Christmas interview with Archbishop Urmas Viilma

Archbishop Urmas Viilma, head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK).
Archbishop Urmas Viilma, head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK). Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR.

Archbishop Urmas Viilma has been head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) for four years, ample experience to draw on his reflections on the church, the largest denomination in the country by attendance.

Meeting him at his consistory office on Toompea in the shadow of the landmark St. Mary's Cathedral, more commonly known as the Dome Church (Estonian: Toomkirik), one can't but help get a sense of mystique, of the chequered history that the institution, and its buildings exude.

Arguably the 'national' church, with traditions stretching back through Estonia's struggles for independence and bearing the brunt of the anti-church stance of the Soviet Union, the EELK's role and position often gets clouded by the oft-repeated claim that Estonia is the ''least religious country in Europe'', so it was seasonally appropriate to get the Archbishop's thoughts on this and other current topics facing society in Estonia and beyond.

A physically imposing presence, sharing the same rigorous command of the English language many of his contemporaries in politics and business display (''I like to speak a lot'', he says – an interviewer's dream, in fact, as it means things should take care of themselves), one could be fooled into thinking Archbishop Viilma was almost to the manse born. But nothing could be further from the truth.

''I didn't grow up in a Christian family,'' he says. Being born in 1973, the same year as the interviewer, this is not unusual since Estonia was in the depths of the Soviet era at that time and with little to no hope of radical change, or so it would have seemed.

''My family was fairly typical for the times – my father worked in a factory, my mother as a bookkeeper for a socialist-style 'company'. I grew up in Saue, a small town just outside Tallinn, where there wasn't even a parish church. I reached my teens without even seeing the inside of a church, in fact, and there was no common thread of the church, or Christianity, or God, in our family whatsoever''.

Leap of faith

How, then, could he possibly have made the leap from a wholly secularised lifestyle to one with a religious calling? The clue is again in the times he was living in, which were changing as he approached school-leaving age.

''I had my first encounters with believers in the late 1980s during the period of the Singing Revolution [the series of events which culminated in full Estonian independence in 1991-ed.]. At that time, newspapers and other publications started to write the real history of Estonia, and I came to notice that the church played a pivotal role even at the beginning of the drive for independence.

The Estonian national awakening took place through the course of the second half of the nineteenth century, as it did in many other parts of Europe. The Lutheran church was a lynchpin organisation, significant in the field of education and literacy as well as social organisation and spiritual direction. Folklorist Jakob Hurt, for example, one of the primary movers in the national awakening, was a Lutheran pastor.

''As topics like cultural history started appearing in school curricula, this also raised awareness. As it happened, the pastor from nearby Keila was also teaching at the school I attended. I soon came to realise there was this kind of parallel world I hadn't known about before where people believed in the existence of God – a question I had never asked myself''.

A certain calling

''When the summer vacation rolled around, I asked if there were any summer jobs going, for instance doing maintenance work in a churchyard, and I ended up working at the church in Keila over two summers, which gave me the chance just to look at what was going on there''.

''After that, I decided to make some kind of deal with myself that 'let's live and comprehend things as if God does exist' and continue on that premise,'' Archbishop Viilma continues, invoking the famous wager of Blaise Pascal.*

''By the 11th grade at Gümnaasium (upper school) I had become certain I wanted to study to be a pastor, but had no idea whether that was possible in Estonia at that time. In fact, as it turned out, even during the Soviet era there had been something of an underground seminary operating, not officially recognised by the authorities of course, so once I finished school I went straight to the theological seminary in Tallinn. This was the oldest private university in Estonia, founded in 1946 after the faculty at the University of Tartu was closed following the Soviet Occupation. It issue a master's degree, and most pastors from that time would have passed through its doors. The degree was recognised internationally, even as it naturally would not have been in Soviet Estonia and the Soviet Union as a whole''.

An Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in exile was also founded around this time, of which more later.

Daily duties

''Since being ordained, I have served two congregations, one rural, then five years in Tallinn. My predecessor as Archbishop was the Dean of Pärnu, and I was his Vice Dean. He invited me to assist him at the consistory building after being elected Archbishop''.

''I wouldn't say I have a typical day as such. An archbishop is a person who leads public affairs, as well as international affairs and relations, internal and external meetings, conferences and more. It's almost rolling, from a state perspective, the president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament all into one function. Don't forget that the Archbishop, as head of church governance, is as much an institution as a person''.

St. Mary's Lutheran Cathedral in Tallinn, more commonly known as the Dome Church (Toomkirik). Source: Toomas Huik/Postimees/Scanpix.

Speaking of politics, ecumenism – the forging of better relations between different church traditions – is high on the Archbishop's list of priorities, something which calls to mind the greater openness which the late 1980s brought to Estonia.

''There is a Council of Churches** established here, and we meet on a monthly basis and have got to know each other personally. Part of the commonality is being a minority, as religious people, in society here which together makes us more equal and irons out any differences we might have. There is no dominant church, nor dominant political ethos, say liberalism v conservatism, and this unity serves to maintain stability. We try to find doctrinal things which unite, rather than divide us, and this requirement has caused us to reach out in interfaith dialogue with other faiths, such as there are in Estonia. Whilst there is not as wide a spectrum of different religions in Estonia as is the case in other parts of the world, we have very cordial relations with the chief Imam, and the Rabbi of Estonia as well''.

The meaning of Christmas

This is neatly appropriate, given the time of year. But what does Christmas mean, in the 21st Century?

''What is its meaning for whom? For Christians, the meaning hasn't changed. But for Estonians not so church-oriented, but who still like to attend at Christmas time, the message remains the same: Love, the need to underline a private relationship with god which doesn't hinge on nationality or ethnicity, or the religious beliefs of majority of population where you live. 'God sent his only son personally, because of me', is the overriding message. One needs to find this 'personal Jesus', and thus God's love very personal''.

''Peace is also the clear desire. With all the recent pressures with the upcoming elections in Estonia, political instability in the world, and all the conflicting messages and provocations we hear, it's difficult to understand, who do we need to believe? Who is 'right'?''.

Recent controversy surrounding Estonia's likely adoption of the principles of the UN's Global Compact on Migration, which led to a government split (even now more band-aided than healed) as well as bitter divisions within wider society in Estonia and beyond, must be foremost in the Archbishop's mind.

''We always need to see the person who needs help as just that, a person. Being for or against the compact is rather more taking things to a universal level. Again, we need to see the person. To hold back everyone from migrating, will hinder those who actually need to move due to reasons of war, political oppression and other privations, but conversely, by saying anyone and everyone can freely move around will end up with a situation where those who don't really need to can become migrants. So we at the Church are neither pro or contra the compact, for instance, even though some have criticised us from both sides''.

''At heart, this is a question of conscience; we need to trust our consciences, which are God-given. If we do what our heart truly tells us, we are generally heading in the right direction''.

Lutheranism and Estonians

Estonians are nonetheless famed for their claims of not, as a nation, holding to any religious practices, observance, or belief in a deity, unlike the Lithuanians, say, for whom Catholicism is an integral part of the national identity. How do people like that follow their consciences?

''As noted, the Estonian national awakening and early drive for independence had a religious and Lutheran component, which no longer seems to be a part of the national psyche in the same way. Nonetheless, there is a positive side to this. I like the fact that in this sense Estonians are honest. They do not call themselves Lutherans if they are not, and you don't get the kind of nominalism you can get just 80 km to the north (ie. in Finland, which has a Lutheran state church) where that can happen. There, and in similar places, you can find people who are exactly the same kind of secular-minded individuals that we have in Estonia, but they nonetheless call themselves Lutheran, which is not strictly true''.

Archbishop Viilma showing President Kaljulaid around the Dome Church in December. Source: President's Office.

''Obviously the President is a busy woman and can hardly be expected at church every Sunday morning in any case, but I'm very happy that she has attended some services [most notably on the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence in February-ed.]. Regardless of anything else and her stance on the church, perhaps seeming like a cultural Lutheran without believing in anything, she is doing institutionally nothing less than what the church would desire, as head of state; she demonstrates respect towards believers, most importantly, irrespective of her own beliefs and this I like, and can't say anything negative''.

Lack of belief a Soviet hangover?

With the broader population, is it possible that the claims of non-belief simply derive from the (avowedly atheist) Soviet system and are thus a hangover? Or in the broader picture, the secularism in Europe which has been institutional, going back at least as far as the 19th century. with thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx,† even before the horrors of the 20th century unfolded? And in any case, who are people trying to convince when they make that claim? Themselves?

''Well the claim is an easy way out of a difficult question, but at the same time, the context is still different here, compared with other countries. The statistics [on belief] are not necessarily inaccurate, but they are often incomparable. For instance, if you pop your head round the door of a church on a Sunday morning in Tallinn, and do the same in Helsinki or Stockholm or Copenhagen, the picture would be about the same – in fact attendances might often be lower in the latter cases. Yet the statistics for the Scandinavian countries paint a picture that would suggest much higher attendance rates than Estonia. How is this so? The Scandinavian countries have state churches, whereas Estonia doesn't,‡ [often people in the Scandinavian countries are de facto a part of the state church, including having to pay church taxes, unless they opt out, something which happened en masse in Finland some years ago on the issue of same-sex marriage-ed.] whereas in Estonia, church membership and donations to the church is purely voluntary''.

''That said, there is no reason to think that the bulk of those who don't choose to attend or join any church or other religious group are automatically atheists. Every five years, Tartu University's Faculty of Theology in conjunction with the Estonian council of Churches and SAAR POLL research company conducts research on 'life and faith'; the most recent data (from 2015) gave a figure of just 7% who stated they were atheists. So the 'gap', between that 7% and approximately the one third of the population who do declare some sort of religious belief, membership or attendance, actually makes up the greater part of the population, and many of these 'in between' people, agnostics you might say, simply don't know how to identify themselves. They might go to church at Christmas and Easter and for weddings, baptisms and funerals, but it is easier to identify themselves as 'not being' rather than 'being' ''.

''Moreover, many of these 'lost' people still express some form of a grasp of the transcendental, as evidenced by the popularity of things like crystal healing, horoscopes, nature worship and other esoterica''.

Importance of education

Another key factor in religious belief, or otherwise, in Estonia, we touched on at the beginning when Archbishop Viilma's CV revealed he only became aware of Estonia's Christian or Lutheran heritage once it was no longer a taboo topic in education.

''Whilst Estonia is one of the few countries in Europe – France is another – where church and state are truly separated [something of a clarion call for many leaders of the Protestant reformation including, to an extent, Martin Luther himself as well as, ironically, many atheists active on social media today-ed.]. The difference is, whilst France managed the full Church/State separation [not thanks to the Reformation; a strong counter-Reformation in the late 16th/early 17th centuries there swung France back into the Roman Catholic camp. It was the revolution of 1789 onwards which rang the changes so far as the churches' position went-ed.], the Church there is quite strong. However, in Estonia, with around 500 state schools, there are only around 60-70 which have some form of religious education''.

Stained glass window in Wiesloch Church, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, featuring Martin Luther (L) and one of the other leading reformers, Jean Calvin (R) Source: Wikimedia Commons.

''In short, reliable information on religion – not Christianity, but all religions and beliefs is sorely lacking. This is particularly poignant in the case of a country which performs very strongly internationally in education, with very high PISA assessment scores [second only to Finland-ed.]. However, this education is based on the knowledge of facts, and it seems noone wants to take a punt on other fields, including that of religious studies. I simply can't understand that- getting a well-rounded education in all areas regardless of your beliefs is much more valuable than a narrow, fact-based education, yet after 27 years of freedom we are still at that stage''.

A gap in the market

''I have meetings sometimes at the government ministries with various, well-educated and well-qualified specialists round the table, yet when we get on to the topic of religion and beliefs, they are almost too afraid to speak since they don't even have the correct language to address the issue. They are no doubt great specialists in a wide range of areas, but in this one they are quite frankly illiterate. There is a religious illiteracy in Estonia which is quite complete, yet you only encounter it privately, or in some settings. Officially it's obscured by the high PISA scores''.

''Another problem in the Estonian context is the void left when functions formerly performed by the church, for instance hospitals or charities, which have not been filled following the command economy of the Soviet union and then the liberal, competitive, free market. Whereas in some European and other countries, you get hints at the role of the church by the fact that hospitals are often called 'St. such and such', here that is not the case''.

''Whereas the church is in 'competition' with the private sector in many areas, the latter ahs the advantage of having more money at its disposal and also maintaining that by catering to the people who can pay (as in the case of private healthcare and nursing homes, for instance)''.

''Whilst society and states are becoming more secular, against the backdrop of increasing globalisation, people are bring their own cultural and religious heritages to many other places around the world, leading to a more multi-faceted, multi-religious world''.

Questions of identity

This gives us the opportunity to note that, in spite of all their many differences, Christians, Jews and Muslims are all theists. Does this not put them all on the one 'side', as it were, lined up against the modern naturalist materialist or atheist?

''In some ways yes, but still there are issues cropping up coming from all different directions. One Anglican Bishop related to me how a Muslim woman living in England, probably in a multicultural city like London, had nevertheless found it difficult to relate to the host population of to find a common theme, given that people in a suit and tie could be anything – you can't see who they really are. This compares with, say, a Sikh or a Muslim, who are easier to identify simply because of dress if nothing else''.

''In Estonia, we don't have that of course, identifying ourselves instead via language and nationality, but it's easy to forget that in some African countries, for instance, there might be dozens of different languages and ethnic groups, but a common religion, be it Christianity or Islam, can still bind them together''.

So much for the issues, but what are the solutions to some of these questions of identity, religious belief or non-belief, and so on.

''As recently as 2010 a change in the law concerning private schools facilitated religious education and soon some single-faith schools were accordingly founded: Three Lutheran, two Roman Catholic and two Orthodox. But the fact still remains, in the last quarter of a century we've been producing people with no religious or beliefs knowledge or consistent world-view in that regard, and now in fact the second generation is coming along – the first one has already got their studies under their belt, started working, and started having families. Many of them are active leaders in politics, business and other areas of society. So clearly this can be rectified only by the state following those private schools' examples. With the increase in global population mobility, this is all the more pressing as we may play host to people from other parts of the world who hold to religious beliefs and who thus we need to be able to comprehend on some level''.

This generational 'tension' is also exemplified by the Archbishop himself. When he stood for election to the role (see below) he was one of three younger candidates in their early 40s. The others were already coming up to retirement age.

Churches' charitable works

On to more immediate practicalities. Archbishop Viilma has spoken a lot about the need to help the poor and disadvantaged. At this time of year in particular, what should an ordinary person who wants to volunteer do, within the framework of the EELK?

''All voluntary activities are based at the congregational level, so you'd simply need to visit the closest congregation (see here) and ask them. If they aren't actively engaging in these types of projects, they will certainly be able to point you in the right direction, most probably to a neighbouring congregation. There are also many pan-congregational, not to mention cross-denominational, voluntary activities.

''We get some outside criticism for not doing enough, which ties in with what I was saying earlier about being in 'competition' with other organisations, charities etc., but in actual fact we have programs running at all times. Many of the congregations' good works are directed at one particular sector, mirroring the function of the church in former times in providing palliative care, shelter, education and the like. For instance some congregations are focussed on a school or kindergarten; with others it might be working with street children, orphanages, or senior citizens, which takes up the bulk of their attention. We also have departments within the church structure dealing with different areas such as people with disabilities, both physical and intellectual, the diaconate department and more''.

The EELK is organised along national lines, but, as mentioned above, also has an international dimension, largely arising from historical factors. It is also a part of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) of churches as well as the Porvoo Communion, which includes the Church of England amongst its members.

Church organisation

''We have three dioceses in Estonia (Tallinn and Northern, Western, Southern), each with its own Bishop. This in turn is subdivided into 12 Deaneries in Estonia, so slightly fewer than the number of Counties (15). These hold annual synods who put up candidates for election where needed. For instance, when I became Archbishop, a total of five candidates were proposed for the role, with a first election followed by a second round run-off between two remaining candidates''.

''Then there is the diaspora. After the Soviet occupation, settled congregations spread wherever exiled Estonian communities became established worldwide. In 2010, these were reunited under the EELK umbrella, and there are currently about 30 congregations outside Estonia in places such as Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, Baltimore, Portland, Seattle and Chicago in the US, and in Sweden and Finland, Germany and England, Latvia and Lithuania, Russia, including in Moscow and St. Petersburg but also in Siberia, even in Australia''.

''The make-up of these congregations is both those 'old' communities dating back to the postwar period, as well as the recently established communities from the past couple of decades with younger Estonians who have emigrated. For instance, there is a congregation in Brussels for Estonians living and working there, largely connected with the EU of course. These two generations don't always meld together easily so it's partly my responsibility to deal with relations there. Of course, the principle language of services is Estonian, though local languages can creep in. Once the main language ceases to be Estonian, however, the whole raison d'être of that congregation would be lost, since people would often be able to find suitable congregations amongst the host country's own churches. I am also Vice President of the LWF's central and eastern region so have duties related with that''.

''That man of perdition''‡†

Finally, Pope Francis visited Estonia in September and was seemingly very well received. Given that October 2017 was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the reformation, the date on which Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the church door at Wittemberg, Germany, and the many tough things he subsequently wrote about the Pope of the time, not to mention, towards the end of his life, the Jews as well as some comments on Muhammed, how does this square with welcoming the current pontiff in the spirit of ecumenism which the Archbishop champions?

''We have to see that reformation did not take part solely in the newly founded Lutheran church, but Luther's reformation also led the Catholic Church along a new path in some ways itself. The Church of Rome has evolved a lot in the past 500 years, and not just the Protestant churches''.

Pope Francis in Vabaduse Väljak in September, where he led Mass during his visit to Estonia. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR.

''The Pope was welcomed first and foremost as a person, and a warm and nice person, just as we need to look at the person behind the refugee statistic. IT would however be difficult to compare that person with doctrinal teachings of the local churches. He was coming here with a fresh pair of eyes to a place where critical people say that the church is in some ways still in the 19th century. But nobody took the doctrine of the Catholic church and compared it with for instance many things such as its stance on contraception, divorced persons. This was primarily visit of a great person, it was a historic visit, and perhaps first time that Francis had led a mass for 10,000 people where maybe only a third present were actually Catholics. Nevertheless it was a great visit and a successful one. I'm glad the critics were few and far between, as it showed Estonia in a good light, and it wouldn't have been the time or the place to focus on historical or theological differences''.

Are we part of the culture or aren't we?

''In the wake of his visit, the local Lutheran Church was also put on a pedestal with the Catholic Church; even I was compared with the Pope as a leader, which is not a very good comparison. I am not on the same plane as the Pope, it is a different role''.

Isn't there, then, a case to be made for the Estonian national identity to be a Lutheran identity, with or without a state church along the lines of the Nordic countries?

''In a way, yes. But hearing politicians saying we are living in a Christian or Protestant of Lutheran cultural background, the question that springs to my mind is this: is it related to belief, or is it simply a cultural phenomenon. Are we, the EELK, part of the Estonian culture or not, and if so, why, or why not? These are questions which still need answering''.

 – –

* Which, very simply put, implies that the cost of being wrong about a negative belief in God is infinitely worse than being wrong about a positive belief in his existence.

** The principal established churches in Estonia, in addition to the EELK, are the Roman Catholic Church and the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which is organisationally under protection of the Constantinople Patriarchy. The Estonian Orthodox Church (ie. Russian Orthodox) is under the aegis of the Moscow Patriarchy. There are also many other smaller churches in Estonia including Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations.

†Or the 18th Century with Hume for that matter.

‡ Enshrined in §40 of the Estonian constitution, the section which also guarantees religious freedoms.

‡† The man, or son, of perdition, is the English rendering of a phrase which first appears in John' Gospel 17:12, and also Paul's Letter to the Thessalonians 2:3, to describe the Anti-Christ, a figure traditionally depicted not so much as the Devil, as a figure in his employ in some sense, who occupies Christ's throne (as mentioned in Revelation 20:11 for instance) close to the end of days. Many of the Protestant reformers identified the Pope, either in his personhood at the time they were writing, or the office, as such a figure. This is evidenced for instance in the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, section 4 which calls the Pope ''... that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ''. Please note this text, itself derived from the earlier 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, the roadmap for the newly formed Presbyterian system of church governance, is not a Lutheran tract. Luther's 95 theses of 1517 were not an attempt to 'start a reformation', his more unequivocal writings came later, but rather a challenge to a debate on what he saw as clerical malpractices of the day, most notably the selling of indulgences. Luther himself was an Augustinian monk at that time.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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