The head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) – the archbishop – must retire when reaching the age of 65, as stated by church laws. The current archbishop turns 65 at the end of this month, and elections for the new archbishop will take place.
Centuries ago, the Lutheran church was the Estonian national church - all residents were Lutherans. The Russification waves of the 19th century converted a noticeable minority of Estonians to the Russian Orthodox Church. Still, most of the population belonged to the EELK at the beginning of the first era of independence. The most drastic decline of the church took place during the Soviet period. The forces behind the shift were probably the atheist pressure from the Soviet Union and the general trend of secularization in Europe.
The collapse of the Soviet regime and re-independence of Estonia brought with it a spike in church membership and an increase in the importance of the church. But in the last few decades, church membership has seen a sharp drop, especially among those who donate. According to data collected by the EELK for the Ministry of the Interior, the church has 180,000 members, but according to the 2011 population census only 110,000 residents of Estonia consider themselves Lutheran. The number of those who donate regularly was 31,000 in 2013, while the number of members with a right to vote on church matters was below 20,000.
The evaporation of the church's role in society has been more important than marginalization due to lower membership numbers. For many educated younger generation Estonians, the EELK is a conservative, diminutive church which has a worldview similar to the ideology dominant in Russia and whose actions people ascribe, for example, to Ugandan politics. The center of that image is the fight of church heads against sexual minorities. There are other church statements and actions which have helped built such a reputation.
A conservative approach is not exclusive to the Estonian Lutheran church, but also to other religious organizations in Estonia. The tendency is common to many post-communist churches in Eastern Europe. These institutions have not previously harbored such opinions – they have formed with the fall of the communist regime.
The conservative nature of the EELK and other post-communist churches is not the result of a few obscurant church leaders, but due to objective social processes. During the Soviet era, churches were some of the only channels through which one could stay in contact with the Western world, and often churches were dissident gathering spots. Eastern European people were faced with a completely different reality after the collapse of communism. Not all have accepted the changes without hitches. Thus many churches have become a haven for those who seek shelter from the unfamiliar and sometimes frightening modern or post-modern European world. Among the candidates for the archbishop of the EELK are those who see the contemporary world as an opposite to the church.
The second important factor to impact today's churches is the fact that the majority of the clergy in Soviet-era Estonia received their education and grew up in the pre-war independent Estonia, while current priests have largely developed in an environment of Soviet ideology. The Soviet-era upbringing has brought with it many Soviet-era understandings of the church. That Soviet ideological stamp does not only describe the current middle-age clergy but also the older generation, who make up the majority of a great many congregations. The primary goal of the church is often seen as the protector of traditions. Theologically it seems odd that Christ came into the world to create and defend traditions.
Five candidates are in the mix for the archbishop position at the upcoming elections. The five have quite different theological world views. There are some who are expected to continue on the same path, which means the EELK will remain or even intensify its marginalization. There are candidates who, if elected, could change the course of the church, and who are interested in developing a dialog with the entire society, and for whom the main goal of Christianity is not to hold on to traditions at all cost. Elections of the new archbishop for the church is in some ways similar to measuring the body's temperature – the winning candidate shows which worldview is dominant in the church – either an ideology which is stuck in the past or one which fearlessly trusts in the future.
Alar Laats is a former professor of theology and and a former head of the Institute of Theology of the church.