The Estonian Evengelical Lutheran Church
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Advent reflection – Homily of Archbishop Urmas Viilma on 30 November 2017 in Tallinn Cathedral

Honourable Eminences and Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear sisters and brothers!


I welcome you all on this pre-advent evening with the reading designated for St Andrew’s Day, a celebration that the folk tradition has borrowed from the church calendar –  Psalm 145 verses 3, 4, and 5:

Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
    his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation commends your works to another;
    they tell of your mighty acts.
They speak of the glorious splendour of your majesty—
    and I will meditate on your wonderful works.

Behind us is an eventful year filled with the air of jubilee, which has been an appropriate and worthy introduction to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Estonia next year. The reasons for looking back with thankful hearts are many, the testimony to closeness of God’s grace, God’s help and blessings in our undertakings as a nation and as a church, as the whole society.

Jubilees of Jubilarians

The slightly elder sister of the Estonian nation is the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church which in this closing year has celebrated, her 100th anniversary of independence at the Church Congress which gathered in Tartu. For the church independence from the patronage of the state a century ago meant the ascent to equal status in partnership with the secular powers. God has granted the independence of our church and state the appropriate socio-political moments.  The decision to use these moments we made ourselves as a people and so in addition to internal freedom we achieved national and ecclesiastical independence. Thus, the Estonian nation and the Estonian church are celebrating jubilees jointly. “Our nation and church are closely related and this relationship has not been broken because Estonia as a nation-state and the Estonian folk church are united throughout history unto today through the one and the same Estonian people whom we serve!”, as I expressed on April 8th in an address made in Petersburg St. John’s Church, where together with the prime minister, Jüri Ratas, we inaugurated the events of the jubilee year of 100 years of the Estonian Republic. I have great joy at this time to wish all the best to our dear brother the Republic of Finland, whose 100th jubilee culminates already next week.

Along with events marking the passing of a century one cannot look past the theme-year that we celebrated as the passing of 500 years of the reformation. In the Estonian context this has meant in the closing year the cooperation of the Lutheran church with the Estonian State and many local governments, mentioning especially Tallinn and Tartu as “Reformation Cities”, with various cultural and heritage-memorial organizations, centres for schooling and education, as we engaged in activities in the form of art, music, literature, architecture as well as in the areas of television and film productions, exhibitions, conferences, seminars and educational series.  A historical moment came about as Estonian Lutherans and Roman Catholics held a joint conference in the National Library that concluded with a joint prayer service in Tallinn St Charles’ Church. The long-matured fruit of the Reformation can be deemed to be that in the XX Century in many Lutheran churches in many lands men and women have as equals the opportunity to hold the office of ordained clergy. The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church is one of those churches to do so. Thus, in September we marked the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in Estonia with a theme-related international conference. The theme year of “Reformation 500” will be part of history and for future generations it will be recalled through the (more than) 500 apple trees that we planted in the gardens of homes, churches, schools and parsonages as well as a monumental footprint supported by the City of Tallinn, next to the Cathedral – the Bishop’s Garden, also the modern church built in Mustamäe as well as the Reformation window in the Holy Spirit Church among a long list of other things. The Reformation City of Tartu has not abandoned its boom of rebuilding and restoring churches and now has made it a goal to restore the so-called song festival church, Tartu St Mary’s Church, for the 150th jubilee year of the Song Festivals.

Presidency and missed opportunities

For the Republic of Estonia, the past year has meant a previously unseen attention, thanks for the assignments, that go along with being a presiding country of the Council of the European Union from July to December of this closing year This has been an experience that was perhaps dreaded beforehand, yet in hindsight one sees it as a valuable growing, learning and leading experience.

I believe that acting as a team our nation and its leaders, the president and prime minister as well as cabinet ministers and officials have fulfilled well the goals set out for the presidency. Although, as a representative of the church, I must say with a little surprise that the Estonian presidency for the various churches in Estonia became clearly a missed opportunity as the contiguity, besides the conference this past month on the theme religious freedom and security, did not occur. The conference organized by the Ministry of the Interior Affairs, the Estonian Council of Churches and the Theological Faculty of the University of Tartu, European Consortium for Church and State Research, Conference of European Churches was honest, comprehensive and of high standard; yet differently from all other events tied to the presidency that were in the spotlight of the media, this event hardly received any media coverage.

Still, at the beginning of November I had the opportunity to be the only Lutheran church leader to be present at a high level meeting of religious leaders at the European Commission organized by commission vice-president, Frans Timmermans, and first vice-president of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuiness, where the theme was European values and co-operation between the European Union administration and the EU member states, their churches and faith communities in the light of Article 16c of the Lisbon Treaty. At the meeting, religious education and its importance for European member states especially in order to avoid populism and extreme fundamentalism as well as the eradication of religious illiteracy was under discussion as a separate issue. Here Estonia stood out in terms of its lack of organized religious teaching, especially when during the last school year, 2016/2017, out of 543 schools for general education only 73 had religious education/education about religions in their curricula, which in comparison with other European Union member states is an unbelievably low indicator. PISA tests unfortunately do not measure religious literacy which means in terms of statistics there are no figures showing. Unfortunately, this literacy, or more to the point illiteracy becomes evident on the level of the inability of people to relate to one another, especially when people come in contact with representatives of other religions and cultures. This is occurring more and more. During the past year discussions have taken place within the Ministry of Education and Sciences which give hope; that perhaps in this area there will occur a change of direction, to that which the rest of Europe has taken long ago.

The Uninfluential TOP 50       

This past week has been a time when the mainline media has presented a list of the TOP 100 most influential people in Estonia introducing, grading and reviewing them. Hardly has anyone purposely set themselves onto this table, therefore no one is themselves at fault or an accomplice in this fate. To me this table in parts seemed quite grotesque. Keeping in mind the local elections that have just occurred and the upcoming parliamentary elections next year, we should rather put together another list in the interests of all political parties and members of parliament – the list of Estonia’s uninfluential TOP 100. We should do so, in order not to lose focus on those problems and sore spots in society, especially where the influential should intervene on behalf of the uninfluential, their interests and in their defence. With haste I put together a TOP 50 list in a random order, which means the most uninfluential uninfluential is not first on the list and the most influential uninfluential is not last. All of the TOP 50 I have listed are on a fairly equal level in society. This is not a complete list; however it is relevant to today:

  1. Those in debt who have lost their homes;
  2. The forced tenants;
  3. Women who are raped and who regularly experience other forms of domestic violence from those close to them at home;
  4. Patients who have to wait in inhumane long waiting lists in order to receive medical treatment and operations;
  5. Family doctors, builders, bus- and taxi drivers who travel back and forth between Finland and Estonia;
  6. Large families;
  7. Men who have not seen their children in years following a divorce;
  8. Those early teens who remain in Estonia to look after their younger sisters and brothers, while their parents have gone away to Finland to work;
  9. Small farmers who give up in the face of major producers:
  10. Alcoholics and their families;
  11. Drug addicts and their relatives;
  12. The homeless and their comrades;
  13. Those addicted to gambling and those near to them;
  14. Women who are forced to sell their bodies in order to feed their children;
  15. Young girls who have been lured into the network of human trafficking and are victimized by pimps;
  16. Shopaholics;
  17. Those from the generation born free who have drowned in the depths of the cyberworld and are unable to sustain real relationships.
  18. The ill whose treatment medical insurance does not cover;
  19. The elderly who are forced under house arrest and whose pension is squandered by children and grandchildren;
  20. Children and youth without the care of parents left on the streets and hanging out aimlessly in shopping centres.
  21. People with no relatives who are buried in unnamed graves;
  22. The elderly who have been left alone in empty villages, who have an ID-card, but without a bank automat, pharmacy, post office or stores in the vicinity;
  23. Highly educated unemployed specialists;
  24. Elementary and basic-school children raised by single parents, who are fast growing and in need of healthy meals;
  25. Pensioners who are dependent on medication and supportive care;
  26. Parents or a single parent raising children with severe handicaps and who require constant support;
  27. Indifferent and callous officials and bureaucrats;
  28. Employable persons who have been isolated into loneliness because of a disability;
  29. Elderly pensioners who only know their mother-tongue;
  30. Unwitting owners who have fallen victim to squatters;
  31. Children who are self-blaming and have become tools for revenge and blackmail after parents have divorced;
  32. Ex-convicts who have had a long incarceration and have no relatives;
  33. Abused women who have fled home together with children;
  34. Victims of paedophiles, and wives and children of paedophiles who are unaware of their horrible misdeeds;
  35. Bankrupt entrepreneurs;
  36. Politicians who have fallen from on high;
  37. Volunteer choral and dance directors who train thousands of singers and dancers for the big festivals and  give their all for Estonia’s image and identity;
  38. Former top athletes who have retired young and sacrificed their health and families to athletics;
  39. Young Russian speaking people who have poor skills in the official language and who have a poor chance for succeeding in the labour market;
  40. Underfinanced academics;
  41. Parents who have lost their child to a severe illness or through an accident;
  42. Teachers in large schools who strive to earn an average Estonian salary but are strained by a heavy workload;
  43. Country shopkeepers in large local municipalities with dying villages competing with Latvian shopkeepers;
  44. Teenagers who feel unseen and abuse their bodies with cuts and stabs; yet desire love, understanding and attention;
  45. Rural school teachers who have become reconciled to working at partial capacity and yet dream of the state’s minimal wage for teachers;
  46. Farmers who have lost their livelihood and self-realization to potato -beetles, leaf-mould, swine flu, pesticides or unending rain;
  47. Nurses and healthcare workers who are forced to work long shifts in order to earn a living-wage;
  48. Former heads of families who are driven to suicide because of painful failures and broken relationships;
  49. Women who blame themselves because of a hasty decision or decision made under duress resulting in the loss of a child;
  50. Faithful clergy in rural congregations, the “last warriors” who despite emptying villages, on the list of becoming themselves museum pieces, earning a minimum wage, at all costs keep the church doors open for the last villager while restoring the same doors with the help of the donations from the Finnish sister-congregation.

This is my hastily compiled list of Estonia’s TOP 50 most uninfluential as something for Estonia’s 100 year-old independent Lutheran church and Estonia’s 100 year-old independent nation to ponder upon and to find solutions.

Social contract in the name of domestic peace

In the Fall of this closing year, much of what was related to local elections, sharpened once again tensions related to questions regarding cohabitation legislation. To say honestly, I do not wish to speak about this in terms of that which has already been heard. I have repeatedly done that and depending on the public, have been equally been distinctively praised or hurtfully blamed. Already half-a-year ago, visiting the different fractions in Parliament, I made everyone a proposal that this question should in the interests of societal healing be frozen, while forward-moving alternatives and once again uniting, healing positive solutions for society be found. It seemed for a while that there was a respite, however, convincing solutions which would allow to achieve peace between the parties involved did not come forth.

I wish today, at the beginning of the Advent Season and before the proclamation of the “Christmas peace” as well as because the threshold of an important jubilee year for the Estonian people is near, to raise the flag of peace and to make a concrete proposal, which from time to time has publicly been heard from the mouths of some of the leaders of opinion, yet not so convincingly that one would take it seriously. Probably, those in parties opposed to one another have naïvely hoped that they would be able to vote their favourite proposal into legislation through the use of force – be it additional proposals in terms of regulations governing the application of co-habiting, annulment of the legislation governing co-habitation or improvement of the legislation.

I ask all arguing and opposing sides without preconceived notions seriously to consider the proposal to amend the constitution of the Republic of Estonia with the clause that states clearly that marriage is a union contracted only between one man and one woman. An inseparable part of this proposal would be a social contract between various parties, political parties as well as between institutions and organizations, that all the present proposals relating to the cohabitation legislation will be frozen with the goal, that after granting protection for the definition of marriage in the constitution the next step be taken with which to regulate judicially, be it through special legislation, all other forms of co- and united habitation. This social contract would make it possible to bring peace into society, so that those who fear that the traditional definition of marriage become blurred no longer need to worry, while sexual minorities at the same time do not need to feel that they are second class citizens in society because their life together is not recognized legally or that they have no civil rights, rights for which they have a natural need in order to securely arrange their lives.

The result would be that in all of society there would be greater clarity, less fear, more respect for one another, taking each other in to account as well as more caring.  My dream is that society would be healthy again!

In conclusion  

In conclusion, dear friends, I would like to remind you that we are not irreplaceable in our responsibilities, offices or roles which make us influential in the eyes of other people. In all of our responsibilities and offices we are replaceable and our influence disappears quickly into history. Yet we are absolutely irreplaceable to those who are near to us. For this reason, I urge you in this Advent and Christmas Season to look for those moments when you through all of your being strive to influence through caring and love those who are dearest to you. When we succeed in doing so, we are truly influential!

For this end, may almighty God whose “greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3) bless all of you!