COVID-19 and ILC Churches in Australia and New Zealand, Sweden, and the USA

LCA Bishop John Henderson records a Holy Week message.

CANADA – Member churches of the International Lutheran Council around the world are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with practical and spiritual care.

Today we highlight the ministry of three member churches in Australia and New Zealand, in Sweden, and in the United States.

Australia and New Zealand

To date Australia has reported 6,645 cases of COVID-19 and 71 deaths, while New Zealand has reported 1,445 cases of COVID-19 and 13 deaths. Like many nations, both Australia and New Zealand have instituted numerous containment measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, including border restrictions and a prohibition on gatherings. New Zealand instituted a nationwide lockdown on March 25.

Directions from governments have required the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA), including the Lutheran Church of New Zealand (LCNZ), to suspend weekly worship services and public gatherings. On the local level, individual congregations are providing regular pastoral and spiritual care through recordings of Services of the Word, and care teams make regular phone contact with members.

“This enforced physical isolation seems to be increasing our hunger and drive for our church community,” notes LCA Bishop John Henderson in a letter to the church. “Maybe we are feeling just a little like the first believers in the early church, when they could not get enough of the Gospel.”

The LCA/NZ has published a dedicated COVID-19 Response webpage providing comprehensive information and support for the church, including links to government information and support. The site also has messages from the national bishop, regular news updates, devotional materials, pastoral guidance on matters related to sacramental practice, and Church@Home (a dedicated landing page providing resources to keep faith alive at home, connect with the community, and stay safe during this time of physical isolation). The LCA website and social media also includes additional devotional and prayer resources.

The LCA is further negotiating with community television stations in each state to show regular church services, including specific indigenous services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Lutheran Media continues to share “Messages of Hope” across several radio networks in Australia and New Zealand.

In this time, Bishop Henderson says, “We experience a sense of loss, of sadness, and uncertainty. We can be tempted to clutch at straws and seek comfort elsewhere than trusting in God.” But, he stresses, we must take those cares and concerns to God. “I encourage each of us to take all that to the throne of grace, and let it land at the feet of our Saviour…. You are not alone. You help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Sweden

Sweden has reported 15,322 cases of COVID-19, and 1,765 deaths. The country has closed schools and universities, banned visits to nursing homes, and limited public gatherings to fifty people or less.

Easter service broadcast live from the Mission Province’s Immanuel Parish in Göteborg, Sweden.

The Mission Province (Missionsprovinsen) in Sweden is offering pastoral care in the midst of the pandemic. “It has had a great impact on our daily lives,” says Bishop Bengt Ädahl. “Persons over the age of 70 are recommended not to come to church, and pastors over the age of 70 are recommended not to conduct services.”

Most, but not all, congregations are still holding services. Some congregations are broadcasting services online via social media and YouTube. Pastors are also providing pastoral care through home-visits, where they offer communion to those unable to attend church.

Bishop Ädahl has sent letters to clergy with recommendations about pastoral care as well as a prayer for use during the coronavirus outbreak. At the same time, the Mission Province is holding many of its board meetings by conference call and video-calls.

“It is important in this time that the Gospel of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ, is preached to people and that He is worshipped,” said Bishop Ädahl. “It is also important that church members pray at home, and read the Word of God and other good Christian literature. We encourage people to do this in their daily life.”

United States of America

The total number of reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States has risen to 794,347, with 43,115 deaths. Different states have different regulations in effect to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with many limiting the total number of people allowed to participate in public events while others have banned public events altogether.

LCMS President Matthew Harrison provides a word of comfort in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) reports that the coronavirus has had a dramatic impact on its ministry. While the church does not have authority to direct congregations to close, LCMS President Matthew Harrison has encouraged all members to obey the 4th and 5th Commandments.

“I’m very proud of our pastors, church workers, and congregations,” says President Harrison. “Far and away, they have been engaged, working as hard as possible to offer online options to parishioners, offering the Sacrament where possible to many small groups.” While the LCMS has encouraged its congregations as they offer Gospel-outreach in new ways given the situation, President Harrison, the church’s Commission for Theology and Church Relations, and the systematics departments of the LCMS’ two seminaries have all advised against the novel practice of in-home consecration of communion elements while watching online services.

“Pastors are hurting because they can’t be at the deathbed to comfort the faithful, or even have funeral services,” laments President Harrison. “But they know that the Lord Christ most often and most dramatically blesses through the cross. It will be a joyous day when we are back together in church to receive the gifts of Christ.”

The LCMS’ seminaries and universities have all switched to online classes, and staff at the LCMS’ International Centre are working from home. The LCMS has also temporarily pulled many of its mission personnel and their families from world areas.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has made available a wide variety of resources related to the pandemic, including devotional resources for families and individuals, as well as care for pastors and church workers.  Record numbers of members are engaging with the LCMS’ social media accounts and websites. Among other resources, the LCMS is providing daily Bible studies on Facebook.

Almost all resources of the LCMS Office of National Mission have been focused towards the COVID-19 crisis. Mercy agencies are doing important work under very challenging situations, caring for thousands upon thousands. And the church is also partnering with the Lutheran Church Extension Fund to provide funding for Soldiers of the Cross, a longstanding program which assists church workers. Requests for that funding have been increasing.

“We also think of and pray for in these days our millions of Lutheran partners and friends around the globe,” notes President Harrison. “Christ is risen!”

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

Evangelical Lutheran Church of England declares fellowship with Finnish and Norwegian churches

ELMDF Bishop Risto Soramies and ELCE Chairman Jon Ehlers sign documents recognizing fellowship between their two churches.

United Kingdom – The 65th Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England (ELCE) was held September 27-28 at Christ Church (Petts Wood), during which time the ELCE recognised church fellowship with the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) and the Evangelical Lutheran-Diocese in Norway (DELSiN). These church fellowship recognitions are the culmination of five years of discussion, together with the Mission Province of Sweden and the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany.

Attending the ELCE Synod was Bishop Risto Soramies of the ELMDF and together with ELCE Chairman, Rev. Jon Ehlers, they signed documents and extended the right hand of fellowship. Bishop Soramies spoke about the situation in Finland, the history of his church, and their priorities in establishing worship places so that folk only have to travel up to one hour to attend worship. He also mentioned that the ELMDF was prioritising investing in personnel rather than buildings.

Bishop Thor Henrik With of the DELSiN at the last minute was unable to attend the Synod. Nevertheless the ELCE delegates also resolved recognition of church fellowship with the DELSiN.

The ELCE, ELMDF, DELSiN are all members of the International Lutheran Council.

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The Nordic Lutheran Dioceses and the International Lutheran Council Discuss Membership

ILC-Nordic-meeting

Participants: Dr. Lawrence Rast, Chairman of LCMS CTCR; Rev. Jakob Okkels, Swedish Mission Province and Assistant to Bishop; Dr. Robert Bugbee, President of Lutheran Church Canada / Vice-Chairman of International Lutheran Council; Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, Bishop of SELK / Chairman of ILC; Dr. Albert Collver, Director of Church Relations / Executive Secretary of ILC; Rev. Bengt Birgersson, General Secretary for Swedish Mission Province; Roland Gustafsson, Presiding Bishop of the Swedish Mission Province; Göran Beijer, Assisting Bishop of the Swedish Mission Province; Juhana Pohjola, Dean of the Finnish Mission Province; Risto Soramies, Bishop of the Finnish Mission Province; Lars Artman, Assisting Bishop for the Swedish Mission Province; Thor Henrik With, Bishop of the Norwegian Mission Province; Rev. Jon Ehlers, Chairman of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England / ILC Representative for Europe; Norberto Gerke, President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Paraguay / ILC Representative for Latin America; Gijsbertus van Hattem, President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium / Secretary of the ILC.

SWEDEN – The executive committee of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) and the Nordic Lutheran Dioceses met January 20, 2016 to discuss future opportunities for collaboration. The three Nordic Dioceses—the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Finland, the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese in Norway, and the Mission Province in Sweden—all formed in response to the secularization of the National/State churches in their respective countries involving matters of both Christian doctrine and ethics. These new, independent Dioceses were formed in Sweden (6 September 2003), in Finland (16 March 2013), and in Norway (20 April 2013). On 7 November 2015 the three Dioceses declared altar and pulpit fellowship with one another and formed the Communion of Nordic Dioceses, which then quickly approached the ILC about possible membership.

Roland Gustafsson, Bishop of the Mission Province in Sweden, said membership in the ILC is important because “being in a rather small environment in the Nordic countries, we need the global fellowship of the Church of Christ. The ILC represents a Lutheran community, where we do think our Nordic Dioceses belong.”

The Nordic Dioceses hosted the representatives of the ILC, which includes 37 member churches (www.ilc-online.org), in Gothenburg, Sweden. On the eve of the meeting, Gothenburg, which typically enjoys a temperate climate, experienced a freak snow storm that slightly delayed the meetings.

Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, D.D., Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council, was glad to hear the confession of the Nordic Dioceses. He said, “While we experienced the outside of Gothenburg as very cold with lots of snow, we experienced from our hosts a very warm and close confessional brotherhood during this conference. It enables us to look forward to deeper connections between the Nordic church bodies and the International Lutheran Council.”

The International Lutheran Council seeks to encourage and support confessional Lutheran churches throughout the world through education, conferences, and discussion of contemporary theological issues.

After heartfelt, serious, and collegial discussions related to the belief, confession, and practice of the Nordic Dioceses, the executive committee of the International Lutheran Council invited each church body of the Nordic Dioceses to submit an application for membership, which will then be considered at the next scheduled World Conference of the International Lutheran Council.

Dr. Albert Collver, Executive Secretary of the ILC, noted that “despite the challenges the Lutheran church faces around the world in this day and age, the Lord has opened tremendous opportunities for the proclamation of the Gospel and for the encouragement of brothers and sisters in Christ. The discussions with the Nordic Dioceses were incredibly heartening and we look forward to continuing these conversations.”

After the discussions concluded in the late afternoon, the ILC executive committee toured The Lutheran School of Theology, Gothenburg (LSTG) where the Mission Province in Sweden provides training for future pastors (http://www.ffg.se). In the Fall of 2014, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, opened an extension site at LSTG and now offers a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) degree accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (http://www.ctsfw.edu/seminary-news/ctsfw-opens-international-extension-site-in-sweden)). This program offers a unique opportunity for students in Scandinavia and other nearby countries to receive an advanced research degree in theology.

The meetings concluded with dinner at the LM Engströms Gymnasium, which was the former bishop’s palace for the Gothenburg diocese of the Church of Sweden. Bishop Bo Giertz lived here during his tenure, 1949-70. Today, the LM Engströms Gymnasium serves as a Lutheran high school with approximately 500 students. It is the largest Christian high school in Sweden.

Dr. Lawrence Rast, special consultant to the International Lutheran Council and chairman of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations, participated in the discussions with the Nordic Dioceses in preparation for future fellowship discussions with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. “We are witnessing the emergence of new era of collaboration between confessional Lutherans throughout the world. As the Nordic Lutheran Dioceses and the ILC move into the future, we’re all excited to see what God has in store for his church.”

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ILC issues invitation to Scandinavian Mission Provinces; Chairman Voigt visits Finland

Participants in the 2014 meeting in Helsinki.
Participants in the 2014 meeting in Helsinki.

FINLAND – Following an invitation from the Bishops’ Conferences of the Mission Provinces of Sweden, Finland, and Norway, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt visited Helsinki as chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) and as presiding bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany.

During the meeting, Bishop Voigt made two introductory presentations. In the morning he reported on the history and the purpose of the ILC. He pointed to the fact that many member churches of the ILC were founded as a result of the Lutheran confessional renewal in the 19th century; others resulted as a gathering of Lutheran refugees and settlers in the 19th and 20th century as Mission Churches.

In the course of the discussion, Bishop Voigt issued an invitation to the Scandinavian Mission Provinces to begin discussions with the Executive Committee of the ILC about the possibility and the modalities of membership in this global organization. At the same time, he expressed his understanding of the pastoral practice of the mission dioceses in not urging individual members of their parishes to leave their respective Lutheran state churches, but rather to bear those tensions that a struggle for the true unity of the church imposes.

In a further presentation during the afternoon session, Bishop Voigt spoke on developments and special challenges currently facing SELK. In the subsequent discussion he indicated his pleasant surprise to discover parallels between the Old Lutheran revival movements in Germany in the 19th century and the present-day developments in the Scandinavian mission provinces.

Bishop Risto Soramies of the hosting Evangelical Lutheran Mission Province of Finland thanked the participants for the meeting. He expressed his hope that contacts with the ILC and the member churches can be developed and intensified in the future.

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SELK-News Service