Archbishop Andres Põder of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church turned 65 on Saturday, which means he had to retire, as stated in church laws, with the church now set to elect a new archbishop on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The 57-member General Synod, the church council, will convene on Tuesday for a two-day session to elect the new archbishop from four candidates. Five candidates had been set up, but head of the Tartu deanery, Joel Luhamets, ruled himself out from the race last week. The candidates are Urmas Viima, Ove Sander, Marko Tiidus and Tiit Salumäe.
The winning candidate must receive more than half the votes in the council, which experts say is unlikely to happen in the first round.
The new archbishop will take over from caretaker bishop Einar Soone on February 2.
The burning question is the popularity of the Lutheran church in Estonia, with the 2011 census showing a drastic decline in those affiliating themselves with Lutheranism, down from 150,000 to 109,000 since the previous census in 2000. Lutheranism was also displaced as the most followed branch of Christianity in Estonia, by Orthodox Christianity.
Judging the candidates on a scale of modern to traditional, church insiders say Luhamets, who withdrew, was the most conservative of the five. Viilma is next, although less confrontational and more likely to play it safe than Luhamets.
Salumäe, Sander and Tiitus fall in the modern category, but none are likely to push through extensive modernization plans. Sander is thought to be the most flexible and open to dialogue.
All candidates said the church must increase its voice in society.