Some reflections on issues surrounding the debate on the ordination of women in the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church.
“Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 6:23,24. New Revised Standard Version).
“ Theology is not an abstract discipline, but arises out of concrete life situations.”
Pastors’ reflections to their congregation at the beginning of summer would customarily focus on the rhythm of summer with the opportunity for spiritual renewal this offers. Basking in the glories of God’s creation and being able to separate ourselves from the bustle of city life provide a gateway for the soul to be restored and to review our lives from that deeper place within where we experience the living God. I do hope you seize the opportunity this summer – relax! You are allowed to take the time to do nothing more than simply “be”, resting in the lap of God.
This time, however, there is a need to turn to other important issues and write at greater length than usual. By the time you read this two particularly significant events will have taken place in Riga. On May 31st, the Latvian Ev. Lutheran Church Abroad (LELCA), to which St Andrew’s belongs, will have established a deanery in Latvia. On June 2 and 3 the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL) will have met and voted on substantial changes to their constitution. You may wonder how this is of importance to us. Paul’s words to the young Christian community in Corinth show the connection: “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.” (1. Cor. 12:26,27. Common English Bible).
Paul’s words are written for one specific community, one that had experienced considerable turmoil and dissension, but the same metaphor can be applied to the whole church. This is why we pray for the church throughout the world when we gather to worship on Sundays. This is why we express our thanksgiving whenever the church has been guided by the Spirit in a way that has brought blessing. Also, what happens in the church in Latvia must be our concern: we share a common ancestry, they are our brothers and sisters, fellow Christians.
Why the concern around the ELCL synod? Why is the LELCA working in Latvia?
The Latvian mass media have pointed to one common denominator: the ordination of women. However, there is more.
Since his election in 1993 as head of the ELCL, archbishop Janis Vanags has maintained his conviction that only men can be ordained. Consequently there remained only the handful of female pastors in the ELCL who had been ordained by previous archbishops, Matulis and Gailītis between 1975 and 1992. As a result of the ban, many Latvian women who had fulfilled the requirements for ordination were accepted into the LELCA and now serve parishes in North America, the UK, Germany and Sweden.
In their Synod at the beginning of June, delegates from the ELCL will be voting on several changes to their constitution, including the paragraph that defines requirements for ordination thus formalizing the change in practice brought in by archbishop Vanags.
This move is a highly significant departure from previous church legislation. Even the first constitution of the ELCL, passed in 1928, made no reference to the gender of applicants for ministry, although the male pronoun is used in the text. Further, in the constitution passed by the ELCL as recently as Jun 5, 2007 in Riga, there is no qualification to candidacy based on gender. Yet the wording of the change passed at this year’s synod now states: “Male applicants may apply for ordination….” The Latvian mass media had predicted that this would pass with a substantial majority. It did indeed, although as the Lutheran World Federation pointed out in a press release on June 6 entitled: “Affirming women’s ordination as our shared goal”: “The LWF is concerned about the unity of the Latvian church, given the fact that many at the Synod opposed the motion, or abstained from voting.”[i] Announcement of the result of the vote was greeted with applause and cheering.
Much has been written about the establishment of the LELCA in Latvia, as well as the formal restriction of ordination to men only. With reference to the latter, objections include questioning how Biblical texts have been used to support the move against recognizing the validity of women’s ministry; challenging the assumption that the ELCL as a body is against women’s ordination, as well as objections based on human rights and gender equality.
Outside Latvia the direction being taken by the ELCL has been met overwhelmingly with concern and incredulity. The “refugee” generation and their descendents whose Latvian socialization was grounded in pride at the equal value placed on men and women in the interwar years and who have lived alongside major shifts in attitudes in the West towards groups who were formerly marginalized (people of colour, the LGBTQ community and women) find the viewpoint of the ELCL leadership regressive and unacceptable. “In the country there was total equality: the men were responsible for the fields and the forests, while the women took charge of the home, and the barn. This included the keys to the barn where the family treasures were stored.”
For me, as a woman who has served the Latvian Lutheran church as a parish pastor for 32 years, the decision to base suitability for ordination partly on the candidate being the “right” gender is deeply distressing. For years could I listen patiently while certain male colleagues in Latvia outlined their reasons for a male-only pastorate, patiently, because these attitudes were not part of my everyday reality. The uneasiness I experienced at those times as I became aware that the validity of my call and ministry were being disavowed was nothing by comparison with what my sisters in Latvia had to experience on a daily basis – put down simply because of their gender. Not only are these attacks a denial of the equality of women, more significantly. they are attacks on the authenticity of their call. They imply that God values men more than women. This begs the obvious question: did not Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, come to save the whole world, offering new life to everyone?
How to respond? Time and again Jesus calls his followers not to harden their hearts against those who oppose them, but to seek to understand them, that is to ground their response in love. A genuine attempt to understand comes with love, and only in love. This does not imply consensus, rather it is to ask why these attitudes have come to dominate in the ELCL, with an open heart.
One starting point is to explore the assertion: “Theology is not an abstract discipline, but arises out of concrete life situations.”
When the Lutheran church in Latvia began the process of renewal around the time of the restoration of Latvian independence the emphasis both the head of the LELCA, archbishop Arnolds Lūsis, and archbishop Kārlis Gailītis, head of the ELCL shared was a need for both churches to cooperate and begin to grow together as an integrated body. The joint, “red” hymnal was just one outcome, as well as the invitation to a number of LELCA clergy to help teach and train the current generation of theologians and ministry candidates. I was honoured to be among those and taught in Riga from January 1990 to Spring 1996, first at the Theology Institute and then at the University of Latvia, once the Faculty of Theology was reopened. I also led a number of retreats for female theologians.
Not long after these beginnings, both archbishops died. The elections which followed in Latvia to find a replacement for archbishop Gailītis provided the opportunity either to continue in this direction or to find another. Even before his election as head of the ELCL, Rev Jānis Vanags made his response clear: his church must take a different, independent course. With that, cooperation with a view to increased integration effectively ended. The decision by the leadership of the ELCL to stop participating in a joint yearbook affirmed this.
Undoubtedly clergy in both churches had emerged from very different circumstances. As the ELCL web-site states: “the church struggled to survive in every possible way so as to maintain a living faith, to preach the Gospel and the principles of a Christian life among the people.” We can only wonder at the courage, passion and self-denial of those who continued to minister faithfully despite being faced with unbelievable challenges during the Soviet era.
Clergy educated and brought up in the West had access to theology as it had developed in the post-war period. Their approach to Biblical materials was analytical, text-critical, and Luther’s emphasis on an academic education for pastors provided the impetus to continue exploring theology and recent academic developments after ordination as well as to attend to their own spiritual growth.
The last twenty years have underscored the conclusion that these are two, very different, worlds. While the preparation for ministry provided at the Luther Academy in Riga has produced a cohort of new clergy who take an increasingly negative approach to what they see as not being congruent with their dogmatic standpoint, a “post-structural” approach has come to dominate outside Latvia. The latter holds that each persons viewpoint is grounded in their personal experience, both of life, and of God. While this assumes differences in understanding, there is an emphasis on finding commonalities in the fundamentals of faith. It is difficult to see how both approaches can be reconciled.
Added to this is the psychological aspect: the social reality we inhabit affects our worldview. Thus suspicions around Western European “liberal” values continue to be expressed in a rejection of predominant shifts in Western mores. These are seen as an attack on the Christian faith which can only be answered by adhering to a literalistic interpretation of the Word, and rigid dogmatism maintained by an authoritarian structure that keeps tight control over the work of the church. This situation is not unique to Latvia: its echoes are visible elsewhere and in different denominations wherever the role of the church in society is seen as ever-decreasing in importance. Yet outside Latvia this response seems inconsistent with what seems valid for the church’s new reality. Can one person fully understand the “truth” of scripture if only Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”? How people experience their faith is highly personal and so, too, is how scripture is interpreted. It is interpretation. We all seek to understand and can presume no more; we are all simply human, able only to see part of the whole.
Whether or not God’s word has been “taken in vain” as archbishop emeritus Elmārs Ernsts Rozītis states in his article: “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain” (the Latvian “vārds” can mean both “the Word”, and “the name”) is a matter for itself. However, the clearly evident deficiencies and slanted approach in the interpretation of certain New Testament passages on which the leadership of the ELCL rests its conclusion reflects their worldview. For example, while the ecumenically accepted New Revised Standard Version replaces the original Greek “men” or “brothers” with inclusive language in the Epistles, the translators of the new Latvian Bible insisted on adhering to the original. This is more than just an absence of good manners, or “political correctness”, rather, it is a refusal to understand that God’s grace, and the saving work of Christ is for all, both men and women, and to refer only to the masculine form indicates a difference in value placed on men as opposed to women in God’s economy.
How we approach scripture is highly important. On this rests the entirety of the work of the church, from the preparation of the Sunday sermon to relationships within the congregation and their mission outside the walls of the church. There is a ripple effect in the wider community.
The ELCL under the leadership of archbishop Jānis Vanags has sought to shape its identity separate from the LELCA. But objections raised by clergy within Latvia as well as lay members indicate there is not unanimous support for this. While there continues to be an unwillingness to listen to or respect divergent viewpoints, this expression of the body of Christ cannot embrace all its members. The LELCA began its work in Latvia because there was a significant number of people of faith who wanted to experience a different kind of Lutheran church in Latvia. Not everyone can belong to the Luther congregation in Riga.
This is a time both of deep sadness and of hope. Of one door closing, yet another coming open. On the one hand there is now an opportunity for Latvians in their home country to belong to Lutheran congregations that are more open. On the other is sorrow at the rigidity of the ELCL with all that is lost along the way. It is especially painful to think of the many Latvian women who have felt Christ’s call to follow him in ordained ministry, but may not express this in Latvia in the foreseeable future.
Those living in the West must be careful not to write off the possibility of continuing to speak with their brothers, and sisters, in the ELCL. A dialogue has to emerge. That has been noticeable by its absence. The fruits of an approach that is open, has a sense of humility before God and is peace-loving are clearly visible in the wider church, especially in the ecumenical conversations that have taken place over the last fifty years between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. This year, on Reformation day, October 31, a joint service will be led in Lund Cathedral, Sweden by Pope Francis I, the president of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib Younan, and its General Secretary, Rev. Dr Martin Junge, in the presence of the archbishop of the Church of Sweden, a woman.
The observations made be representatives of both churches are worth noting.
“There is power when communities find their way out of conflict. In Christ we are encouraged to serve together in this world. The joint commemoration is a witness to the love and hope we all have because of the grace of God,” LWF President Younan and General Secretary Junge say. Kurt Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity explains further: “By concentrating together on the centrality of the question of God and on a Christocentric approach, Lutherans and Catholics will have the possibility of an ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation, not simply in a pragmatic way, but in the deep sense of faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ.”[ii]
These events do indeed concern us. Only God knows where they will lead us. But we have been provided with a remarkable opportunity to review both our own faith life and the life of the church. 2017 will mark the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. The valuable lead provided by the heads of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches gathering to worship God in humility this year on Reformation day serves as an invitation to us to use the year ahead, from Reformation day 2016 to 2017 as a year of renewal. A renewal of our faith.
Until then, let us all continue to pray without ceasing for the church in Latvia and beyond that the light of the good news of Christ be clearly visible among our people and that it bring peace, love and hope.
By God’s grace, may peace and love together with faith be with us all, brothers and sisters from Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pastor, St Andrew’s Evangelical Lutheran Latvian Church, Toronto.
For the newsletter of St Andrew’s Ev. Lutheran Latvian Church, Toronto, June 2016
©Ilze Kuplens-Ewart. 2016
Please note: this article reflects the personal opinion of the author.