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No obvious option for Lutheran archbishop

Andres Põder oli EELK peapiiskop kümme aastat. PHOTO: Martin Ilustrumm

Tomorrow and the day after, Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church is picking itself a new archbishop to replace Andres Põder (65), at helm for a decade and released from duty last Saturday.

The church council composed of 57 ministers and laymen will be making its selection out of four candidates. Up until last week there was a fifth one; however, the older generation preacher at Tartu St Paul’s Joel Luhamets opted not to run.

Of the remaining four, three – Ove Sander, Marko Tiitus and Urmas Viilma – are a bit over forty. Tiit Salumäe is over 60. When choosing from among the younger ones, EELK may get itself an archbishop for over 20 years for, once in office, the head may be in place till he turns 65. Even so, the term at office may be lengthened by the church council – meaning that if Mr Salumäe is picked, he may last longer at office than just some few years.  

Since spring, the candidates set up by 12 deaneries have held active electoral debates in congregations, deaneries and media. They’ve kept it quiet in tone, there have been no sharp differences.

A conservative and liberals

Talking to church folks, they admit all candidates are fitting for the post. Very generally, the men are divided in church circles into conservatives and liberals. Mr Viilma is seen to be conservative, as is Mr Luhamets now not running. The rest are seen as rather the liberal kind. From the outside, the lines are somewhat blurred as, by nature, the church is rather a conservative organisation by nature.

Mr Viilma, due to former posts held, has been seen as frontrunner – head of the consistory and teacher at Tallinn Toomkirik congregation. That’s the church an archbishop always ministers at. To characterise the man, people us the word pragmatic.

A strength for Mr Sander may be his position at the EELK Institute of Theology, a rector of it these past years. Also, he is the only one running owning a Doctor’s degree. Lots of scorch council members are his students.

Mr Sander is spoken of as the American style preacher – for leisure, he dons his leather and rides a motorcycle while markedly a holy man.

Mr Sander’s chances aren’t thought to be too great, while Mr Luhamets’ stepping back might hand him an edge – provided the church council isn’t after a younger leader.

While the others have been or are at present in church council, Viljandi’s minister Marko Tiitus is a total newcomer, never been at the top before. Still, as a teacher, he has his disciples among the younger ministers.

The winner no-one is prone to predict. Looking back, they point to the last election but one when after round one Einar Soone seemed to be winning while, after night time lobbying, the tables turned to favour Jaan Kiivit.

Largest ASBL in Estonia

One faith seems to be shared by all, however – in round one, none will pocket two thirds of the votes so the archbishop will be picked from the two top ones the next day. Who these would be, no-one hastens to predict.

Whoever gets elected, he will inevitably face the question of how to maintain the 167 churches while the congregations keep shrinking. And the consistory – the church central government – is since this year having to make it by own money, no longer supported by affiliate churches in Finland and Germany as in many years past. 

According to Mr Tiitus, the church must not hang onto the buildings. «A church is a body of people and working with people ought to be priority,» he said. «If it is no longer possible to keep the buildings, mostly built in Middle Ages and 19th century to the backdrop of rural lifestyle and social relations altogether different, the church should not bury its last euros into the roofs and the ceilings. If needed, the church must have the courage to say: we can preach the gospel elsewhere as well.»

When discussing the emptyish buildings, both Mr Tiitus and other candidates arrived at society’s responsibility for historic heritage.

As admitted by Mr Salumäe, never before have Estonia’s church buildings been in a better shape than after the last two decades’ work. «The land has become somewhat empty, but should we remove also the church – what will be left?» he asked, rhetorically.

According to Mr Viilma, Estonia has no other non-profit civil organisation unfunded by the state and with a membership so stable – EELK churches covering the whole land. «This is a potential network of volunteers whom local governments and the state might involve without false shame and fear,» he said.

According to Mr Sander, the church’s presence carries a grander message: life is possible even in the smallest nooks and crannies of Estonia. «This is a challenge to well-balanced demographic development, wherein the state has surely underestimated the partnership of the church,» he claimed critically.

Narva knocking on conscience

Talking about the now bankrupt Narva Alexander’s Cathedral, all candidates were sorry it had come to this and thought selling the church – half restored largely by state aid – the last thing to do. The all conceded it is otherwise with other assets of the congregation. All envision the state needs to step in, in addition to the congregation and consistory.

«Let’s not forget the congregation alone would not have undertaken to restore the building, if the state had not named it a priority next to St John’s in St Petersburg, to be restored by state help and financial assistance,» noted Mr Viilma. «For that, a joint foundation was established by the state and the church.»

«This is a vital and significant object to the entire Estonian state,» underlined Mr Sander.

At any rate, the Narva church will be a first for the new archbishop to tackle.

Election procedure

  • EELK archbishop is elected by a 57 member church council.
  • The church council is elected by deaneries every four years.
  • Archbishops are not elected after definite intervals, rather when the one in office turns 65 and does not apply or is not asked by church council to apply for extra time.
  • The archbishop gets elected by two thirds of votes.
  • The last elections date back ten years.

Source: Postimees

EELK in numbers

  • 167 congregations in Estonia, plus close to 50 abroad.
  • 160,000 members including 2,500 children and youth.
  • 212 ministers, 169 men and 43 women.
  • 2013 saw 1,997 people baptised, 1,514 confirmed, 307 couples wed, 2,824 people buried. Communion was served to 143,895, church services amounted to 16,000.
  • Of EELK buildings, about 157 churches, chapels and houses of prayer 157 are under state protection, as well as most of the 112 pastorates.

Source: EELK