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Lutheran archbishop: Church enjoys fruitful cooperation with the state

Archbishop Urmas Viilma, head of the EELK.
Archbishop Urmas Viilma, head of the EELK. Source: ERR

The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) has been cooperating with the state in various areas, Archbishop Urmas Viilma says. The church has called for religious education to be made a compulsory subject in schools in Estonia.

The EELK can also act as a middle-man between the ordinary Estonian people and the state, the archbishop said, in an interview given to ERR.

The far-ranging interview reflected on the time of year and the desire for peace both internationally and at home, but also covered church-state relations in the aftermath of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Estonia in summer this year.

At that time, Archbishop Viilma said: "We had even joked with the other Estonian Council of Churches (EKN) leaders that we should move into the Riigikogu, given we were having daily meetings with representatives of all the parties."

"Since summer, we have had a break from that. However, we still have had some good points of cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs, when we discussed pastoral care chaplaincy."

"We are talking about cooperation specifically in the field of pastoral care - be it in welfare institutions, medical institutions or in connection with the pastoral care for Ukrainian war refugees. This cooperation is very active and hopefully will continue in the future."

Archbishop Viilma said he had talked about the churches' energy consumption with Climate Minister Kristen Michal (Reform).

"We have provided data regarding our energy consumption by church. This arose from a meeting with the leadership of the Estonian Council of Churches. The concept is to also consider solar energy, how to heat churches, how to make energy greener and more environmentally friendly when doing so.

This, he said, constitutes a mediating position between the Estonian state and the people.

"It can be seen that the average Estonian is skeptical about these areas. We are ready to be a partner to the state here," Viilma went on.

The EELK has also set up a petition to hold a referendum on whether religious education in Estonia should be made a compulsory, rather than elective, subject in schools.

The Archbishop said the petition has garnered over 700 signatures so far, with the hope of getting a thousand by the end of next month (within the official national online petition environment, if a petition attains 1,000 or more signatures, it is presented to the Riigikogu – ed.).

"Whether this proposal will succeed in the format in which we have set it up is a personal question. We don't insist that it has to succeed in that way," the archbishop said.

However, "It is quite clear that the religious education as it is organized thus far is not sufficient. We cannot talk about religions and churches today only in an historical context. Faith is an actual part of people's everyday lives even today, and talking about faith is not viable solely within the framework of family studies or sociology.

"We can talk about statistics and give a name to the religious denominations present in Estonia. But it is not possible to delve fully into the content via other subjects," he added.

Viilma said he had not as yet met with the minister of education, currently Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200), but claimed that the topic of religious education has been on the desk of every single education minister since Estonia reestablished its independence, in 1991, with the matter also dealt with at committee level.

Nonetheless, he said, the will to resolve the matter is lacking, hence the petition.

The timing also relates to the Israel-Hamas conflict, and also the situation in Ukraine and in particular statements made by Patriarch Kirill, chief of the Russian Orthodox Church. Since the Russian Orthodox Church has a large congregation in Estonia, other church leaders in the country have had to distance themselves from his remarks, Viilma said.

On a practical level, boosted religious education would come from qualified teachers and not from Lutheran pastors "marching into schools," the archbishop added.

Viilma also noted the role the Lutheran Church in Estonia played in the growth in education in the country.

The rest of the interview, available in Estonian here, covered the state of the EELK's attendance nationwide and at present, support for Ukraine, the election of three new EELK bishops and the EELK's participation in next year's Song Festival, to be prefaced by a church choir event in Viljandi in late June.

Estonia does not have an official state church, unlike, for instance, Finland. The EELK has the largest number of Estonian adherents of any single church denomination, though even then this amounts to an estimated less than 20 percent of the populace, a situation Archbishop Viilma is presumably addressing.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera,' reporter Anne Raiste.

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