted ELCE Chairman Ehlers. “We also agreed to continue talks on these matters to help us work more closely together in the future.”

Another topic under discussion was the possibility of future cooperation between the two churches’ seminaries: Westfield House in England and Luther Academy in Latvia.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of England is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia has grown increasingly close to the ILC in recent years. In 2018, for example, the Latvian church invited the ILC to present at the ELCL’s General Pastors Conference. Archbishop Vanags has also participated in a number of ILC events, most recently the ILC’s 2018 World Conference.

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Latvia celebrates 25th anniversary of Archbishop’s consecration; ILC brings greetings, addresses Eastern European bishops conference

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the consecration of Archbishop Jānis Vanags of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. (Photo: Ulda Muzikanta)

LATVIA – The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (Latvijas Evaņģēliski Luteriskā Baznīca – LELB/ELCL) celebrated the 25th anniversary of the consecration of Archbishop Jānis Vanags in a special jubilee service in the Cathedral of Riga, Latvia on August 29, 2018. The anniversary coincided with the ELCL’s General Pastors Conference as well as an international gathering of church leaders for the Eastern European and Scandinavian Bishops Conference.

During the service, Archbishop Vanags preached on John 1:35-39, reflecting on Jesus’ call for all people to follow Him. “Jesus words ‘come and see’ are the most beautiful thing,” Archbishop Vanags said. “God calls. Jesus calls. He called me in my early childhood, during the Soviet era,” he reflected. “In an incredible way, He called me out of the darkness to Himself, to faith, and to ministry. It happens that God called me to serve in a unique way. But He also calls to every person, and every call is just as important… God’s call is your opportunity.”

Jesus’ words to “come and see,” Archbishop Vanags noted, are an answer to the question of the disciples: “Teacher, where are you staying?” That matters, he said, because God is not to be found everywhere, but only where He has made His dwelling. “Our church is often accused of being too conservative,” Archbishop Vanags noted, and of holding too rigidly to its doctrinal stances. “But our church does nothing of the sort,” he said. Instead, it merely seeks to ask the same thing that the disciples asked: “Lord, where do you live?” The church is called to “come and see” Christ where He has revealed Himself to be.

“Where is this place where Jesus lives?” Archbishop Vanags asked in conclusion. “Find it by listening to His preaching. For there, where Christ preaches, there is the Holy Christian church…. Let us listen again and again to hear the call of Jesus: ‘Come and see!’”

The ILC brings greetings, addresses conferences

Rev. Dr. Albert Collver (left) and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt (centre) bring greetings to the gathering on behalf of the International Lutheran Council.

Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, the Bishop of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), was present for the event, bringing greetings and congratulations to Archbishop Vanags and the Latvian church. Rev. Dr. Albert Collver, Executive Secretary of the ILC, was also present, joining Bishop Voigt in bringing greetings on behalf of the International Lutheran Council. Both participated, along with numerous other church leaders, especially bishops from Eastern Europe, in the service of thanksgiving and prayer at the cathedral in Riga.

During the ELCL’s General Pastors Conference, Bishop Voigt gave a lecture on “International Relations and the International Lutheran Council.” He began by noting the distinction between “nation” and “nationalism”—something all too necessary today. Anytime one adds a sense of superiority to our understanding of “nation,” he warned, then we descend into nationalism.

Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt presents on International Relations and the International Lutheran Council.

Such “nationalism” must not govern church relationships, Bishop Voigt said. Instead, when it comes to the topic of international relations from the perspective of the International Lutheran Council, he said, we do better to focus on the theological concept of the “catholicity” of the Church. Bishop Voigt appealed to the definition of catholicity given by the church father Vincent of Lérins, as alluded to and supplemented by the Formula of Concord—namely, that “catholicity” means what has been believed at all times, in all places, and taught by all Scripture. Such an understanding of the church will not lead to confessional arrogance, Bishop Voigt noted, but rather to repentance and humility.

Together with Dr. Collver, Bishop Voigt fielded questions about the International Lutheran Council from the pastors and bishops present. Both Bishop Voigt and Dr. Collver affirmed that they consider churches with dual membership in the International Lutheran Council and the Lutheran World Federation to be a valuable bridge between the two world organizations.

Events continued the next day in Saldus, Latvia, with the Eastern European and Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference. A major focus of discussion was the future of theological education in Europe, and the possibility of combining resources to meet challenges in that area. Plans were discussed for future meetings in the coming year. Present this year were leaders from Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the United States.

During the Bishop’s Conference, Dr. Collver presented on the “Present and Future of the International Lutheran Council.” He began with a brief overview of the ILC’s history before describing some of the ILC’s plans for the future. Among other topics, he noted the development of the Lutheran Leadership Development Program, an educational program which aims to assist Lutheran church bodies around the world in developing leaders who are competent in both solid confessional Lutheran theology as well as practical leadership skills.

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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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