Honourable Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Sisters and Brothers!
I greet you in the beginning of this Advent Season with a verse of Scripture which speaks of the Christmas-child as the long expected King who was to be born: „Lo your king comes to you righteous and having salvation!” (Zechariah 9:9). People always wait and desire the times of crisis to pass and hope for a better future. Surely we find ourselves today in the midst of such a time and the longing for peace joins the Advent proclamation of a better tomorrow.
Today’s Advent meditation here in this church and at the reception following for our partners and friends is a tradition begun by my predecessor, Archbishop Andres Põder. In his Advent speech, the Archbishop analyses social processes and expresses his message to the society at the end of the calendar year.
A transition of generations
Just over a year ago Archbishop Andres Põder entered into retirement and the church parliament, the General Synod on November 26th, 2014, elected a new leader and archbishop for the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Following my consecration, which was ten months ago, many changes have taken place in our church. After many centuries Tartu and Haapsalu are again episcopal cities. On St. George’s Day, April 23rd, I consecrated two new bishops. The new Consistory, that is, the governing body administering this church, has a new face: For the first time two women are among the members of the Consistory and the whole Consistory now consists of younger members. I hope that with this transition in generations our church has a more contemporary face in its relation to society without having to compromise the timeless message and teaching of the Church.
Road signs in the life of the Church
The life of the church has continued in a positive rhythm while facing new challenges which are related to the migration of peoples. I am not so worried about the village where the people have left for the city or have gone abroad; resulting in the local church building to stand empty. This is more a question of how to deal with the protection of architectural heritage. The task of the church is to work with people. I worry therefore more about the urbanization and growth of the population in communities where there is no church presence. Fortunately, Lutheran congregations have been formed or are in formation in Tallinn in Mustamäe and Lasnamäe, in Saku commune and Saue city. In Mustamäe and Saku village, the local government is involved in the preparations for the construction of a church building.
For those Estonian compatriots who have emigrated, we need to organize services in the mother-tongue. Here we hope for close co-operation with the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as with our embassies – as it has already taken place in Brussels. Also in a positive light one can mention Moscow, Petersburg and London. How to serve those thousands of Estonians living and working in Finland is a major question. Fortunately, Estonian children who are educated in Finnish schools learn to know Christianity and have a contact with the Finnish Lutheran Church. In this aspect children in Estonia are in not such a good position. Some relief is offered by Christian private schools. Today in Estonia there are already nine private Christian schools with about two thousand students.
None of the three Lutheran schools has a lack of students. I hope that the state and local governments will come to an agreement and seek ways to financially support the continued work of private schools. I am glad that the City of Tallinn values the special needs of students and parents with different world views and has promised to support besides schools for students with special needs also Christian schools.
We are a society that is under stress and broken. Families fall apart, the traditional family life is not valued any more. It is a challenge to hold families together. In such a society, the institution of the family needs support. I am glad to see the positive work that the EELC Family Centre is doing in co-operation with local governments and government ministries in relation to helping to deal with family breakup as well as domestic violence and to help bring about healing. Our family workers have also taken on the task of protecting children, which is a much more complicated task. Everyone has a responsible position in the family be it the father, mother or child. Our task is to achieve and guarantee the wellbeing, security and happiness of the family as a tiny model of the society.
Religious life: in time and development
At a time when much discussion is taking place in society about secularization, the religiosity of people is ever more noticed. Estonians according to legend are thought to be the least religious in Europe. Yet statistical studies show us something else. This past spring according to SAAR-POLL study „Life, Belief and Religious Practice 2015“, we see a decline in the number of atheists from 13% to 9%. One third of Estonians believe in God and three-quarters of the people believe in higher powers. We are a very religious people! True it is that about only one quarter of the population belongs to the church and so with this picture we predict the European and Nordic decline for Protestant Churches. Our present picture is the future of those churches. Yet the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church is the largest organization, in terms of donating members, in Estonia, outnumbering the Estonian Defence League, trade unions and even membership of political parties combined.
This misconception of Estonia as being non-religious has meant that many Estonians are embarrassed by their fore-fathers’ and -mothers’ faith. It is not fashionable in Estonia to be a believing Christian. On our ancestors graves we light candles, remembering victims of terror we stand in mourning, during Advent and Christmas we attend church – Estonians don’t believe that this is Christianity. Naturally it is! The tragedy of Estonia is that despite our Christian roots, our state holidays which are church festivals, the living of a life comparable to the average European Christian – we do not understand this to be part of Christian life and culture. Estonia is one of the few European nations where it is possible to go through the educational system from kindergarten to the completion of university where a young person is not educated in terms or religion or faith. From nearly 550 Estonian schools according to the Ministry of Education and Research, only 57 municipal or state schools have for some classes one or two courses on religion for the entire time of study.
We need soon to be ready to receive refugees many of whom are Christians or Muslims. We need to create for them a supporting environment for their religious-cultural needs while at the same time introducing to them our culture, our traditions and our religion. Yet our people do not know how to do this because this subject is foreign to them. Everything that is foreign creates fear and is avoided. I believe that this is the cause of the xenophobia that we are accused of having. When our new generation born in freedom finish their education without religious education and have been taught to deny and be embarrassed about their Christian background and traditions; then as a nation and people can we in the longer perspective be successful in a multicultural and multi-religious society? In order to be tolerant of the other and care for the other and respect their values, honour their culture and faith, we first of all need to profess who we ourselves are. We have to witness to the fact, without embarrassment, that Estonia is a Christian nation and in Estonia live Christians. We need as Christians to come out of the closet!
The Land of Mary 800
This past year for Christians in Estonia has been a year of remembering; because we have just celebrated 800 years since Estonian lands were dedicated to the Virgin Mary by Pope Innocent III in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council. We have marked this jubilee year recognizing that at least for eight centuries there has been an organized church presence here. I am often amazed that 150 years of the song festival tradition and nearly 500 years of Estonian as a written mother tongue eclipse our 800 years of Christian heritage. Yet it has been our Christian and often our Lutheran-protestant world view that has been the source for printing, writing and reading, architecture and art, sung and instrumental music, school and community culture. It seems to me that here in Estonia we are embarrassed by our Christian roots. At the same time people in Estonia speak about European values as about something that could be European without a Christian history, culture or value system. A tree whose roots are cut and is planted in a new ground will not live, as fruitful as the new ground may be.
Hospitality as a Christian Value
Estonia in terms of its social organization is secular while at the same time being rooted in Christian culture, thus being a Christian nation. We should not forget this especially now as we embark to welcome immigrants from other cultures and religions in our midst. Showing hospitality, helping those who are in need and expressing the love of neighbour toward all people are Christian values from which have derived European values. Let us name these as Christian values without hiding them in the shadow of a seemingly more neutral term. I am convinced that even for a Muslim, it would be easier to understand us if we speak of Christian values rather than speaking of abstract and general European values. I am glad that the Estonian government, especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Social Protection, have seen in the reception of refugees as a partner the EELC as well as other Christian churches in Estonia. This kind of co-operation between church and state as equal partners is natural in the rest of Europe and is openly recognized as for instance in Germany or the Nordic States. Examples of church-state co-operation can be found in the North, South, West and East. The more vulnerable and under stress a society is, the weaker one’s security, the more the church should be involved as a partner in social work.
Estonia is a Christian nation where active co-operation between different denominations takes place in brotherly spirit and is thus an example for all of Europe. We celebrated the „Land of Mary 800“ together with the ten member churches of the Estonian Council of Churches. Naturally, Mary ties us most with the Roman Catholics and Orthodox Churches. Good ecumenical relations are expressed in the co-operative work with the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church’s opening the orthodox chair of studies at the EELC Theological Institute, numerous events together with the Roman Catholic Church during this jubilee year as well as just two weeks ago at the Tartu University a two day sociological conference on the theme „Land of Mary – with Historical Knowledge from Yesterday to Tomorrow” where the Baptists and other protestant churches actively participated. Ecumenical work has brought under its umbrella Christian schools and their owners, the Lutheran Church, Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate and Free Churches. Active co-operation between churches reaching out toward the future has taken place in a secular and ever more materialistic nation while at the same time in the midst of a society yearning for religious meaning. This has placed Estonia ahead of many old European nations and churches.
Looking ahead at the next few years we will have several jubilees to celebrate together. Before the Republic of Estonia will celebrate 100 years as a nation, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church will celebrate 100 years as an independent church body while at the same time marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in the year 2017. These dates give us an opportunity to work together on an ecumenical, state as well as societal level. We can speak more about these things next year.
I thank all of you who have accepted my invitation to today’s Advent meditation and I wish you a beautiful Advent Season, peace in your heart and soul and God’s bountiful blessings!