The Estonian Evengelical Lutheran Church
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Advent Address on 7 December 2023, Tallinn Cathedral

(photo: Toomas Nigola)

Urmas Viilma, Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church

Honourable Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Brothers and Sisters!

Awaiting Christmas with scarred souls

Once again, we have entered the Advent season. We are expectant. We await the birth of the Christ child and the arrival of Christmas. We know that our expectation will be rewarded, as we can sing ‘Silent Night’ in the churches on Christmas Eve before heading home to give presents and enjoy the Christmas food. However, our happiness cannot be complete because the end of our expectation does not end the expectation of those who long for a peaceful Christmas in their homes. There are still places in the world deprived of Christmas peace. As long as there are suffering human beings, the rest of us can never enjoy ultimate serenity or happiness.

For the Ukrainian people, this is the second Christmas in wartime. They do not have peace, not even Christmas peace. Neither is there peace in the Holy Land. On the one side of the separation wall, thousands of Jews mourn for their family and friends who were cruelly killed by Hamas in a terrorist attack, while on the other side Palestinians grieve for those who died in Israel’s punitive and rescue strikes. Surrounded by a high wall, Bethlehem is now particularly yearning for angels so that their song ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased!’ (Luke 2:14) may become true in the town where Jesus was born.

Recalling the recent UN COP28 Climate Conference in Dubai, everyone needs to be reminded that any war destroys creation in a way that surpasses our wildest imagination. War scars the souls of individuals and nations for decades and leaves deep wounds in the natural environment of battlefields.

We need to support our neighbours both in peace and tumult

Even though there is much turmoil around us, we are looking ahead with a longing for peace. A world marred by sin can only have peace when everyone is prepared to be the first to reach out a hand as a sign of reconciliation and peace. Peace begins with us, and we all have an opportunity to sow this peace as peacemakers. One way to secure peace is faithful and consistent service of the neighbour. This is what the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC) does on a daily basis, irrespective of whether we are surrounded by peace or tumult.

An average of 13,800 services are held in Estonian Lutheran congregations each year. This makes 1,150 services per month and 290 services per week. The services of about 15 congregations are broadcast online every Sunday and on major feasts, opening up access for people all over the world. The combined annual attendance of the various events of our church is, on average, from 685,000 to 700,000.

The EELC has 245 clergy members, 52 (21%) of them women. The congregations in Estonia are served by 135 clergy members, whereas 17 clergy members work with Estonian diaspora abroad. Nearly 90 Lutheran clergy members are involved in various chaplaincy services at the Defence League, the Defence Forces, the police and border guard, health and welfare establishments, prisons and schools. 66 clergy members of our church are authorised by the state to register marriages.

The number of salaried lay workers in congregations and in the central administration and agencies of the church is over 400, and they are supported by more than 4,700 volunteers. Thus, some 5,300 individuals have either employment or voluntary work ties with the Estonian Lutheran church. This is comparable to the University of Tartu, officially recognised as Estonia’s largest employer, that employed 5,154 individuals in the past year.

There are 112 musical groups at the congregations of the EELC, and an average of 1,500 concerts are organised annually in church buildings. It means that, based on the data of Statistics Estonia, nearly half of the 3,288 concerts that were held in Estonia in 2022 took place in Lutheran churches. The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and Eesti Kontsert are comparable as concert agencies in terms of size and scope.

An average of 1,100 people are baptised and 850 are confirmed annually in the Lutheran church, there are some 250 marriages and 3,000 funerals. Around 1,300 children participate in children’s activities at congregations, while some 250 young people are involved in youth work.

Church as the flagship of public Christian education

Historically, the Lutheran church has always been closely linked to public education efforts. This is still the case. Our congregations have child day care facilities in Viljandi and Tallinn; kindergartens in Tartu, Põlva and Tallinn; private general education schools in Tallinn (Tallinn Cathedral School founded by the Tallinn Cathedral Congregation); Charles’ School founded by the Tallinn Charles’ Congregation), Tartu (St. Peter’s Lutheran School founded by people from the St. Peter’s Congregation in Tartu) and Põlva (Jacob’s School founded by Põlva St. Mary’s Congregation). An opportunity to acquire Lutheran upper secondary education has been created in Tallinn, while access to higher education at bachelor’s and master’s level is provided by the Institute of Theology in the capital and by its college, the Tartu Academy of Theology.

A concern for Estonian Christians is that unlike in the majority of European countries, most of the 500 municipal and state schools in Estonia do not offer any general education on religion. Some form of religious studies is available in only 14% of our schools and even then, only for a minority of students who choose this as an elective subject at the upper secondary level. Knowledge about religion is offered as part of basic education only in Christian private schools that have a total of 2,700 students in this year. Nearly one third of them, or 850, study at Lutheran schools.

Petition for a referendum

The Consistory of the EELC is in the process of issuing a petition, inviting Estonian people to propose to the Estonian parliament the organisation of a referendum with the following question: Do you support the inclusion of non-confessional religious education among the mandatory subjects in basic and upper secondary schools? This referendum would be modelled after the referendum that took place exactly a century ago, in 1923, and resulted in religious education being reinstated as a mandatory subject in Estonian schools after it had been scrubbed from the curricula a few years earlier. In a situation where people still have a natural religiosity, it is irresponsible to deprive every new generation deliberately of religious knowledge and education as a result of public education policy.

Helping unites

The church always works in a public and yet invisible manner. The word of God is preached in public, but the Bible tells us that we should not advertise our charitable efforts. It is a task of the church to notice the victims of injustice and to focus on those who are suffering and are most in need of help. Nothing unites people more than helping those in need. It drives us to work together. Conversely, trying to assign blame forces people apart and leads to cold ignorance.

In the church, we often experience that helping each other and working for a common cause brings communities together. This happened when we supported and welcomed Ukrainian war refugees, as well as when we collected donations for those in need. In 2022, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church collected over 100, 000 euros of targeted aid for Ukraine, most of which was sent directly to Ukraine through our partner church and the rest was used to support war refugees in Estonia. The support for Ukrainians continues.

It is good to see that, in recent years, Estonians have grown much more willing to do good. The donated amounts are increasing as well. In 2011, the congregations of the EELC collected a total of 4.17 million euros in donations. In an overview of Estonian charities that was recently published in the newspaper Eesti Päevaleht, the congregations of the Estonian Lutheran church together would be ranked fifth among Estonian charitable organisations.

It is also important to mention that 4.76 million euros were spent in the last year on renovation of church buildings and other historical monuments belonging to congregations. It would have been good for our conscience to use these funds to support the core activities of the church, including social and charitable service. Unfortunately, many congregations have to spend most of their efforts on renovation instead of religious, social and charitable work.

I would like to thank all the entrepreneurs who have opened their hearts and wallets to support the renovation of church buildings in many places in Estonia. It is an excellent example to the state in particular, but also to other businesspeople. In recent years, the EELC Support Foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of euros to support restoration of architectural landmarks. In addition to the Tallinn Cathedral, the donations from entrepreneurs have been used for the churches of Kärdla, Pärnu St. Elizabeth’s, Sangaste, Nissi, Muhu, Tartu St. Mary’s, Rannu, Käina, Käsmu, Puhja, Harju-Madise, Paldiski, Jõhvi and Narva Alexander’s. With this year’s Christmas campaign entrepreneurs support the renovation of St. John’s Church in Viljandi. Entrepreneurs are kindly willing to share with others the blessings that they themselves have received. According to an African proverb, you need to empty your hands by giving the things you have to someone else before you can accept something from others. It means that receiving starts from giving.

Estonian language and thought need support both in the West and in the East

The EELC is a global church. In addition to the 169 congregations in Estonia, we have a network of a couple of dozen congregations covering multiple continents. The congregations of the EELC are located in Australia, the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia. In all these places, we provide fellow Estonians with spiritual service in their mother-tongue. Estonian-speaking congregations are diminishing but they need continual care and attention.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has disrupted the traditional communication with Estonian-speaking communities in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. While Eesti Kontsert could not continue organising concerts in St. John’s Church in St. Petersburg, we have been similarly unable to dispatch clergy members to hold Estonian-language services in Russia. We have made every effort to ensure that fellow Estonians on the other side of the eastern border would not feel like they have been forgotten. We have reached an understanding with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria to supplement the agreement between us with a commitment by the church of Ingria to ensure preservation of Estonian language and culture in the St. John’s Church and congregation of St. Petersburg. This will be achieved by maintaining monthly services in Estonian as well as Sunday school lessons, Estonian language courses and the Estonian language club. The church of Ingria also undertakes to continue displaying in the church the items and memorial tablets presenting the history and heritage of Estonians, and to use the Estonian flag at the events for Estonians. The St. Petersburg Society of Estonian Culture and the St. John’s Church Foundation must be able to continue operating in the premises of the St. John’s Church.

International and ecumenical cooperation

In this year, the EELC continued its active involvement in the development of international and ecumenical relations. Notably, Estonia and Tallinn became a focal point of European church life in June when we, in cooperation with the Orthodox Church of Estonia, hosted the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches at the Tallinn Creative Hub. Keynote speakers in this meeting of over 300 European church leaders and representatives, that lasted for almost a week, included Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, German sociologist and writer Hartmut Rosa, former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. As our government politicians were busy making legislative amendments at an ultra-high speed, all Christians in Europe were following this major historical and ecumenical event in Tallinn. Mihhail Kõlvart, the Mayor of Tallinn, was the only invited politician who came to welcome the leaders of European churches, and for that he has our sincere gratitude.

In early summer, the Estonian Council of Churches that was founded in 1989 in the Pühtitsa Convent and represents ten Christian churches in Estonia, made a futile attempt to keep up with the coalition politicians in their ‘rally’ of legislative amendments. The rate of amendments by the coalition made it impossible to explain the necessity of those amendments to the public or to the opposition. There is no doubt that the rushed modifications of the Family Law Act created more divisions in society than anything else in recent years. It is unlikely that the various minorities would have wanted to be used as pawns against each other. In reality, people live in the same Estonia, breathe the same air, believe in the same God, worry and rejoice about the same events in society. We live side by side and with each other.

Obstructionism as suicide of democracy

When interacting with their people, leaders of Estonia behave like a fine-tuned artificial intelligence with its efficient algorithms, fast and sterile style, artificial courtesy and empathy that has no trace of human warmth, sincerity or understanding. But even in this situation, the task of the church is not to fight against the system or the finely programmed algorithms that transform the parliamentary process into a law-adoption machine. Imposing laws without any consideration is also a form of obstructionism, just like the practice of preventing them from being adopted. If hateful speech is restrained with a hateful tone, it can only engender suppressed hatred. Even the Bible tells us that Beelzebub cannot by driven out by Beelzebub. Obstructionism is not the solution to overcome obstructionism. Mutual obstruction by the highest representatives of democracy will ultimately lead to a suicide of democracy.

A time-out is warranted, and it should be initiated by those who have the votes and the power. The influencers of the deep state may give a different advice, but those who are of the Kingdom of God would advise that everyone should admit to their mistakes. Only those who have made mistakes and admitted them will be able to avoid them in the future. They are able to ask for forgiveness in order to move on after having learned from the mistakes. An artificial intelligence is confident that it never makes any mistakes. However, governance of the people cannot be conducted in a similarly robotic manner. There is an abundance of arrogance and a shortage of humility. This should be reversed because, as the Scripture tells us, ‘Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall’ (Prov. 16:18).

Any leader who would like to serve the people should think, first and foremost, about saving the people, not about saving the economy. Even more callous would be to save the economy by exploiting families, the elderly and those with low income. It is important to find a balance. Leaders will be left standing alone if all they do is trying to save the economy. However, if they support those who are in need or at a disadvantage, they find that people come to their aid and are willing to contribute. Leaders who care for the welfare of their people and try to find a political common ground, instead of proving that they are right, are rewarded with public support and respect. Otherwise, public support will melt like a snowflake above a burning candle. We can already see it happening.

Church alongside the people

The church is called to stand alongside the people even in this strange, programmed machine – help people to be born, live and breathe with them and, finally, guide them with dignity into eternity where they are welcomed by Christ the King. If we act as sowers of peace and love, the new year will also become a year of peace for us. The Advent and Christmas season helps us attune our souls to this task.

As we reflect on the Christ child whose birth brought peace and joy into a troubled world, it is my hope this Christmas that the noise of war will be replaced by peace and quiet, and there will be an end to animosity and strife in our beloved Estonia as well.


May you have a blessed start to this Advent season and a peaceful expectation of Christmas!