Church Congress on the 100th jubilee of the EELC, 27 May 2017, St. Paul’s Church, Tartu
Urmas Viilma, Archbishop of the EELC
Honoured participants in the Church Congress, dear guests, friends
Our own church
We are celebrating a century of ‘our own church’. The notion ‘our own’ needs further elaboration and context. We can say that transforming the Lutheran nobility church into ‘our own church’ was one of the main goals in 1917 after the church had been present in this land for more than 700 years and had also been recast by the events of the Reformation.
In the spring of 1917, the most burning issue for nationally-minded Estonian clergy was to get rid of the patronage of manor lords in rural areas and of the rights of town councils in the cities. The prominent national thinker and church visionary Villem Reiman (1861-1917) was the first who made specific proposals, in five articles published in 1905 in the newspaper Postimees, for general reorganisation of church life to “transform the church of pastors and masters into a people’s church” . In his opinion, the political authority of the German nobility over church was a crime against the gospel. According to Reiman, congregation, i.e., church members or people, was supposed to become the new foundation of church organisation. In this way, the words ‘our own church’ were understood by those who attended the Church Congress in Tartu 100 years ago as the church of Estonian people. This is also the reason why representatives of German congregations did not assemble in Tartu. However, half of the attending clergy members were still Baltic-German pastors who mostly spoke the local language and served Estonian congregations.
The first Church Congress was a congress of Estonian church people. As the social atmosphere of 1917 was saturated with revolutionary ideas, we could call the congress in Tartu also a revolutionary event, because it was not a legitimate assembly according to the church law of the time. It was a major assembly rallied as a grassroots initiative by twelve industrious men (Wilhem (Villem) Gottfried Eisenschmidt, Arnold Laur, Heinrich (Henrik) Koppel, Arnold Habicht, Leopold Raudkepp, Eduard Aule, Jaak Varik, Alexander (Aleksander) Kapp, Jakob Kukk, Johan Kõpp, Jaan Lattik, Bernhard Steinberg)  – ten clergy and two lay members who wrote their names in history. More than 300 people in total participated in the congress. The attendance figures were clearly higher than anticipated by the organisers, as can be seen from the fact that the place of the meeting was changed twice. The first meeting gathered on 31 May in the assembly hall of Hugo Treffner Gymnasium but was moved to the Science School in the afternoon due to the shortage of air and space. The meeting on the second day of the congress, 1 June, then gathered in the hall of the Vanemuine theatre building .
The historical significance of the Church Congress as the founding event of the Estonian free people’s church, liberated from the state’s patronage, became apparent after a while, in connection with the second Church Congress in September 1919 when the fundamental decisions adopted by the first assembly started to be implemented in practice. Johan Kõpp, subsequent Bishop of the EELC and Archbishop of the Estonian church in exile, formulated the church’s organisational ideal in his speech to the Church Congress as follows: “In the future the church’s organisation and activity can and must create a feeling in Estonian people that this is our own church” . Efforts to realise this ideal were launched immediately. The Church Congress passed the first reading of the church statutes and adopted a declaration consisting of five statements .
We see the declaration of the first Church Congress as the birth certificate of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is why we have agreed to count the years of independence of our church from that Church Congress. And who else but us could decide the moment, which we consider as the birthday of our own church.
Declaration of the Church Congress of 1917
The Church Congress of 1917 voted separately on five fundamental statements of the declaration:
- The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church is a free people’s church in the motherland and settlements;
- Everyone who has not given notice of their secession from congregation shall be a member of the church;
- The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran free people’s church shall establish contacts with the state administration as far as possible;
- Members of all ethnic groups, who wish to do so, may become full members of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran people’s church and the church shall protect:
- the religious interests of ethnic minorities;
- their rights in church government on the basis of a proportional system;
- The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran free people’s church shall establish synodal contacts with other evangelical churches in the Russian state.
The five statements of the declaration highlight the main characteristics of the free people’s church as approved by the Church Congress:
- The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church as a free church. In the modern context, the term ‘free churches’ refers to independent evangelical protestant congregations that are close to Calvinist or Reformed churches in terms of doctrine and way of life. In Estonia, this type of denominationalism is represented by the Baptists and the free churches. One hundred years ago, freedom was not a denominational identifier but referred to independence from state authorities and from the patronage of the nobility. This included the right to autonomous self-government for congregations as well as for the central church administration. The new statutes prevented any interference of the state or manor lords in the life of the liberated people’s church and its congregations. Despite the return to an episcopal polity model, combined with a desire to elect a local bishop to lead the church, the participants of the Church Congress did not want to go back to the state church model of the Swedish period, when the leader of the church was appointed or approved by the state. The Estonian church was envisaged as a free church where members, i.e., congregations, elect their own clergy and other church leaders are elected by synodal meetings at various levels. Johan Kõpp, who served as an important spokesperson for the Church Congress, has later defined the free church in terms of church policy as a church that is independent from the state and self-governing, as opposed to a state or land church.  Thus the EELC was established a century ago as a free church with an episcopal-synodal polity, but it did not mean that the church dissociated itself from the sate. The separation of the state and the church meant separate governance, not mutual rejection. Establishment of contacts with the state administration of the time in order to ensure legitimacy of the newly independent church was a point of vote in the congress and it was approved. Thus it was seen as natural that the state authorities and the church would continue to cooperate and that the church’s existence would be governed by the laws of the sate.
- The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church as a people’s church. Throughout the previous century, in fact even from the middle of the 19th century, there have been various traits, which have been suggested as characteristic features of a people’s church. For Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, the people’s church liberated from the sate’s patronage was a church where Christians speaking the same language and belonging to the same nation constitute a church communion (Kirchengemeinschaft) . Konrad Veem, later Archbishop of the Estonian church in exile, defined the people’s church as a church that includes the majority of the population as members.  According to the declaration of the Church Congress, everyone who did not give notice of their secession from their congregation was a member of the people’s church. Membership in the people’s church is based on baptism and secession requires a personal application. According to Johan Kõpp, the concept of a people’s church does not necessarily demand that all people belong to the same denomination, even though it would have certain advantages, but that those people who have assembled in a particular church are seen as a reflection of the people as a whole, not as separate segments. 
- The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church as a church of different ethnic groups. The Church Congress in Tartu chose a different path from, for instance, Latvia that established two separate dioceses, one for Latvian and the other for German congregations, with their bishops elected from the respective ethnic groups 10]. In Estonia, different ethnic groups and Lutheran ethnic minorities, such as Swedes and Germans, established their own deaneries within the church, but not separate dioceses. The declared principles – that members of all ethnic groups may be full members of the people’s church, their interests must be protected and they have the right to participate in governing the church based on the principle of proportionality – ensured that the EELC remained united. We know from history that this did not resolve all tensions between ethnic groups, mainly between Baltic Germans and Estonians, in the organisation of church life, and instead culminated in 1925 with a rather unseemly interference of the government, at the request of the Consistory of the EELC, to expropriate and nationalise the Tallinn Cathedral from a German congregation .
- The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church as an interterritorial church. Voluntary resettlement, as well as displacement and deportation by the tsarist regime, had resulted in a situation where there were several Estonian settlements in Russia, far beyond the border of the Estonian National Governorate established in 1917 or the state border of the Republic of Estonia as specified in the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920. August Nigol, pastor of the Estonian congregation in Helsinki and the first martyr who fell victim to the red terror (he was killed in Perm on 16 August 1918)  wrote in his book, published in 1918, that an estimated 250,000 Estonians lived outside Estonia in 318 Estonian settlements from the St. Petersburg Governorate to China and Mongolia . Some delegates from Estonian settlements in Russia also attended the Church Congress  and, therefore, it was only natural that the congress included in its first declaration a statement about the wider reach of the people’s church to include Estonian settlement in the world. The largest community of Estonians lived in St. Petersburg (50,000 Estonians), followed by large settlements in Siberia (40,000 inhabitants), Latvia (25,000), Moscow (8,000), etc. 
- The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church as an ecumenical partner The final statement in the declaration of the Church Congress affirmed that the new church was willing to cooperate and be in communion with other evangelical churches in Russia, which were expected to emerge after the Russian Provisional Government implements its plan to separate the church from the state. The plan envisaged the creation of independent free churches, based on ethnic origin, on Russian territory .
Reality of the people’s church
As we analyse the statements formulated a century ago and observe them in their own time and context, we can see that these were ambitious, as well as honest and bold, principles. The statements focused on issues that were most crucial at that moment in time – reorganisation of church life in the recently established Estonian National Governorate as part of the Russian state. We do not find in these five statements references to debates about the doctrine or foundations of the church. However, doctrinal issues were actually discussed during the reading of the draft statutes, but an overview of those debates is beyond the scope of this presentation. Furthermore, the Church Congress did not formulate the church’s role in society in greater detail, bar the idea of a free people’s church. They probably did not feel the need to repeat the duties of each clergy member, parish clerk, congregation steward or church warden. A century ago it was most likely impossible to picture a situation where members of the people’s church can decide to not be members of any church, which has become a sad reality one hundred years later. This freedom to secede from the church was given to everyone, but nobody could foresee that one day the people’s church will continue to work with the people, but the people will live and work without the church. It is a one-sided relationship, or unrequited love. The period between the two world wars was probably too short for the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church to become truly our own church for Estonian people. Many congregations continued to employ German pastors for a long time. Thus they still symbolically represented the mentality of a nobility church, even though these clergy members served their people in the best sense of the word. The unfriendliness of the left-wing political parties towards the church in the first years of the Republic of Estonia was also an important factor for the relations between the church and the state. Tensions were increased by the land reform of the Republic of Estonia and nationalisation of congregation lands without compensation, which deprived congregations of income and possibility to pay salaries to clergy members and other workers.
The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church was established at the Church Congress of 1917 as a free people’s church and has continued to work as such during the productive period between the two world wars, as well as through difficult times in an occupied Estonia that was often hostile to the church, and as refugees in exile in other parts of the world.
Present and future of the people’s church
Today we have once again assembled in Tartu as a Church Congress. As the organisation of our church is now in a much better state than a century ago, when the church required identification and structuring, we do not need to make any declarations about the self-organisation of the church. However, we would like in this jubilee congress to adopt once again five statements to formulate the mission of the EELC as the Estonian free people’s church in our present-day secular society.
In the concluding part of my presentation, I would like to express some thoughts about the five points in the declaration of this jubilee congress, which will hopefully be approved this afternoon by the delegates of the congress. These five statements are an attempt to give new meaning to the role of the EELC as a free people’s church in present-day Estonian society.
Declaration of the Church Congress of 2017
- The service of the church is for all Estonian people. The free people’s church is a free and public church in the gospel. Like our predecessors at the time of founding the free people’s church, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, celebrating its 100th anniversary, carries out a mission, which originates from and centres on the gospel of crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. This gospel liberates and comforts us, encourages us and brings us joy. We see the gospel as the source of the church’s public identity and, therefore, we emphasise the missionary and ministerial orientation of the church to serve the community, our people, and the entire humanity reconciled through the cross of Christ.
The orientation of the church to Estonian people can be seen as a return to the idea of a national church, which was also considered by the first Church Congress. However, it is not what it means. The Christocentric proclamation and ministry through word and sacraments must be brought by the church to all members of Estonian society. We could never aspire to perform this crucial task without relying on Christ and placing our hope in Him. However, this is what we as a church are called for – to proclaim the gospel to all people while drawing strength from the gospel ourselves. More specifically, this refers to all members of our society who are within our missionary remit, be they children or adolescents, adults or elderly, men or women, Estonians or Russians, liberals or conservatives, nationalists or socialists, entrepreneurs or officials, scientists or students, citizens or immigrants… Estonia has not been a Christian land for a long time. Our state is secular in its constitution, but many people thirst for spiritual nourishment. The mission of the church is to offer this nourishment in such a manner and such language that is comprehensible and can reach as many people as possible. This is what we as a church have to learn in the future!
- The church bears a shared responsibility for Estonian people and culture. The free people’s church is a matter of shared public responsibility of all members. The church is one of the pillars of our identity and community and a carrier of education and cultural heritage. Our shared task of proclamation and ministry is directed to the community as a whole – people in urban and rural areas. The church constitutes a living bond between the gospel, our history and the present day. In this way we are also involved in the preservation and development of Estonian language and culture. We consider it important to participate in social debates about the future of Estonian people and the long-term goals and values of our society.
Church is a part of culture, while simultaneously being one of its creators and developers. The Estonian free people’s church is a carrier of the 500-year heritage of the Reformation and the popular Catholicism that preceded the Reformation; it is a creator of identity for Estonian Christians and an important contributor to a diversely rich local culture. Estonian traditional culture and landscape architecture, spoken and written language, early songs and poems, classical art and literature, song festivals and parish days, organ and choir traditions – these are all parts of our Christian heritage culture, which is continually created in a close relationship with the church. The character of Estonian people was shaped by the Lutheran people’s church, even though many people may choose to deny this in their self-conceit. The Estonian free people’s church will continue to play a role in the preservation of our land, nation and language, and sustainability of our culture. This is particularly true in rural areas, but definitely also in the cities.
- The church participates in social discussions on religion and worldviews. The free people’s church differentiates between communal life based on faith and conscience and the societal political matters. As the free people’s church, we live in a society of diverse worldviews and religions. Any attempts to ignore the significance and social impact of various guiding beliefs, or to regard them as a merely private matter, have proven to be short-sighted. It is important to bear public witness to religious and worldview convictions and to hold discussions about and between them. As the free people’s church, our mission is to profess and interpret Christian faith in a public dialogue.
Proclamation of the gospel and profession of Christian faith in word and deed always take place in the public sphere as far as the church is concerned. It is not something for the private realm; it is a public matter. We get the courage to do this from Christ and it is backed in society by freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia. Speaking publicly on behalf of the church and representing the Christian worldview in society is not an option, but an obligation for the church. Every Christian can decide to speak publicly about their faith or not, to profess it in public or not, but the church is required to proclaim the gospel and to make itself heard in society. It is not a matter of choice. In performing this mission, the church supports people in their personal faith and life, while offering increasing encouragement for public profession of life as a Christian.
- The church serves society through social ministry and pastoral care. The free people’s church has social responsibility. The church as a communion of believers is centred around the worship service – our appeal to the shared and public gospel in word and sacrament. Our communion is based on the renewing and reconciling power of God’s love. It encourages us to look at the surrounding creation and all fellow human beings through eyes of love and, in particular, to notice, comfort and support those who are weak, ailing, in distress or excluded. The church must help them to make their voice heard. Speaking up for social justice, peace and care for creation is a part of what it means to be a church and to be a Christian.
The church’s social ministry must be characterised by an awareness of and engagement with the whole. This could be a whole person with all their basic physical and mental needs, spiritual hunger and fear, which is a consistent companion for modern people. This whole also includes the environment surrounding people at home and in the public sphere. The church’s role is to care for the environment, draw attention to wastefulness and support sustainable ways of life as an alternative to an ultra-materialistic life model. Personal and environmental healing can occur through repentance by serving each other in love. The creation was given to human beings to rule and take responsibility for from the moment when God finished His creation. For a Christian, the commandment to love your neighbour is the unconditional golden rule of faithful action.
- Our free people’s church is a part of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Estonian free people’s church is in communion with and works together with other churches in Estonia, Europe and the entire world. Our church is a member of several church communions, characterised by full mutual recognition, and has established close bilateral relations with a number of sister churches. We attach great importance to ecumenical cooperation with other churches in Estonia and in the world. Joint witness and ministry provides an opportunity and an essential responsibility to participate in the development of our shared European and global living environment.
As the Estonian free people’s church, we do not work alone but confess Christ and serve our neighbour together with other churches and denominations that belong to the Christ’s Church in Estonia and elsewhere in the world. It means continued joint efforts to understand differences, ensure mutual profession and recognition, and identify and increase the common ground between churches. Ecumenical cooperation and church communion have been the characteristic features of our church throughout the century of the people’s church. This life in communion with other churches will continue in the future.
While the notion of a people’s church was interpreted a century ago in terms of the majority of people being members of the church, we now need to reinterpret ourselves in order to continue as a people’s church to work for the ideal formulated at the first Church Congress by Johan Kõpp – to create a feeling in Estonian people that this is our own church .
A few months ago, I expressed some thoughts about the anniversary of the Estonian free people’s church in the newspaper Eesti Kirik: The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church is still the only church in Estonia that perceives itself as being in the service of all Estonian people – that it is the church of all people! Our status as the people’s church is not based on the number of donating members and not even the number of baptised members, but rather on the total number of people in Estonia who are served by our church and who need the message of the gospel. As an Estonian church, we are not only a people’s church but also a national church and, therefore, we are inevitably mainly focused on the Estonian-speaking population, in the same vein as the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia gives a special status to Estonian language, culture and people.Neither the Estonian nation state nor the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church as a free people’s church would exist without national self-awareness.  Thus, even a century after the first Church Congress, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church continues to exist as the Estonian free people’s church, our own church. Nobody has relieved us of our mission or of the people who we are called and empowered to serve.
To end my presentation, I would like to quote Johan Kõpp one last time: The people’s church is closely connected to the people, to their life and fate, their yearnings and desires, their aspirations and life needs; it has in principle and in reality, in its organisation and action, an organic bond with the people; it is a promoter of the people’s spiritual, intellectual and moral life in the sense and direction of comprehensive development and success of the people. 
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