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All have sinned

Vastne EELK peapiiskop Urmas Viilma (vasakul) ütles eile, et ehkki eestlased on muutunud üsna usuleigeks, on meie hoiakud pigem kirikusõbralikud. PHOTO: Liis Treimann

The freshly elected Lutheran archbishop Urmas Viilma is a man of conservative views believing a homosexual cannot preach in pulpit. 

Who needs an archbishop in the Estonia of today or whose archbishop do you wish to be?

The Estonian Lutheran church has been a people’s church, the majority church of Estonian-speaking Christendom so one may say the Lutheran archbishop is the archbishop of all the people, the Estonian-speaking people. Even so, the voice of the archbishop needs to also sound as the voice of the entire Christendom and not of the Lutherans only. I am very happy, and this needs to surely be emphasised, that in Estonia it is not only Estonians who are Christians, but we have a very large community of Russian-speaking Christians. These two large people’s groups are connected and, speaking generally about the whole subject of integration in Estonia – whether it has succeeded or not – both Lutherans and the [Russian – edit] Orthodox are active church members who have always gotten along well and been in fellowship. And that’s no small thing.

Sure! In other words, if otherwise the two communities cannot be united, the church will come help?

Yes. Estonian Council of Churches has always expressed its stands as one. Christians in Estonia sit – if at all we must draw a frontline – in the same room, breathe the same air and think quite the same. This is of utmost importance considering how small is the percentage of active Christians in society. Well it is not so small actually but it is attempted to be shown as smaller, but in reality Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) indeed is the largest community, a reflection of civil society.  

While Census said over 100,000 consider themselves Lutherans, only 31,000 donate to the church. Is that an important sign and should one try to change that?

That’s an interesting subject. Often, I have here heard comparisons with political parties: I once belonged to a party and when one year I failed to pay the party membership fee, they still kept me on the list. Today, the Lutheran church’s donating members counting methodology will no longer count a person as donating member if one year they forgot the donation. Which will not mean that they are no longer members of the church. The church sends no bills.

As every four-five years we count the tens or hundreds of thousands of singers and listeners at the Song Festivals, we think of ourselves as a singing nation. A couple of years ago, a newspaper poll found out half the Estonian population said they attended church at Advent or Christmas time. To the tune of half a million! And Christmas comes every year, unlike Song Festivals. Let me be frank, talking to people I sense no animosity towards the church. True, there are large numbers of such as have been baptised and have not paid church membership fee, but there is no animosity – rather, the attitudes in Estonians are church-friendly. 

Is it some great achievement that we have no animosity towards the church, or are we just so lukewarm?

An achievement is what is strived for. The church, you see, is not striving to be popular. That’s not the church style. Our aim is to be there. I really liked what Eesti Energia (EE) chief Sandor Liive said regarding the ampere fee being important so EE can bring the electricity to the switch. So that the instant you need to press the switch, the electricity is there. Not that they will, as the need arises, start putting up the power lines. The church is something like that. With festivities or grief happening in our lives, we always find the church. But it needs to be there in-between, not needed as if in the everydayness of life.

No need for the blinking beckoning lights, which would rather come across as pressure?

Yes, characteristically to Estonians they want to decide for themselves when they darken the church door. It’s up to us to keep the church open. That the church be there, even in places where there’s no longer a bank, a post office, a grocery store, where the school is closed down, and the bank bus stops kilometres away. But the church is still there. There is a lot to do, and in a more contemporary key, but that will not mean the church should change its teachings.

Will the church still be «there» after the church reform, primarily pressuring the small congregations?

The church is where the people are. Where the congregation is. Buildings, churches are important, but what makes them to be churches is the congregation, the people. Today, the state administrative reform is going from grassroots up i.e. it is the communes who desire to merge who are doing so, and increasingly the local governments assume the former [larger – edit] measurements. If a building is left standing alone and the people have left for the cities or gone abroad, it is not the church’s fault if was left empty. Rather, it’s the bigger picture. With a sacral building left empty, it’s also state interest to see to its status as cultural and architectural heritage. Today, we feel no such co-responsibility from the state.

How did the Narva Alexander’s Church become a place of business? What do you see as a solution to that?

It’s a mess at the moment and let’s say – this is a fire we will need to start putting out.

Talking about dogmas: do you support ordination of women, lady ministers, also gay ministers? Will you rather opt for the Latvian way where women and sexual minorities are out of the question, or the Finnish way which shrinks not back from ladies and gays in pulpits?

We have had lady ministers in our churches since 1967 and they will continue to do so. What will be the definite ordination policy, I cannot tell today. Obviously, even when I lack personal conviction or certainly regarding, let’s say, the ordination of women, I will herewith trust the church – the archbishop also a tool for the latter. Meaning with a decision taken in 1967 and has not been reviewed, I have no rights to question these decisions or change them. What matters is not the gender of the person, but whether he or she is ready for the job, or whether it is evident he or she is making progress in it. I myself do not think I am ready to be archbishop today, and this is a credit of trust towards me. It is the archbishop’s task to assess abilities, dedication, God’s call for the work, the motives. I promise with these issues not to look at the gender, rather on the essentials.

If gender is not decisive, then how do you look at homosexual ministers? 

Homosexuality did exist in the Bible days, why else would the Bible talk about it. The issue is what is sin and can we even talk about a person’s sexuality if he lives in celibacy or has no sexual life. And herein also lies the answer: when a person is ordained as a minister and he is married, which today is only possible between a man and a woman, then he is a married minister. If he is not married, then it makes no difference whether he is a heterosexual of homosexual, as we assume that that a minister may only be married or celibate. And whether a person feels attracted to the same or opposite sex, that’s up to his perception, but the issue is putting it to practice. And any kind of extra-marital cohabitation is unbefitting for a minister.

What will happen should the state someday arrive at same-sex marriage?

Then the church will need to clearly redefine itself. Today, in EELK, a practicing homosexual minister has no place in pulpit. We clearly interpret the Bible to say that practicing homosexuality is sin. Meanwhile, we may not forget that it is also sin not to keep the Sabbath, to commit adultery, to steal. These are all sin and we all sin. And this, actually, is the message of the church that we all have sinned but are in need of God’s love. Not just the homosexuals, but we all are equal in God’s eyes an welcome in church.

As archbishop, will you be an active voice in issues in the society? Like with the cohabitation act that split the society – would you have interfered?

I’d indeed see myself as a voice. Whether it’s always liked... but it is not the church’s business to always be liked. It is the church’s business to preach Christianity and the Word of Christ, but, yes, I’d like to be a voice. And I wish I’d have the skill and God’s wisdom not to always confront. That would jam up the relations. One needs to try to understand. But, at the same time, I expect us – the church – to be understood.

Today it’s a month since the school shooting in Viljandi Why did that happen, how to find comfort?  

With school shootings, there are the nations where they have stopped counting. What happened in Estonia and what personally disturbed me was, actually, that we said «the first». Perhaps we ought to have stressed it was «our only case of school shooting» or that «we now have a case of school shooting». But we immediately started counting...

The case is a huge tragedy. Not an accident – turned out, it was planned – but still an extremely tragic case. And not to those alone who are grieving for their teacher, a mother, a wife, but a tragedy also for the family who also lost a member and are now having to rethink how to relate to their son. This is a very tragic case where it is wrong to start with seeking the culprit. Sure, before the law the procedures need to be adhered to, but from the society’s point of view, there are certain things nobody is immune to. And these are very tragic cases. In moments like these, we need to strive towards healing, restoration, caring. We need to be there for all these people.