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.
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.
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
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.
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.
UKRAINE – The heads of several Lutheran churches in the former Soviet Union recently met together in Ukraine for the Eastern European Bishops Conference, along with the heads of their North American partner churches.
The conference, held in Odessa in late February, was hosted by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (DELKU) and its Bishop Sergey Maschewski. DELKU, long associated with the state (territorial) Lutheran churches of Germany, has in recent years begun aligning itself with more conservative bodies like The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC). In addition to the presidents of LCC and LCMS, DELKU also hosted the bishops (or their representatives) from several other Lutheran church bodies in eastern Europe, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (LELB), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania (ELCL), the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine (SELCU), and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). The conference also welcomed a number of ecumenical guests.
During the conference, the bishops reported on their respective churches and the challenges they face. A number of these churches have to do their work over long distances: SELC, for example, is stretched out over a vast territory spanning 7,000 kilometers. DELKU, as another example, struggles with a severe clergy shortage, currently operating 28 congregations with only nine pastors. Many of these congregations are distant from the nearest neighbouring pastor or parish.
The bishops also discussed opportunities for future cooperation between their churches. “United by much of our common history and—what is of more relevance today—by similar theological outlook, we felt that there was a need for closer cooperation in the future,” explained Rev. Alexey Strelstov, rector of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church’s seminary in Novosibirsk, Russia. Rev. Strelstov presented on education in a confessional Lutheran context on the final day of the conference.
Part of that future cooperation may well take place on theological education. One evening of the conference, the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine invited participants to visit their seminary in Usatovo, a suburb of Odessa. Representatives of the Siberian church expressed interest in forging closer ties with SELCU on seminary education. There were discussions on assisting the Ukrainian seminary in procuring more Russian-language theological books for its library, as well as the possibility of SELC seminary professors coming to teach short-term courses in Usatovo. “The interaction between these Russian speakers, all keenly interested in the faithful biblical training of pastors, was a real joy to watch,” noted LCC President Robert Bugbee. LCC has long-supported SELCU’s seminary education program.
Morning and afternoon devotions at the bishops’ conference were held in DELKU’s Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of the Apostle Paul in downtown Odessa, restored in recent years after having been destroyed by the Soviet regime decades ago. “Although this church was rebuilt on a somewhat smaller scale, it once seated 1,200 worshippers and was the centre for spiritual life of the entire German community before the communist repression,” noted LCC President Bugbee. Lutheran churches were severely persecuted during the soviet era.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church are both members of the International Lutheran Council, as are Lutheran Church–Canada and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine is a partner church of LCC, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania are partner churches of the LCMS. The German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine, meanwhile, has been seeking closer relations to the LCMS in recent years.
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.
North European and North American churches plan to share theological resources.
GERMANY – Following an invitation from the Commission on Theology (CT) of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK), representatives of various commissions on theology from Lutheran churches in Europe and North America met in Oberursel, Germany March 4-5, 2015. This meeting served the purpose of exchanging information about the proceedings and results of theological endeavours facing the challenges in—for the most part—post-Christian societies in the North Atlantic part of the world. Thus, the first day of the conference was filled with reports delivered by the participants, who hold a confessional Lutheran position. In the evening the conference participated in the Lenten service held at St. John’s church, Oberursel (SELK).
On the second day SELK’s Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt (SELK) led Matins. It was followed by a presentation on “The Relationship of Church and State as Reflected in the Understanding of Marriage,” given by Dr. Werner Klän, professor of systematic theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Oberursel. Based on preparatory papers and a document only recently issued by the SELK Commission on Theology, Klän addressed the biblical and confessional understanding of marriage and the church wedding, especially with regard to the German situation since the 19th century. He pointed out that, if the state would revoke the privilege and precedence of marriage currently guaranteed in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, compared to other forms of living together, then churches would have to restate the basic biblical assumptions underlying matrimony, the question of establishing ecclesial jurisdiction concerning marriage, and so forth.
The discussion following the presentation identified similarities and differences for Lutherans in other nations. All agreed that the classical biblical, Lutheran understanding of marriage is being challenged in many ways, and that solutions to these challenges cannot be found easily. The topic of same-sex marriage legislation was of particular discussion, with emphases placed on the crisis of gender identity as well as the status and function of the legal protection of matrimony.
Participants in the conference agreed that the meeting contributed to discovering the common confessional grounds shared by the various church bodies, the similarity of challenges confronting them, and the diversity of contexts in which these churches exist. Participants decided to share as many theological documents as possible from their respective church bodies with the others, in order to communicate the results of theological research addressing the crucial questions of our time and day from a Lutheran point of view.
There was general support for plans to hold a second meeting in about three years’ time. Participants wished to have more time for discussion at the next meeting, and suggested future issues for consideration, including the “two realms”, ”natural law”, Luther’s position on Beruf/vocation, Islam, and mission. The CT of the SELK was asked to organize such a meeting, and Bishop Voigt agreed that the SELK would host such a follow-up conference.
Participants at the 2015 meeting included representatives from Germany, Sweden, Latvia, Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland, England, Canada, and the United States of America. Church bodies represented included the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baden (ELKib), the Mission Province in Sweden, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (LELB), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria (ELCI), the Silesian Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession (SCEAV), the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England (ELCE), Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC), and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).
Adapted from a report by Dr. Werner Klan, March 3, 2015
LITHUANIA – By invitation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania (ELCL), forty Syrian refugees arrived in Lithuania February 26, 2014. The Syrian families arrived at Zokniai Airport (near the city of Šiauliai) by means of a Spartan military transport plane Wednesday afternoon.
According to Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis, the Syrians will live in parish houses and in housing provided by private persons all over Lithuania. Fifteen of the refugees are coming from Homs, a city in Western Syria which was for a long period of time surrounded by the military forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
“Christians are the most vulnerable group in Syria,” Bishop Sabutis stated. “Every day, they are murdered, persecuted, and robbed.” He noted that the ELCL was encouraged to invite the Syrian refugees to Lithuania because of the refugee experience of Lithuanians themselves. “We ourselves [in Lithuania] are a minority church,” he explained. “We endured much suffering [during the Soviet era], and therefore we have to respond to the pain suffered by others.”
He continued: “We remember our refugees who found asylum in Germany and the United States. Unlike Sweden, the Germans and Americans did not send the refugees back to the Soviet Union. We understand what it is like to be in situations from which there is no way to escape, and what it means to receive help in such situation,” Bishop Sabutis stated.
Bishop Sabutis expressed his gratitude for the help provided by Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense in this project. There have been more than 130,000 casualties in Syria’s civil war. The conflict started in March 2011. President Bashar al Assad used military force against the protests that later grew into armed resistance. Later in the civil war, fighters from abroad joined the conflict on both sides.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania has 21,000 members and is a member of the Lutheran World Federation. It also has close ties to the International Lutheran Council (ILC). In 2000, the ELCL declared itself to be in full-fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (ratified by the LCMS at its own convention in 2001). In 2013, the ELCL hosted the ILC’s 2013 World Seminary Conference in Palanga, Lithuania; the convention’s theme was “Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom as a Mark of the Church.”