Lutheran bishops: London ordination does not spell split in church

Archbishop Urmas Viilma (center) flanked by bishops Joel Luhamets (left) and Tiit Salumäe at a memorial service dedicated to EELK's first bishop, Jakob Kuke, at the Charles's Church (Kaarli Kirik) in Tallinn.
Archbishop Urmas Viilma (center) flanked by bishops Joel Luhamets (left) and Tiit Salumäe at a memorial service dedicated to EELK's first bishop, Jakob Kuke, at the Charles's Church (Kaarli Kirik) in Tallinn. Source: Erik Peinar

The recent participation of an Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) bishop in an ordination of a pastor held recently in London has led to an interview with head of the church, Archbishop Urmas Viilma, Biship Tiit Salumäe – the prelate who conducted the ordination – and Bishop Joel Luhamets.

The ceremony took place at St. Anne's, in the City of London, a Lutheran Church in Great Britain (LciGB) church. The LciGB is a small denomination, like the EELK in communion with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and mostly serving expatriates from Lutheran-majority northern European countries and also from other countries where Lutheranism has a presence, including several African nations.

The interview was conducted by Liina Raudvassar, editor-in-chief of Eesti Kirik, the EELK's official newsletter, and follows in its entirety.

Much public discussion has followed the service in London (link in Estonian) which ordained into the LciGB ERR journalist and EELK member Meelis Süld, who has been an advocate for sexual minorities via a group representing gay Christians. 

Among the friends of the ordained, Bishop Tiit Salumäe took part in the service. Was the archbishop and the church government as a whole aware of the context of the bishop's visit?

Urmas Viilma : Of course, I and most likely other members of the church board knew that Meelis Süld, who we know through Vikerraadio's "Kirikuelu" broadasts, would be ordained in England. 

There was also an official message from the LciGB to the consistory, and to me. Since it was an announcement rather than an invitation, there was no reason to place it on the consistory's agenda. There was no topic to discuss.

Tiit Salumäe called to tell me that he had received a personal invitation from Meelis Sülla, as a friend, and as he expresses himself. I said that I had not authorized anyone to participate in the service referred to, on behalf of EELK. I could not have given such permission, which should have been discussed at the consistory meeting.

As it was a pastor's ordination, this type of message was also exceptional, as we usually receive invitations rather to a bishop's ordination. We then discuss these in the consistory session, if there may be any problems or doctrinal-moral issues relating to the ordination. If there are none of these, we will agree things with the bishops, who will attend, or alternatively ask someone to go along and represent the EELK.

In this case, I had not asked anyone to go to England. Bishop Salumäe can explain everything that happened there himself. I unequivocally expressed the line that the bishop should not participate in an ordination or procession in clerical garb. I suggested he remain seated, as a guest, among the congregation. Of course, one could not be forbidden to wear a bishop's vestments or a crucifix on your breast, as we indeed do.

At the same time, we must never forget that we are always representatives of the church, so we are always seen as bishops as representatives of the EELK, something which we must consider.

I would like to clarify whether the bishop is always in a role representing the EELK as his office, or is it permissible for him to take part in a church event as a private individual?

Viilma : If a clergyman wises to emphasize their private participation, then the distinction must also be visible. This would be best understood by all concerned if the clergyman is wearing "civilian" clothing, for instance.

However, even in this case, it must be remembered that no one can temporarily take away an ordination from us in order to circumvent one event. It is an old apothegm that the village pastor is a 24-hour clergyman. This is the same in the case of a bishop. The easiest solution is to not take part in the event.

Bishop Tiit Salumäe, how much of a surprise was it that your participation in the worship service in London was so widely disseminated in your homeland?

Tiit Salumäe : I really didn't expect such a reaction, because my participation in this worship service at the London congregation was not meant to go that way. I have already explained this in my letter to the archbishop of September 13.

This was an ordination of a pastor, organized by the LCiGB, [head of the LciGB] Bishop Tor Berger Jörgensen, and his assistants.

I certainly did not participate in the ordination process. If things are interpreted in this way, I am very sorry about that. What is done cannot be nullified, and it is up to me to apologize for any confusion.

This service was one event in Bishop Tiit Salumäe's multi-day visit to England, which included several meetings. Who funded this visit?

Viilma : This visit was not funded by the EELK consistory.

Salumäe : This was my visit to one of the EELK diaspora areas, and part of my work for the global Estonian cooperation body. I met with [Estonian] Ambassador [to the U.K.] Viljar Lubi, to talk about the work of global Estonian-ness and the opportunities for the U.K. after leaving the EU.

There were also meetings involving our friendship congregation (twinned with the Haapsalu congregation - ed.) and meetings with Bishop Tor Berger Jörgensen and representatives of the LciGB. So the scope was much broader. The course of the visit was also coordinated with Leevi Reinaru, head of the mission center, and I used funds allocated for the flight ticket and accommodation.

So the visit bore fruit from what was hoped, and you were able to deal with the topic of global Estonian-ness?

Salumäe : I received very clear answers from ambassador Lubi that the desire there is to keep Estonia together even after circumstances have changed. Maintaining Estonian-ness worldwide is something we must continue to deal with as a church.

Bishop Joel Luhamets, please explain why Bishop Tiit Salumäe's participation in the LciGB service led to conflicting opinions, and why a number of EELK members see it in a negative light?

Joel Luhamets: The question arose that if a bishop from our church participates in an ordination at another church, to ordain a person who has not been ordained by our church, it is an indication that we did not carry out the ordination in Estonia, but we recognize the possibility that the ordination may take place elsewhere.

It seemed that we were basically ordaining such a person. On the day of the service, Bishop Tiit immediately began to share photos of the event on social media, and, by so doing, he emphasized his participation. There was no position or explanation attached to this, but these [posts] were still supportive of the situation and highlighted it in a positive light. There is still no explanation as to why this event was widely promoted.

Bishop Tiit Salumäe, what to say to those who do not understand, or who even deplore, your participation in the ordination service in London?

Salumäe : I am very sorry that this is how it turned out. As I have referred to the confession of sin in an earlier Eesti Kirik article, in which I covered this topic, then I will say now: "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa".

In any case, I regret my mistake and I do not think there is much more to say here. If only that I knew that it did not constitute participating in the ordination as a layman. This meant as a common prayer in which all the clergy who took part in the service took part. A praying posture is a praying posture, but ordination as an independent concept is the churches' legal service. The two cannot be confused.

A written address (of October 11 - ed.) to the archbishop and bishops, joined by 191 EELK members, including 55 clergy, expresses the desire for the bishops to stand up for the teaching and practice of the church, based on God's Word. How do you reflect on this address?

Viilma : People's concerns must be taken seriously. They have had a reason for them. We need to start discussing it with the bishops on how to discuss this. Whether the appeal needs an answer at all is also a question in itself. I see this as an appeal rather as a reminder.

I say on my own behalf that I have received and read it. When we open a substantive debate, we must first agree on how we will proceed. To this end, the consistory has asked the EELK education committee to develop proposals on how to conduct such a discussion in the church in a way which is constructive, respectful of the parties and seeks the unity of the church.

I hope that Bishop Tiit Salumäe's clear apology will satisfy those who are concerned. I think that a line needs to be drawn under this vexation. I also affirm that nothing has changed in our church, either in doctrine or in practice. No bishop has deliberately taken any steps which could call into question the positions of our church up to the present.

Luhamets : Since the address was published in Eesti Kirik (link in Estonian), I also wrote my own editorial (link in Estonian) and based it on my views of the address.

For the sake of clarity, I would reiterate [quoted from the editorial]: "The Bible is highly unequivocal about marriage and sexual relations. Marriage is only spoken of as a relationship between one man and one woman. In terms of sexual relations, Paul sees no possibility of an 'open relationship." When a man wants to live with a woman on the basis of a sexual relationship, then they must marry.

Since, from the Bible's point of view, any sexual act outside of marriage between a man and a woman is unacceptable, then the Christian church cannot accept a homosexual relationship or behavior either. He who teaches differently, approves or enjoys different behavior has gone down the road of false teaching. "

Some members of the congregation, including the clergy, said in their appeals that bishops must stand for pure teaching. This is very important if there are doubts about the clarity of the teaching.

Salumäe : I'm thankful for the fact that people are concerned about the life and teaching of our church. That the same people also see the responsibility and task of standing up in the church for the right things concerning the episcopal office is clearly very commendable. The address sends a clear message - it is designed to go forwards, not backwards.

How do you respond to an elderly ward member who called the editorial office and wondered if there was a rift in our church as there is in society?

Viilma: There have been various interpretations of the church at different times. We are simply now in a new era where disagreements are amplified and become more visible, in relation to social media, but also in secular media, which exposes them emphatically.

Salumäe : Former President Kersti Kaljulaid was asked whether the Estonian state was broken. The President replied that the country was not broken, but that various political forces had tried to break it. I see great unity in our church, however, and nothing can break it.

This was also evident to see at the St. Mary's Cathedral (the Toomkirik, in Tallinn – ed.) thanksgiving service (marking 80 years of the full communion between the Church of England and the Lutheran Church in both Estonia and Latvia – ed.), where it could be seen that the church recognizes people from very different backgrounds.

This has never been the case on the recognitions committee either; it has never been assumed that everyone's views are perfectly correct and unified. The respondent to this editorial may be advised to read all the articles in the church paper calmly.

Can you assure the readers of the Eesti Kirik that the EELK is one, when there are also differences of opinion within it on some issues, and that our archbishop and the bishops, who church members expect to keep pure Lutheran teaching and practice based upon, agree?

Viilma : I don't see us as bishops doing anything differently, and if that impression is ever there for some reason, it needs to be clarified and, if necessary, apologized for. No one wants to destroy the church. If there are questions, we will resolve them. So far we have done it, and I hope it will continue.

Luhamets : If the issue of homosexuality is raised now, it can be emphasized that our bishops have not expressed different views anywhere. We are currently talking about a specific problem and confirm that we want to resolve it.

Salumäe : I confirm the same, that we have discussed all aspects together and do not have disagreements, including on the issue we are talking about today.

Archbishop Viilma and bishops Salumäe and Luhamets were talking to Liina Raudvassar, editor-in-chief of Eesti Kirik.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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