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The USA Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Synods
Discussed the Need to Review the Unification Voting
Ocean Grove, New Jersey's - May 17, 2011 - Airi Vaga
For the third time, the USA Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Deanery congregation representatives, gathered for a joint Synod. The organiser this year was the USA First Synod Deanery headed by Dean Thomas Vaga. The location the Dean chose was a 200-year-old town named Ocean Grove on the famous New Jersey shore. The town upholds morally Methodist-Christian traditions.
The meetings were held at the Majestic Hotel in Ocean Grove. Photos by TR
The small manor-type hotel was sufficient for the Synod since the number of churches participating, declines every year. During the last view years, two Estonian congregations in the USA have ended their activities and some congregations have become so small, that they were not able to send a representative to attend this year's meetings.
Together with the USA Chicago Deanery's Dean Udo Tari, Dean Thomas Vaga chaired the combined meeting. They began with a prayer followed by greetings from church representatives. A memorial was held for Archbishop Udo Petersoo, the anniversary of whose passing landed exactly on the opening day of the Synod.
Greetings were presented from the new Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Abroad Diocese Bishop Andres Taul and, from Estonia, the EELK Archbishop Andres Põder who happened to be here visiting the USA's Baltimore Maryland Synod. Copies of Eesti Elu newspapers were distributed to tables, wherein church articles and historical materials concerning the church unification process appeared on several pages.
Dean Vaga introduced E.E.L.K. Vancouver St. Peter's congregation minister Valter Johanson's project which had been meant for presentation. It concerned the church Agenda's updates and opportunities for printing.
Interesting was Dean Vaga's presentation regarding the confessional church or independent church history in Estonia. First, the Dean remarked that according to his understanding, there seems to be a desire to erase and remove the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church's (Eesti Evangeeliumi Luteri Usu Kiriku - E.E.L.K.) name from the present, future and past. He brought an example from the recently published Estonian Church Calendar (Eesti Kiriku Kalendrist), where, for example, the USA's oldest congregation's name "Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Lexington Avenue" (Eesti Evangeeliumi Luteri Usu Lexington Ave kogudus) in New York, has been replaced with "New York Lexington Avenue congregation" (New Yorgi Lexington Avenue kogudus). Also, it is reputed that the Lutheran church's unification has resulted in the disappearance of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran (Eesti Evangeeliumi Luteri Usu) name which changed to Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (Eesti Evangeelseks Luterlikuks kirikuks). [Translation note: There is no difference in the English translation of the name.]
A second example presented by the Dean was Archbishop Põder's letter dated April 21st of this year, in which he states that those congregations who did not join [the EELK] will be considered as having ended their activities and their current ministers will lose their "clerical rights". "The Church's hierarchical authority has thereby set itself as the one to control a congregation's existence and the creator and liquidator of a minister's rights" noted the Dean.
As a third example, the Dean used the recent publication of opus magnum "Estonian Republic 90, Events and Development" (Eesti Vabariik 90, sündmused ja arengud) in which the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church's activities and major events of the churches and congregations over 60 years in exile, were set aside. The Dean affirmed to the gathered church representatives and guests that "we have not been destined to be erased or to become extinct nor are we on such a path". When the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (Eesti Evangeeliumi Luteri Usu) congregations were established in exile, this was done as a temporary measure, since there was hope of returning to our homeland. This, however, did not happen. We here on the North American continent, "must continue a free Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church comprised of congregations forming a people's church". He brought as an example the "Free Synod" form wherein a "congregation is itself the church's archbishop" as was written in 1925 during Estonia's independence by Pastor Harald Põld. The Dean stressed also that during the refugee generations, members of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church established with their own initiative, irrespective of the occupied Estonian Lutheran church, congregations all over the western world. The presentation received favourable applause from the listeners. The presentation will be available in its entirety on the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Congregations League website.
The homeland's Evangelical Lutheran church's representative Chancellor Viilma responded that there are definitely errors in such publications and corrections in new prints thereof will be attempted to be made. He advised that during the writing and compilation of Estonia's 90-year history book, no information was asked from the church and that the book is the responsibility of the Estonian government.
The Dean gave time for discussion and this was used indeed. Fred Ise defended enthusiastically the unification of the churches using many opportunities to speak and tried to plead with the listeners that we are "indebted" to the homeland Lutheran churches which, during difficult times, kept alive church activities. Here the author would have hoped, that Fred Ise would also have given credit to the tens of ministers and hundreds of congregation members who, upon arriving in a strange country, in the midst of a foreign language, in a foreign culture and without outside support, established congregations, kept alive Lutheran Church traditional church services and Estonian preaching. The Archbishop Konrad Veem, now deceased, in writing about his field of work said: "This has always been and will remain a thankless job which has been a 'rocky field' to plow."
Attending the Synod was a large contingency from E.E.L.K. Toronto Saint Andrews Church. It was particularly joyful to hear its past Chairman, Tõnu Orav, who worked with the called to eternity Pastor and Archbishop Udo Petersoo for over 25 years. When Pastor Petersoo was elected as the minister for St. Andrews, Tõnu Orav was the congregation's chairman and when Udo Petersoo was elected as Archbishop, he asked Tõnu Orav to be a member of his Consistory. Tõnu Orav recalled, "We organized sending Bibles to Estonia. We helped with political and ecclesiastical pressure and found ways to support Estonian freedom fighters." After regaining its republic, there was a plan to begin negotiating with the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (Eesti Evangeelse Luterliku Kirikuga - EELK). Discussions lasted many years and were always friendly. "Meetings took place in Sweden, Estonia and even onboard a ship. One meeting was on the 'Estonia' ship and another was scheduled for two weeks after its perishing. That meeting finally took place on dry land in Estonia." Preliminary agreements were reached, which the E.E.L.K. church body affirmed. In Estonia, these agreements were not presented to its church body and they disappeared from the agenda. We know what happened. Archbishop Petersoo hoped to create close co-operation with the Estonian church with the following thought: "We will support each other to solve common problems." This cooperation lasted many years, wherein our Consistory sent one of our Consistory members to Estonia to keep a continuous contact with the Estonian church. Archbishop Petersoo's hope was to bring the Lutheran Church here and the Lutheran Church working in Estonia closer to one another, to create a program to support the education of ministers in Estonia thereby assuring, that our congregations in exile have an opportunity to get ministers speaking our mother-tongue. "Some might today say that Udo was not able to achieve and complete his program. Udo died an untimely death and in the midst of work he loved", said Tõnu Orav with sadness. He continued, "Udo's principle was that the work of the Consistory is public and must be transparent. We did not have secrets and we solved problems avoiding conflicts. This he achieved and this will be forever his contribution to our church."
The Deaneries held their meetings separately and these were intended only for the Deanery's congregational representatives, although at the joint meeting one more question arose concerning the church body vote results [regarding unification]. Why have they not been fully published and did the counting of which use impartial scrutineers? Like Bishop Andres Taul affirmed at the meeting, Bishop Taul, along with his elected Consistory members, were the ones who counted the votes.
Tõnu Orav had asked, who were the scrutineers at the last voting process? Were these scrutineers impartial or had they previously promised to support church unification? Can these scrutineers now affirm, that all votes arrived on time, all votes were properly presented by their congregational executives who had made such [vote] decision at a proper executive meeting (without the congregation's pastor applying influence and pressure)? Why has this information been kept completely secret till now and why aren't Consistory members, who should be aware of this, been put under oath that this information cannot be disclosed? Why did it take such a long time until the voting results were disclosed? He asked also what kind of agreements have been made with Archbishop Andres Põder prior to and after the voting and also prior to Andres Taul's Archbishop installation service?
Tõnu Orav and Dean Uudo Tari confirmed that the E.E.L.K. bylaws foresee, that the only way that an Archbishop leaves from his position is through death or by personal wish to leave (30.7). The same document does not give any opportunity to change the position to which he has been elected. On what basis did our elected Archbishop abandon his Archbishop title when he had clearly only been elected therefor?
"Today, public opinion is very important. If we calculate the numbers of congregation members who voted in favour and those that voted against, then I am sure that the majority of our congregations' members were against unification. Why did our elected Archbishop not take the time to discover what the people wanted in this matter and then set a course in harmony therewith or at least attempt to find a future path in favour of the majority? Why has Bishop Andres Taul taken such an unpopular route, which might drastically divide the lives of our churches, especially now, when we really need growth? I myself, and I also know that many others, have completely lost confidence in the actions of this Consistory. This is the work of the church and it must be transparent. The situation has now gone so far, that the only route to take is three steps backward and still there remain many unanswered questions," ended Tõnu Orav.
Tõnu Orav next turned to Archbishop Andres Põder, who was also attending the meeting, and asked if he and the Estonian Consistory were prepared to have some kind of a working relationship with those congregations who are not joining the homeland Evangelical Lutheran Church and decide to create their own congregational League. There was no clear answer to his question. It was explained, however, how much it costs to maintain the Theological Institute in Estonia, where church ministers receive Christian education as compared to the Tartu University theological faculty, which teaches many religious histories and values. Minister training in the US was also compared, although we know very well how much is needed to be invested in our youth for schooling.
Dean Uudo Tari added, that he, as a member of the Consistory, was forced to swear to promise to work toward church unification, which is in conflict with his ordination oath wherein he promised to serve his congregation and its needs. He noted that the church situation is confused. He affirmed that he as a cleric is impartial and that his assignment is to serve his congregation with the Lord's Word.
Receiving heartfelt applause from the listeners, Gilda Karu noted that we are required to witness for Jesus Christ and direct those around us to learn about Christ.
The foremost decision of the meeting, however, was the creation of a church body vote investigation committee, to whom were elected unanimously: Heino Nurmberg from Los Angeles, Sven Roosild from New York, Tõnu Orav and Jüri Silmberg from Toronto. Bishop Andres Taul agreed to the investigation, however, did not know how to respond concerning what his Consistory would think.
An interesting synopsis was presented by Pastor Leevi Reinaru from Estonia explaining the needs and activities of EELK mission work. The presentation was meant to be digital, but under the circumstances, it was not financially possible to rent an appropriate projector. As a result, the presentation was distributed to the listeners in written format.
The intensive program and partially stressful day ended with a joint communion service by Deans Uudo Tari and Thomas Vaga.
The Synod's final church service took place the next day, Sunday May 15th, at The Holy Ghost Estonian Church in Lakewood, at which the following participated: Deans and Ministers Jüri Pallo and Markus Vaga, as well as Deacon Kalju Ets reading from the Bible. The liturgy was presented by Pastor Jüri Pallo, with the sermon being presented by Pastor Markus Vaga. Prayers were said by Dean Uudo Tari and the blessing by Dean Thomas Vaga. E.E.L.K. Archbishops and Deans that had served the Deanery's congregations and had now passed on were commemorated. The Holy Spirit was palpably present at this simple service promising the sustainability of our church.
Accommodated at Ocean Grove and strongly professing the church unification at the Synod, the EELK Archbishop Andres Põder together with his wife, Bishop Andres Taul together with his wife, Chancellor Urmas Viilma together with his wife and daughter, Pastor Arho Tuhkru and Fred Ise together with his wife, as well as the USA Chicago Deanery's Assistant-Dean Hendrik Laur together with his wife, did not participate in Sunday's Estonian church service held at Lakewood.
The church service was followed by a luncheon for church representatives and guests organized by the Deanery. Lunch was prepared by Ülle Saluri with the help of her husband Peep. Noteworthy is that starting from the bread, all food prepared was the handiwork of Ülle.
It had been a blessed joint Synod and church service.
Informal Translation by TR
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