Head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) Archbishop Urmas Viilma gave an advent reflection at St. Mary's Cathedral (Toomkirik) on Wednesday. The English transcription follows.
Honourable Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Brothers and Sisters.
In Estonia, we live at the boundary of western and eastern Christianity; it is a meeting place of western and eastern Christian traditions, as well as Gregorian and Julian calendars. In western Christianity, the start of the Advent season on the fourth Sunday before Christmas marks the beginning of the church year. Thus, last Sunday, we celebrated the start of a new year in all Lutheran churches in Estonia. The turn of the year is traditionally a time to draw conclusions from the past and look forward to the future. Furthermore, we should also look at the present moment where we are today. As a church, as a state – as a society in general.
A rich year
This past year was a rich one for the Estonian nation and people in terms of many important events. It was the Year of Estonian Language, as well as a year of elections. The most positive emotions of the year were associated with the jubilee celebration of the Song and Dance Festival.
In addition, there were other jubilees which deserve honourable mention. The Estonian Council of Churches turned 30, the Tallinn Cathedral School 700, and the City of Tallinn and the Dannebrog, the Danish national flag, are now 800 years old. 2019 was the hundredth anniversary of the Estonian land reform, as well as of the establishment of the Riigikogu, the Bank of Estonia, the Estonian Art Museum, the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, and the Estonian-language university.
In the wake of the previous year's 100th jubilee of the Republic of Estonia, many other authorities, agencies and institutions commemorated one hundred years since their founding in this past year.
However, our internal wealth is not based on celebrations or jubilees but on our capacity to use our talents through society – and through each neighbour – to serve God. The greatest visible wealth of the church consists of all the people that the church is able to serve, because we should see Christ himself in every single person. Serving our neighbour is, besides proclaiming the word of God and administering the sacraments, an essential part of the daily work of the church.
Unfortunately, this often remains invisible, because the media is more attracted to external and mundane matters that we ourselves in the church regard as supporting activities, not as our main mission.
The Church focuses on the entirety of the human lifespan
In fact, the charitable work of the church for the people begins even before a new life is born and continues beyond the boundary of time and earthly life, into eternity. Thus, congregations have established their baby schools, Sunday schools and hobby groups, nursery groups and kindergartens, primary and basic schools. There are regular efforts directed towards children with special needs and people living with disabilities; the church offers counselling for expecting women, couples, married couples and families; a lot of attention is paid to detecting, preventing and stopping domestic violence.
Education is provided to pastoral care specialists, church musicians, chaplains and clergy. In-service training and courses based on Christian teaching and values are organised. People are served through ministry, education, encouragement and pastoral guidance.
There are dozens of clergy members who, in addition to working for their congregation and local church, also serve as chaplains at the Police and Border Guard Board, the Defence Forces or the Defence League, prisons and detention facilities. In addition, congregation pastors and assistants have been visiting welfare and medical institutions for decades, to provide spiritual service to their patients.
Many congregations have soup kitchens, distribute food aid and clothing, and work with the elderly either on congregation premises or by visiting them at home. Throughout time, the church has offered comfort and strength to people in their grief and has taken care of the funerals of those who have departed. Thus, in many Estonian regions, the congregation is still the primary instance that is responsible for arranging matters related to the end of life, and dozens of rural cemeteries are managed and maintained by the local church.
The Church as a bearer of culture
The Estonian churches contain a unique collection of functioning and well-maintained organs. Unfortunately, the number of professional organists and church musicians is on a rapid decline due to limited opportunities for learning the profession. Only a few urban congregations have the means to pay musicians decent wages. Thus, we soon face the prospect of many unique organs in Estonia remaining silent for decades. This would be an irrecoverable loss for our long tradition of organ music, choral and vocal performances. The worst of the crisis can perhaps be prevented with the new hymn and prayer book of the Lutheran church, which is currently in the works and should be completed by the middle of the next decade. It is an extensive undertaking that will, hopefully, receive significant support from the state as well. The extensive concert activity in Estonian churches is also part of the cultural sphere. In addition, in early July next year, church members will gather in Viljandi for another nationwide Christian song festival, which also commemorates the fact that the first Estonian song festival in 1869 was a Christian choral celebration.
With all the historic art and cultural treasures kept in church buildings, the EELK church is among the largest custodians and protectors of cultural heritage in the country. We are deeply grateful for all the assistance provided by the Estonian state and local governments, including in particular the municipalities of Tallinn and Tartu. We hope that our cultural landscape will be further enriched by the restoration of St. Mary's Church in Tartu, as well as the new church buildings in Saku and Mustamäe. Hopefully, we will be able to say the same about Saue in a couple of years.
Climate change and repentance
A sailing vessel, flying the Estonian flag and named after Admiral Fabian von Bellingshausen (1778–1852), is expected to arrive in Antarctica in about two months, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Bellingshausen's expedition (the first to get a definite sighting of the Antarctic continent-ed.). This commemorative expedition serves multiple purposes. One of them is to draw attention to environmental problems and especially climate change caused by the pollution of the world's oceans. I remember, as I crossed the Bay of Biscay on board of the 'Admiral Bellingshausen', we had discussions with other crew members about the environmental impact of the climate change in different regions of the world, including Estonia. I am also concerned about the deviations caused in nature by climate change. However, I am troubled by a trend in the current climate discussions, which posits the need to preserve the individual welfare of future generations as the primary motivation for stopping climate change.
It would be selfish to save the world only for the sake of enabling human beings to create a paradise on earth. Christians care for nature, for creation, primarily because God himself has made human beings responsible for it. In the second chapter of the Bible, we can read how God put humans in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it (Gen. 2:15). If human beings start working towards the target set in the Paris Climate Agreement – to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C – with the self-indulgent and selfish goal to ensure that they, their children and grandchildren would have a better life in the future, then their motivation is one-sided and insufficient. We need to cultivate and care for nature for the sake of nature itself. We have, for a very long time, neglected the very first task given to human beings by our Creator. We have wasted time. However, time is not recyclable. Time that is not used sensibly becomes wasted time – time refuse. We can achieve a fundamental change only through repentance, or metanoia in Greek. Without it, the violence against nature will only continue, resulting in increased general paranoia ('madness' in Greek).
Violence against creation must stop. This also concerns the sphere of domestic violence. In a meeting to discuss domestic violence, all participants received badges in the shape of a butterfly. The explanation was that total transformation is required in order to put an end to violence. It does not mean becoming a different person, but a transformation. Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. It requires serious repentance and deliberate change of attitude from us all. Everyone – the entire society – has still a long way to go in this respect. I have sometimes wondered, how an online media outlet can present an article or an analysis on the problems of domestic violence and mistreatment of women in one section, while continuing to publish inane and tasteless tidbits about women depicted as mere objects of desire in another. You can only look how women – and sometimes men – are objectified in the 'Elu24' section of a popular media outlet and its 'Fläsh!' subsection. Similar humiliating articles can be found on the pages of many other online media channels.
Freedom of expression versus laxity of expression
Perhaps they justify such behaviour as freedom of expression. However, it seems to me that for many people in Estonia freedom of expression merely means freedom of squabbling. Using words without any sense of boundaries is certainly not freedom of expression. Rather, we could call it laxity of expression. I am of the opinion that a person that has a respectful attitude towards others is never completely free in their expression. On the contrary, the words of such a person are always well considered and meaningful. A complete freedom of speech would mean boundless ambiguity, thereby becoming devoid of any sense or meaning. Thus, we can see – paradoxically, in the Year of Estonian Language – that the public sphere is, under the pretence of freedom of expression, full of verbal pollution caused by boundless use of words.
We are currently learning, and teaching our children, how to sort waste so that it could be recycled. But how could we recycle verbal waste? Each of us should make a deliberate effort to start sorting our words. Words that are uttered indiscriminately and recklessly will soon lose meaning. And those who spread such words in society will, in turn, lose their dignity and stateliness. Words will become cheap. As will the increasingly frequent apologies.
Communal initiatives for dignified speech
To secure Christmas Peace, it would be reasonable to organise communal initiatives for dignified speech. And this should not be restricted to the Christmas season, but could take place once a week until the air in the public sphere is clear of empty words. Perhaps we could use the example of smoking rooms, and create separate "squabbling rooms" for those who are unable to control their words. Or, conversely, perhaps we should create rooms free of verbal abuse and insults for those who need an escape to retain their manners and respect for themselves and others. But how could we escape from a stream of news that is constantly testing our self-respect? We need an agreement on civilised speech, which should be signed, first of all, by leaders of all political parties, and then also by different media outlets and interest groups. This will, of course, make life more difficult for those who are addicted to this verbal poison. An effective weaning treatment should be based on complete silence, verbal fasting, which would be more meaningful than any pointless word.
Secularism and freedom of religion
In the context of the thematic year of 'Estonian religion' announced by the Estonian Council of Churches, I would like to express some thoughts about secularism and freedom of religion. Here in Estonia, it is easy to get the impression that secularism is a global trend. However, secularism is in fact not a global reality. Instead, it is our local peculiarity. While God may have been pushed to a corner of the picture or even out of the picture in Estonia and in some other parts of Europe, we can see a dynamic competition of different religious, philosophical or ideological world views elsewhere in the world. In this arena, secularism and godlessness have already dropped out of the competition.
The fact that many people in Estonia are unable to name all the spiritualistic practices, spirits and powers that they believe in does not mean that there is a spiritual vacancy in the public sphere. The invisible space around and inside us is not empty even when statistics show that the number of Christians is decreasing. People are not without faith; they simply cannot define what it is they believe in. Consequently, it is very difficult to measure this faith in sociological or statistical terms. The situation becomes even more complex when this vacant space is filled by secularism as an ideology that aspires to become a distinct world view.
We know that democracy is never self-fulfilling but is always based on values, and at least some of these values are based on a religious-philosophical foundation. Thus, democracy cannot exist in an empty space, devoid of world views, as that would mean the end for the freedom of religion. Because freedom of religion inevitably requires the presence of different religious world views in society. And freedom of religion disappears whenever there is only one officially supported religious world view or philosophy. Consequently, even the principle of neutrality of the state, formulated in the Estonian Constitution as the absence of a state church, cannot mean that the role of a state church is furtively occupied by secularism as a world view, a new spirituality. As long as the difference (but not separation) of the state and church is described as secularism, we can still consider Estonia a democratic country. But as soon as the new generation is taught systematically at school that secular ideology is the only correct world view, and no room is left in the official curriculum for presenting other world views, the state has in fact quietly picked a new state church. This would be the end of the freedom of religion and the democratic social order would receive a serious blow. I believe that if we continue leaving Estonian general education schools without general mandatory religious education, we will come very close to a conflict with the principle of the absence of a state church as stipulated in the Estonian Constitution.
This situation cannot be alleviated through Christian private schools, including our Lutheran schools, about which you can read more in the small book that you received today. The educational methods and environment of Christian private schools, that strive towards a balance between a theocentric and an anthropocentric approach, seem too biased for the state that is under the obligation of maintaining neutrality. But our education system should not be biased towards any world view, including the secular ideology. Secularism does not represent neutrality, but a political ideology that sets itself in opposition to religion.
The church is present in society and continues to fulfil its primary mission – proclaim the good news of God's grace and serve our neighbour – in different ways and in all walks of life. There are times when the values and principles of the church compel it to speak up on political matters, to support certain policies or reject others – again, in order to serve our neighbours and help build a society where members are characterised by aspirations of peace and a loving, respectful and caring attitude towards fellow human beings and the rest of creation. In the coming year, the church intends to be even better in fulfilling this diverse mission of service and to reach the hearts of many people.
I would like to thank everyone who accepted my invitation to participate in this advent reflection and reception. I wish you a beautiful beginning of the Advent season, peace and sustenance for your souls, and abundant blessings from God!
Editor: Andrew Whyte