Ecumenical dialogue: a great experience of a small country

Photo: Maden Trkulja/CEC

By Maksim Hacak

Estonia, a small Baltic country with the population of about 1.3 million people, has made great improvements in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue in the post-Soviet years. We asked the delegates from the Estonian Churches to the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches to describe how it works.

The Rev. Ruudi Leinus, Executive Secretary of the Estonian Council of Churches (ECC), underlines that the organisation was founded in 1989 when Estonia was still part of the USSR. It was the very first organisation of its kind within the whole Soviet empire. The Estonian Council of Churches was founded on the initiative of the Orthodox Metropolitan of Tallinn, Alexy, who would later become Patriarch of Moscow, and who for twenty-five years served on CEC governing bodies.

At present the Estonian Council of Churches includes ten churches: Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Union of Evangelical Christian and Baptist Churches of Estonia, Estonian Methodist Church, Roman Catholic Church, Estonian Christian Pentecostal Church, Estonian Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists Church, Estonian Congregation St. Gregory of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church of Estonia, Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate and Charismatic Episcopal Church of Estonia. All the documents of the ECC have to be approved by all of the member Churches before they are accepted.

The Council has working groups which deal with education (in the schools where religious instruction is offered the curriculum is ecumenical), sociology of religion, chaplaincy (different chaplaincies are being supported by the state, e.g. prison and police chaplaincy). Estonian clergy have the right to register marriages on behalf of the state. The EEC has signed a protocol of intent with the government and co-operates with it on issues of public and religious concern. “That shows the churches and the government have common interests. We meet with different ministers and discuss the issues. At least once a year we meet with the Prime Minister” and continues Ruudi Leinus   “the latest question we managed to solve was medical care for of nuns and monks”.

Estonian Churches call to show hospitality

On the theological level, the Council is studying the matter of baptism in the member churches. CEC has good cooperation with the Estonian Public Broadcasting Company. The series “Temporal and Eternal” has been broadcast on Sundays on Estonian TV for many years, featuring clergy of the member churches. The series mainly focuses on current issues in church and society, as well as presenting Christianity. On Christian festivals and public holidays, Estonian TV often has live broadcasts from worship services. Morning reflections by representatives of the different confessions are included in radio programmes on some public radio stations.

The Estonian Council of Churches has made common statements on burning issues in society (about abortion, the death penalty, before it was abolished, etc.). In 2015 it released a common statement on the attitude towards receiving refugees which condemned all kinds of xenophobia and racism and referred to the Scripture which calls on us to show hospitality (Hebrew 13:1-3; Matthew 25:35, etc.). The statement also called for the creation of platforms for dialogue which could help dispel the fears of people and appealed to the refugees to show willingness to integrate into Estonian society.

There are also bilateral initiatives taking place, partly outside the direct work of the Estonian Council of Churches and in part with its support. In 2007-2012, a bilateral theological dialogue was carried out between the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church of Estonia. At the Theological Institute of the Lutheran Church there is also an Orthodox Chair and several future or present Orthodox clergy are studying at the theological faculty of this Institute, which is owned by the Lutheran church. In 2017 a joint conference was organized by the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church, in connection with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

More joint practical initiatives…

“In my view, there could be more joint practical initiatives, also in the field of advocacy. This however is something where the churches partly still need to grow into themselves as well”, says the Rev. Anne Burghardt from the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, who has worked for several years for the Lutheran World Federation.

She emphasises that during the Soviet period “the churches were for several decades pushed into a “niche” and were basically kept away from every kind of social engagement”. As a result of that faith and religion were “privatised” and Estonian churches now operate in a largely secular society, where more than 50% believe in “some sort of a higher power” and slightly less than 20% in a personal God.

“The churches have to deal with the question how to communicate Christian faith to people who lack elementary Christian vocabulary. The fact that there is no state church and all churches have gone through hard times of Communism has tied churches closer together. All churches have to continue to reflect on their role in society, to see how to actually best serve the neighbour. Churches could also more strongly communicate their message of peace and reconciliation, e.g. through including peace-building in theological curriculum etc. It’s also time to encounter populism and forces that are striving towards bigger fragmentation. However, for this the churches need to address fear which is often the driving force for this kind of development. Through offering hope and sharing the liberating perspective of the gospel we can diminish fear”, underlines Rev. Anne Burghardt.

…And more theological dialogue

Metropolitan Stephanos of Tallinn and All Estonia from the Orthodox Church of Estonia agrees that “in this moment, ecumenical dialogue in Estonia is positive. We have good relations between the Churches. The level of friendship and dialogue is good”, he says.

However, he thinks that the Churches need to have both more theological and more spiritual discussions. “The most important is that we can stand in the position of friendship. For other things, it is difficult. We have common meetings, common prayers, common discussions, but this is at a very simple level. We need to have more theological dialogue”, the Metropolitan underlines.

Ruudi Leinus thinks that “The main challenge to our churches is the same as that of the CEC General Assembly – to be the witnesses of Christ in the world. Our agreements and examples should tell that. Unfortunately, people are thinking less and less about the eternal. We are still sowing, and hope that there will be fruits”.

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