Urmas Viilma: An honest answer just a question away

Archbishop Urmas Viilma.
Archbishop Urmas Viilma. Source: ERR

I have been in the public eye quite a lot in the last few weeks. I have not initiated a single interview or news story of the past week. Cooperation with journalists could be interesting and instructional for a media observer, while I have also been treated to unpleasant experiences, Urmas Viilma writes.

I have tried to base my media relationships on the conviction that the activities and teachings of the church as an organization that serves the people need to be public and transparent as far as possible. This has also meant actively working with the press.

I try to make myself available as the head of the church for interviews and comments. I have also never gone in for an interview biased or having a preconception about the journalist's person. The journalist is simply doing their job, just as I am. Cooperation should satisfy both sides and be interesting and educational for the media observer.

However, I have also walked away with unpleasant experiences. For example, I learned last week that thorough interviews recorded in advance serve the purpose of allowing the interviewer to cherry pick from the subject's answers ideas or tonality that serve the journalist's preconceived notions or coverage previously agreed on by the channel.

The concrete example concerns coverage of the "Pühakodade program" (Churches program) and the [government's] asset transfer for a Jõgeva church covered by the "Aktuaalne kaamera. Nädal" program. Journalist Toomas Pott was given, in addition to a lengthy explanation, a document that details how much the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) has contributed to the maintenance of churches in the "Pühakodade program" in 2014-2018.

Even tough EELK congregations' own contribution of €9 million was several times more than state support for the program that amounted to under €2 million, only the latter was covered and therefore came off as a generous present.

Add to that €1 million allocated for a church in Jõgeva without its knowledge, and the tonality of the section was set – the church is not contributing toward maintaining old assets, especially in a situation where it has a real estate company that is planning an office development while accepting major sums from the state.

Over the last week, I have also experienced so-called isn't that so-type questions the asking of which does not serve the purpose of finding the answer but rather aims to label the interviewee on the level of the question.

In a situation where the journalist's attitudes and preconceptions shape questions, the interviewee's true understanding of things is not revealed, with only stereotypical fragments of ideas that make for good headlines sticking. The person answering the questions is forced to continually refute the claim presented as the truth that he drinks cognac in the morning and say that is why they have never had the chance to shake the habit. The time of the interview is wasted.

On the "Vilja Kiisler küsib" webcast on Monday, Eesti Päevaleht journalist Vilja Kiisler dressed as questions claims according to which the church persecutes women and gay people because fewer women than men have been ordained and because homosexuals are not ordained at all. This only works to suggest that "urban legends" spread by journalists in the past are still very much alive. Moreover, they are being reinforced.

Why has no journalist taken the trouble to learn about the long process of training members of the clergy and the conditions a candidate needs to meet? For example, the fact that just as many men and women have been ordained as clerics – including as priests – as have successfully graduated from theological studies and been deemed suitable in terms of personal characteristics and morals. There simply aren't any more candidates! Gender has played no role whatsoever here.

ERR has deemed it necessary to highlight as a separate news item from my interview with Kiisler the question of gay clergymen. Allow me to give a short explanation.

Candidates who are in a homosexual relationship or have publicly supported such relationships cannot be ordained in the EELK because a cleric is expected to follow the teachings of their church. This means either being married or single. There are no other options, whereas this also applies to heterosexual candidates.

Biblical moral norms as interpreted by the EELK apply to everyone equally. The person of the archbishop or the makeup of the episcopacy determine nothing here. These requirements apply to all candidates, not just homosexual people. The EELK also does not ordain heterosexual candidates living with a partner out of wedlock.

We have over the years turned back several candidates who have not agreed to make their open marriage official. The candidate's theological education or their gender for that matter have neither benefited nor obstructed candidates when it comes to compliance with such moral requirements. Naturally, we do not turn such cases into media events as they concern personal moral choices of people.

The reason why we have such moral requirements should be universally clear. A cleric living in an open relationship cannot credibly preach about church policy, Christian family values, the importance of marriage and family or register and marry people in a situation where their own life and example do not correspond to said values.

It would be just as controversial to have to sit through a lecture on drunk driving from a politician who was recently caught doing just that.

I have great respect for the work of journalists and have even considered educating myself in this field. I always take seriously justified and well-argued criticism, even if it is painful and unpleasant. However, I perceive as injustice superficial coverage that is based on the personal attitudes of the journalist. Especially in a situation where I know that the facts and background were in their reach. An honest answer and the truth are often just a question away.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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