Archbishop Janis Vanags on Finding & Keeping the Faith in Post-Soviet Latvia
Janis Vanags is Archbishop of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church. He spoke with William J. Tighe in 1999 in Riga, Latvia.
William J. Tighe: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Perhaps you might tell us something about your personal and religious background.
Janis Vanags (JV): I was born on May 25, 1958, during Soviet rule. My father taught German in the Pedagogical Academy in Liepaja, and my mother taught music in the school that I attended there.
I was trained in chemistry and became a schoolteacher, but because of my religious belief I was fired. Then I worked as a window-washer in the railroad station and also as an operator in the City of Riga sewage system. In the railroad station I washed windows together with a Baptist, and in the sewage system there were many Christians and students of theology.
During this time I began to study theology in the seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL). It was more like a correspondence course, because it was not allowed to meet full-time. So we came together for just three days a month for lectures and exams. Otherwise, we mostly read books or compendiums that had been prepared by the teachers—typewritten and copied.
In my second year, 1985, I was ordained and sent to Saldus. It was like a sign from heaven. I had two jobs, but it was not quite legal in the Soviet Union at that time to have two jobs. The authorities found out and said that I had to give up one of them. I was very puzzled about which one to choose. The deadline was December 8th. Then a letter came from the Lutheran Church Consistory saying that on December 1st I would be ordained and on the 8th I would start my ministry in another city, Saldus. So I had to give up both jobs!
I accepted this as a sign from God and moved to Saldus and worked there for almost eight years. I had a congregation in Saldus, and four others as well; so I started with five. It was normal for one pastor to work with many congregations. (The record was fourteen congregations for one pastor. He died.) In my congregations mostly old people were coming to church, but the Saldus congregation was quite strong nevertheless.
Then in 1988 and 1989 things started opening up with perestroika and glasnost, and suddenly it wasn’t forbidden to speak about God openly. The congregations started to grow very fast. In one year church attendance grew from about 50 people on Sundays to over 300—the church could hold 300 and not all could come in. In these years the ELCL opened—or rather reopened—over 100 churches that had been closed, and even founded some new ones. Such were the times.
From what you said about your parents, I take it you didn’t come from a Christian family background.
JV: Correct; my parents were teachers, and for teachers it was impossible to be practicing church members. Teachers could be imprisoned for three years if they used their positions to tell their students anything about Christianity.
When I was discovered to be a Christian and a churchgoer, I was dismissed in the middle of the school year, although I was the only chemistry teacher in a very large school. They abandoned the teaching of chemistry that year rather than keep me as a Christian in that position!
My parents were, I would say, indifferent. They were not hostile to the Church—they did not permit me to mock the Church when I was a schoolboy, but they did not tell me anything about it. I just had somehow an inborn interest in it, as many people did at that time.
Was there any particular episode that led you to become interested in Christianity?
JV: Well, I had a natural or inborn interest or orientation to God. I don’t know why; I can’t explain this. Chickens when they hatch follow the first moving object they see—even a fox—as their mother; so it was with me. When I was seven or eight, I read a book of Greek mythology. That was something more definite, more personal, so I started to pray to those gods. My first religious experience was of the Hellenistic pantheon, so I suppose I’m the only living converted Hellene!
On the way to my school there were seven churches, of different denominations, so I used to drop in from time to time. I was attracted more by the Catholic Church at that time, and there came a moment when I took courage to explore the inside of the church. I opened the door of the sacristy, and there were the priests dressing for Mass. I felt I would like to be there among them as one of them. I recall this episode as my first hint of a vocation to the ministry.
But then I went to Riga and studied, and there came other “curves,” like studying Yoga and Eastern religions—I even joined Hare Krishna for a few weeks—because nobody taught me anything. There was no tradition in the family, and it was a totally indeterminate offer of different choices. I tried one and another and a third, until finally my brother invited me to go to a small countryside church with him. Somehow the sermon of the pastor and the ritual and the whole experience—we walked eight kilometers through the forest to reach this church—were all very beautiful, and 10 or 15 people went with us this way. And so I stayed in the Lutheran church. My grandmother was a Baptist, my grandfather a Lutheran. So that was how it happened.
You were chosen archbishop in January 1993 when you were 34 years old. Was this completely unexpected to you?
JV: Well, again, I could mention a sign—or it could be just a coincidence? When I was studying theology before my ordination, the archbishop, Janis Matulis, took me along from time to time to visit churches. I went to a service with him, and he wanted to help me put on my talar [the black robe worn by most European Lutheran clergy outside of Scandinavia when leading worship—ed.]. But he made a mistake. He had a black cope to wear, but he took his cope and gave it to me. I took a step backwards. Then he noticed the mistake and said, “Oh, no, this one will come later.” And so I could say this was prophetic.
Actually, many people have asked me how I could be elected archbishop at such a young age, but it reflects the situation in our church, because the priests then were mostly very old or very young. In 1993 we had a score of young pastors in their 20s. I represented the middle generation: There were only five or six pastors between 40 and 60. They either did not want to accept this calling or were not quite suitable for it, so there were not many choices. Of course, it is somewhat problematic for one to become bishop at such a young age because one is not experienced enough in life and in the church ministry, and so it is a drawback. But it shows what it was like in our church then.
Even St. Augustine was, I think, 38 when he became a bishop!
JV: I was very pleased to read when I was 35 that a Lutheran bishop had been elected in Thailand at the age of 32. I was happy that I was no longer the youngest Lutheran bishop in the world!
How have the churches in Latvia fared since the fall of the Soviet Union? What are the popular attitudes toward religion and Christianity in Latvia?
JV: The popular attitude to the Church changed radically from 1987 to 1989. Before that, I remember when I was a schoolboy I was taught that the Church is something medieval or old-fashioned, in which there is this man in black robes who only wants to get money out of peoples’ pockets. This is how the Church was presented at the time—and as a band of obscurantists. Many people had this impression.
Then perestroika and glasnost came, which were shocking experiences for everybody because on the radio, on TV, and in the newspapers, you could openly say, “It’s a lie from the first word to the last one.” There was even a joke: “What’s the difference between the two main Russian newspapers, Pravda (The Truth) and Izvestiia (Information)? In Izvestiia there is no pravda and in Pravda there is no izvestiia.” Suddenly the newspapers started to criticize Communists—beginning with some local officials—and print embarrassing facts. Well, it produced a tremendous change in the minds of the people. It all came suddenly, in one big wave.
My brother was writing stories, novels, and articles for the newspaper. His editor told him he should be more sharp, open, and frank in his writing—but he was already pretty tough on Communist realities, as far as it was possible at the time—and the editor said, “You should do more, more; this is the policy of the Party now.”
Then suddenly in the midst of all this, a lot of information about God, the Church, religion, and Christianity was “thrown in front of people.” Pastors suddenly were welcome on TV. I took part in a series of programs, “Art and the Bible.” An art scientist picked some pictures by “old masters” with religious themes, and she discussed them from the artistic point of view; I explained what the stories were all about. This is how we introduced the Bible and Christianity through the media.
People somehow embraced Christianity along with other things. For many, to go to church was to do something bad to the Communist party and the old regime; it was a way to get rid of the past. We had not been allowed to go to church—so now we will go to church to spite the Party. Many came out of genuine interest, but now that wave has been over for more than five years.
Back then, people were coming to church and pastors could be “at ease,” because the people were coming without their doing very much. But now the pastors have to work to maintain their congregations, and many of these people who rushed to the churches because of the changes don’t go anymore. Now we see that the popular attitude is not so positive as we might have thought.
On the one hand, trust in the Church is very high. The Church always stands in the opinion polls in the first or second place as the most trusted organization. On the other hand, there are few politicians in the Saeima (Parliament) who really want to support the Church. Most of them don’t care, and when issues important for the Church are to be discussed in the Parliament, the result is quite unpleasant for us.
There are some who are very negative, maybe for two reasons. Some are influenced by Latvian neo-paganism, the Dievturi as they are called, who have said since the 1920s that Christianity is the religion of alien people, of oppressors, of conquerors, so Latvians should worship their own gods. Actually, the movement started in the nineteenth century when Latvians began to have an independent ethnic self-consciousness and began to emerge from the domination of the German nobility, and also of the Russian rulers.
The Russians encouraged the Latvians to come out from German cultural domination, but they had a strong policy of Russification, trying to make the Latvians Orthodox and so on. Then many students and politically active people started to say bad things about Christianity. This was the start of the movement, and for such a nationally oriented people this was attractive. This is one reason why they might be negative toward common Christianity.
The second reason is the influence of Soviet ideology. In the early ’90s we underestimated how deep this influence had been. We were naive and full of hope that people would realize that atheism was a lie and that the Communists had persecuted the Church because it was their opponent and it stood for the truth.
Religion has to take deep roots, but for many people it didn’t happen. They are not all atheists, or at least they would not admit that they are atheists, but they still have kept the images of the Church that we were taught—men robed in black in a church that deals with nothing, or with strange ideas, ideas that are not real, deceiving people to get money from them.
Many historians have commented that one of the notable features of late nineteenth-century and much of twentieth-century England was that as Christian belief and practice was disappearing from the elite, for at least two or three generations longer agnostics or even atheists still practiced a basically Christian morality. Would it be correct to say that in Latvia Communist ideology has disappeared, but Communist life-styles or Communist assumptions about life still continue strong?
JV: Yes, I would say so. Much of people’s approach to life comes from this. The Communist influences for those 50 years cannot be underappreciated; they went deep.
Latvia could be regarded as a country with an old Christian tradition—our first bishop, Meinhard, was consecrated in 1186, and the Lutheran Reformation reached Riga as early as 1522, so it was a very active Christian country for a long time.
But it is also like a new mission field, because those 50 years created a generation with no idea about Christianity and no tradition in it. Therefore Christians here are very susceptible to different “inputs.” Many missionaries are coming, and people have no way to tell what is what and who is who; they have no discernment. In Sweden, many people have left the Church; they are formal or nominal members, but they live in a country that had a Christian tradition and a State Church for many centuries, and Christian rituals occupied a big place in public life there. So it is not so easy for them to become Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. But here in Latvia Christianity is a very fragile thing, and it is easy to get people away from the Church to follow different ideas.
I had not been aware until recently of the Dievturi. I know that there has been a pagan revival in Lithuania. I heard of someone who about ten years ago went to Lithuania and was taken to an underground temple in Vilnius where “little green snakes” were being worshipped, as they had been before the conversion of Lithuania in 1186. There is also a “pagan church” in Iceland that has revived the worship of the Nordic gods—although a friend who is a professor of Scandinavian Studies told me that it mainly serves as an excuse to import alcoholic beverages into Iceland without paying the high tariffs—they use beer and whiskey in their rituals.
JV: I would not say that there has been a pagan revival as such. There are some who really try to worship the old gods, but only 100 or 150 people. But there are many sympathizers among poets and writers and nationally oriented people, and through this they have a remarkable influence in Parliament, although this influence is declining. Two parliaments ago, this influence was much stronger; they almost got themselves declared a traditional religion of Latvia.
The Lutheran church has been the dominant Christian body in Latvia in recent centuries. Since the fall of communism, to what extent has that historical fact acted as a benefit for its Christian mission, and to what extent as a hindrance to it?
JV: The benefit was the many opportunities it had. It had many congregations and many people belonged to the Lutheran church—before World War II it was 52 percent, compared to 20 percent Roman Catholic.
The disadvantage has been, I think, that pastors took it for granted, and the church was not a struggling church, not a fighting church. It just lived in those convenient conditions, and when the Soviet occupation came, suddenly it all collapsed. Many pastors left Latvia, some even resigned—many also were persecuted and even killed—so the church lost 80 percent of its clergy after the occupation. The Catholic Church somehow better survived this period of occupation.
Maybe another disadvantage was that while the ELCL never was a State Church, it was a kind of official church or national religion. The Lutheran archbishop and many pastors were always present at official events such as the proclamation of independence and other national celebrations. I think that this was the reason that the ELCL was persecuted more than any other church during the Communist times.
Also, I would say that there were disadvantages for the ELCL that are not directly related to its former status as an official church. Its theological education, particularly—its old theologians came mostly from Tartu (formerly Dorpat, now in Estonia), and this was a pretty liberal theological faculty. After independence after World War I they opened a new theological faculty at the University of Riga, which also tended to be quite liberal.
And then Bishop Irbe [Karlis Irbe (1861–1934), the first Latvian Lutheran bishop, from 1920 to his resignation in 1932; the episcopate had been discarded at the Reformation by the Lutherans in what is today Latvia, but was restored when Latvia became an independent nation—ed.], not satisfied with the theological education offered in the universities, opened a church institution, which was ridiculed by the academic theologians and priests because it was oriented toward the service of the Church.
Some German pastors protested when I expressed this idea, but I think liberal theology can hardly survive persecution. If you don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God, for what reason would you risk having it in your home? If you can be sentenced to prison or even sent to Siberia for having a Bible or reading it or giving it to others, and you don’t believe it is the Word of God, why should you do these things?
There are many questions of this sort that emerge for liberal theology in times of persecution, and I think that it is thus not able to survive danger and persecution. Some German colleagues said that liberal theologians were quite strong against the Hitler regime. Maybe; I don’t know; but this was not the case in most places. When theology is permanently liberal and persecutions come, then the Church collapses.
Since the fall of communism, have there been any noteworthy trends among the various Christian churches in Latvia—Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, and Baptist, for instance—as to their relative success and lack of success in bringing people to Christianity? And have there been any notable cases of people who were already active Christians converting from one Christian tradition to another?
JV: During Soviet occupation after World War II, the Roman Catholic Church grew considerably, and now it is almost as large as the Lutheran Church. The Roman Catholics now have only 100 or 120 fewer congregations than the Lutherans. Also, the Orthodox element increased because of the massive invasion of Russian colonists into Latvia during Soviet times.
Conversions occur here or there, for a while or permanently, because people lack a strong tradition, people come from the non-believing world and seek for truth, and they always have this feeling—I experienced it in my younger years too—have I found the most true, most correct, church? Or maybe another one is closer to the absolute truth. And then they go and take a look here, a look there, and possibly convert.
There was one such conversion of a group—almost a whole congregation—in Krimulda, but this was a special case. We lacked pastors, so sometimes we had to put students of theology in charge of congregations; sometimes even the chairmen of the parish councils were leading worship. This was the case here. There was a popular singer, Kaspars Dimiters, who converted to Christianity. I think he was a very sincere Christian, but he migrated between denominations. In Krimulda he gathered people, and under his leadership they restored an old Lutheran church and the parsonage.
He also gathered a group of drug abusers and alcoholics and tried to create for them what he called a School of the Cross—as part of the congregation, regularly worshipping God—to rehabilitate them for a normal life. Then his wife almost died, and he was almost electrocuted. This of course unsettled him. He was baptized in the Lutheran Church, then he converted to Orthodoxy, and then his sympathies led him toward the Roman Catholic Church, so most of his School of the Cross, about 60 people, came to the conclusion that they should convert to the Roman Catholic Church—but he remained in the Orthodox Church.
So a Catholic congregation emerged in Krimulda. The Roman Catholic Church here does its missions mostly like this: If something happens so that three or four Catholics emerge in a non-Catholic area, they bus in other Catholics from Riga or from closer neighborhoods to go there and hold Masses.
My impression is that Orthodoxy in Latvia is mostly non-Latvian, except in the northeast. To what extent is Orthodoxy able to have a mission to Latvians, given the perception that it is mostly non-Latvian?
JV: It’s true that in people’s perception the Orthodox Church is the Russian Church, and even though the official name of that church here is the Orthodox Church of Latvia, everybody says the Russian Orthodox Church.
There are five or six Latvian-speaking Orthodox congregations. One is big, more or less, here in Riga, and the others are tiny. It is an old story, how Latvian peasants in the nineteenth century were told that they would receive land if they converted to Orthodoxy, and then they converted and didn’t receive the land. But by law they were not permitted to convert back, so in some way they were trapped in the Orthodox Church, not being Orthodox in their nature or deeper faith.
There are still some Latvian Orthodox people, although it is a very little group. The Orthodox Church here is mostly Russian, and if you ask about the possibility of mission, my first question would be how much the Orthodox Church, at least in Latvia, is disposed toward mission work at all. I think the Orthodox mentality is like this: The golden cupola will be seen; people will know there is a church; God’s wisdom will lead them to the church; and their task is to welcome those people. I don’t think the Orthodox Church here is mission-minded in the way we would speak about some Evangelical and other groups.
New converts are mission-minded people, but the native Orthodox I do not think are like that. All the traditional churches here are quite passive—we have to admit that. We’re now thinking of starting a program of evangelism in Latvia. I would not say that European missionaries are doing the wrong thing, but I think that African Christians have muscle enough to evangelize Africa; European missionaries should turn their eyes to Europe, which needs to be evangelized again.
My wife’s family in America are Latvians, mostly Latvian Baptists, and some Latvian Baptists that I’ve met in America are firmly convinced that the ELCL is a state-supported church. I know that this is not the case, but I’ve heard it a number of times. When my wife was in Latvia she stayed with a Baptist lady who told her that she thought that the Catholic Church was behaving in an objectionable way because it had asked the Latvian government to provide state funds for it while no other church receives such funding. To what extent does the state provide support for any church?
JV: Well, generally it only comes through the Office of Historical Monuments, which gives some support to churches that have historical value and are endangered. Then they give some money, but these are really tiny sums, as a rule around $1,000.
This is for the restoration of church buildings?
JV: Yes, they usually can just assist the congregation with little sums of money, and then only if the nationwide church is doing something already. There are also irritations sometimes, because they will ask us to restore things as they were at a certain period. We were thinking, for example, of installing new bells in the Riga Cathedral for the 800th anniversary of Riga in 2001. We had already found bells that could be brought to Latvia, but the Office of Historical Monuments protested this, telling us that we should restore it as it had been. My answer to them would be that you have to pay for it. Rich people can do what they want; poor people have to do what they can. This is the kind of irritations we have with this kind of state support.
You alluded to two special circumstances when the ELCL and the Roman Catholic Church got support that other churches don’t. When the Theological Faculty of the University was opened in 1919, the faculty of the Lutheran seminary became its faculty—at first it was actually the same teachers and students, in the same building with the same library. The signs on the doors simply were changed from “Lutheran Seminary” to “Theological Faculty.” And even when it became the Theological Faculty of the Latvian University, it really was the Lutheran Theological Faculty, in fact. But gradually the faculty drifted away from the church, and in 1999 they officially declared that they have no connection with any church, that they are a nondenominational faculty and that they do not prepare pastors for any church. This was the final act in a long story. In the minds of many people, though, the Faculty of Theology is still regarded as a Lutheran body, so they say that because the State pays for the Faculty of Theology, the State supports Lutheran theology. Really, it is a state faculty, but because of its history people think of it as Lutheran.
The other thing for Lutherans is that the Riga Dome [the medieval cathedral of Riga—ed.] is funded by the State—maintenance, heating, restoration, etc. In fact, it is state-owned, although the ELCL is allowed to have services there. We would like to maintain this because the ELCL’s resources are not able to support it. This is another thing that is thought to be a special benefit for Lutherans.
For Catholics there is another story in the Basilica of Aglona. This is a big church where there is an icon where miracles take place. Every year on Assumption Day many Catholics make a pilgrimage to this place. Perhaps 150,000 people come together, some from other churches, some from the ELCL. When the pope came to visit Latvia for the first time in 1993, there was an agreement that this place must be prepared to welcome him. This cost almost $30 million for the work done there. I heard there was an agreement between the government and the Catholic Church that the church should do all the necessary work there, and then the government would pay for it. And then when it all was done, the government said, well, we “know not Joseph” (cf. Exodus 1:8). The Catholic Church demanded that the State fulfill its promises and pay the bills for the Basilica. This must be the story that the Baptist lady was referring to. It made headlines—they wrote that the Catholic Church wants to pump considerable sums of money out of the state budget. There were some considerable state investments in Aglona, but I do not know how large.
I’d like to turn to the matter for which, in a way, you became notorious—the question of the ordination of women in the ELCL. When did the practice first start in the ELCL, and was it properly authorized when it began?
JV: The first women were ordained in 1975 [there are currently six ordained woman pastors in the ELCL—ed.] by Archbishop Janis Matulis, who was a member of the Council of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
There were two things that led to it: the lack of pastors, on the one hand, and then influence, even pressure, from the LWF, on the other hand. As an LWF council member for three years, I have seen how the churches are pushed toward the ordination of women—even using money as a means of convincing them.
Here in Latvia it was not discussed in a synod. In our records I was able to find only one reference from a meeting of the Consistory of the ELCL, at which Archbishop Matulis said, “We must ordain women.” But nothing more was recorded. Eriks Mesters, Matulis’s successor, who also was present at that time in the Consistory, told us that Matulis had discussed it with the Consistory. He said that he would like to ordain some women, and he asked the Consistory members whether it should be decided at the Pastoral Conference or at a synod—or would the Consistory decide and authorize him to do it? The Consistory decided to authorize it, but this was to exceed its authority tremendously, because such decisions cannot be taken by the Consistory alone.
So Matulis ordained some women [two, on August 23, 1975—ed.], and this was met with much amazement, surprise, and opposition. Although there were not ordinations on a large scale, still, there was some wrestling with the question afterwards, although this was a time when every word of the archbishop was not discussed or questioned; what he said just happened.
But there were still many questions, objections, and protests. When Mesters followed Matulis as archbishop in 1986—he was against the ordination of women, but he was not the kind of person who wanted to take clear positions, such as saying, “Now I am stopping this practice”—the clergy asked him not to ordain women until the question could be researched and discussed theologically. So he didn’t ordain any while he was archbishop. This was the first moratorium period, from 1986 to 1989, when there were no ordinations of women in the ELCL.
There was a little group or commission of five pastors that was formed to discuss this question—I was among them. But we felt helpless because we had no literature on the subject. We had to start from ground zero, and we had only a short time to discuss the question. So our commission didn’t work. We met three or four times. One member would say, “I think it might be done,” while another would say, “No, I don’t believe it should be done.” In the end, we voted three to two that it is not correct to ordain women.
Then in 1989 we had a very notorious synod meeting, when “the past” was dealt with. There was no pressure from the State anymore, and all those issues about collaboration with the Soviet authorities, the KGB, etc., in our church were discussed. This lasted for three days, and it was a very grave and difficult time for our church, when all these things were openly put on the table. Here, one old pastor would say to another, “And what have you done?”—speaking of the past. This was a painful process.
As a result, the entire church leadership was dismissed, including the archbishop. A new church Constitution had been introduced, and in accordance with it the leadership was dismissed and a new archbishop elected, Karlis Gailitis. This was on the third day of the synod.
And then, in the last 20 minutes of this 3-day synod the issue was raised when someone said, “Now we will decide on the ordination of women.” There was no debate. The newly elected archbishop stood up and said, “Well, I believe in the ordination of women,” almost as if to say, “Whoever supports me, please also support the ordination of women.” Then another prominent pastor, Juris Rubenis, stood up and said—this was a complete surprise to me, because he had been one of the three on our commission against it—“Well, I have denied the ordination of women for a long time, but now I have changed my mind.” And then Modris Plate, who had also been one of the leading persons in this resistance movement within the church, shook Rubenis’s hand and openly told him, “Well, you have come to the right decision. And now let’s vote.”
Although we had done research showing that the majority of the clergy rejected the ordination of women, in those circumstances the majority voted in favor of it. The formulation, though, was not that we were introducing the ordination of women or opening ordination to women or that we must ordain women, but something like this: The ordination of women is admissible, although not so much to be promoted.
Archbishop Gailitis was very eager to ordain women, and his first ordination was the ordination of a woman. Later the same people who had brought him to the office attempted to dismiss him—Gailitis had made mistakes, and there was disappointment in some of his acts. He needed 46 votes to remain in office and he received 46 votes. That was in April 1992, but in November 1992 he died in a car accident.
And you were elected as his successor. Was your position on the ordination question well known, and did it play a role in your election as archbishop?
JV: I think it was the major reason why I was elected. I later heard that if the other candidate, who was in favor of the ordination of women, had been elected, a group of clergy and people were going to separate from this church and start a new one. We were very close to a schism here in Latvia, although I did not know this at the time.
Before the election, both candidates presented their positions and answered questions. When I was asked about my position, I said that I would not ordain women if I were elected. So the synod knew it very clearly, and I also warned the synod about the consequences that might follow from this if they elected me—pressure and opposition from all our traditional partners in the LWF and so forth.
When you became archbishop, did you stop the ordination of women, or was it brought before either the Consistory or the synod and an official church decision made to stop it?
JV: Well, it stopped by itself. Since the archbishop is the only person in the ELCL who has the right to ordain, there have been no ordinations of women since I was chosen since there is nobody who could ordain them.
The situation here is that the question has not been explored theologically, so we cannot do it until we have discussed it. I said that I would not ordain women. I said that I was ready to organize a committee to explore the question theologically, but that I would not ordain women.
I heard a Latvian Lutheran minister in America, who is strongly in favor of women’s ordination, say that at least the practice has never been formally repudiated in the ELCL, so that when “that young madman Vanags, who was a big mistake,” is no longer archbishop or when the ELCL is divided into dioceses, it will be done again, either by the new archbishop or one of the other bishops.
JV: That is his estimation. There was a man from Canada, Egils Grislis, who was working in the committee researching this question for two years. He lived here and taught in the Theological Faculty. His observations were that 80 percent of the synod members would object to the ordination of women.
The question came up again and again after 1989, and all the time the church leaders suppressed the question. I remember many meetings of the Pastoral Conference when the issue was raised again, and the response was always, “Well, we have no more time, so the meeting is closed; good-bye.” It went just like that. Then, in the synod in 1992, when Archbishop Gailitis was still there, it came up again, and then they decided that the ordination of women has not been explored sufficiently and that a committee should be set up to explore it.
There was no serious intention on their part to do that, but just to put the discussion on ice. But, still, the synod decided that it had not been discussed properly in our church, so we have to do that first. Archbishop Gailitis was ready to continue the ordination of women despite such a synodal decision.
My position was that such a synodal decision implied that we could not go on with the ordination of women; we had to do the theological work first. So this is the decision I could refer to in support of my position.
Has the work been done? Has a later synod than that of 1992 discussed or decided the issue?
JV: In 1992 the committee was composed like this: Some Latvian theologians from the “Exile Church” were one part, and a few pastors from Latvia were the other part. But the problem was that the committee was not able to work because one of the exile theologians lived in Canada, the second in Germany and the third in Australia. The committee met only twice over some years. There is no way it could have worked.
Then when I became archbishop, I suspended the committee, and we formed another one with theologians who lived here and were able to work on it. We have had much discussion about the ministry of women in the fields of the Seelesorge [“soul care”—ed.] and personal care. Those ordained women who still are active in our church find themselves mostly drawn to these aspects of ministry.
What about the women who were ordained before you became archbishop?
JV: I said that they will have the opportunity to continue their ministry, because, well, if the church ordained them, the church should take responsibility for its decisions, even if they are not correct. Not always, also, can you say if the ordination is done it is not valid. It is a very tricky question. When you have departed from the solid biblical basis you can never tell what the result is.
This was my position, and I still stick to it, that those women who were ordained can still serve without obstacles. Of course, the psychological situation for them is difficult—I understand that—because they know that their position is widely doubted in the church and is under debate, and they are not very happy in that respect.
There is a Latvian Lutheran church in Philadelphia, not too far from where I live, that has a woman as its pastor. I don’t know if she was ordained in Latvia . . .
JV: I think she was one of the first ones who went abroad to be ordained. When I heard about his intention to ordain female students studying in Riga, I wrote a letter to Archbishop Rozitis [Elmars Rozitis, the archbishop of the “Exile Church”—ed.] that it is great that the ELCL can help the “Exile Church,” but that he should take into account that these ladies will not have the possibility to return to Latvia after two years and be accepted as ordained pastors in our church. I informed him that there will be no way that they can be ordained abroad and then come back here. It is very difficult to obtain a work permit in the United States and other countries, and for the most part they are given only for a specific period of time. One or two of these ordained ladies are back in Latvia. I don’t know how we can use them.
Would it be fair to say that the question is still under study, and that the synod has not decided officially either in favor of it or against it?
JV: That’s correct.
But the women who have been ordained in Latvia are still functioning as pastors at the present time?
JV: Yes. As I see it right now, the question is not about women. Some of the women ordained in Latvia are working better right now in their positions than some men are in theirs. The problem is when they stand officially in the pulpit, they cannot read from there a number of passages in the Bible, because with their appearance in the pulpit they actually deny those passages. This is a problem.
The whole problem as I see it now is that of the place of the Holy Scriptures in our understanding. If Paul or Peter writes something, for instance, is it just a theological or exegetical exercise when he tries to explain some Old Testament passages? Is it just as valuable, but no more, than any other theological exercise—or is it something more? And can we say that Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 is contradicting completely 1 Corinthians 14? Is it really the case that there was such a division in Paul’s mind that we can now freely choose between his two completely different positions?
So it involves other matters of scriptural authority and interpretation, and hence it can’t be regarded as a minor or peripheral issue within Christian practice?
JV: Of course. I have nothing against women, of course. General Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) once said, you know, my best men have always been women.
But the problem is not with women; the problem is how we deal with the Holy Scriptures. If we accept this method of handling the Scriptures, there is nothing that we could not introduce into theology or into the life of the Church. If we can say that this and this passage is not valid because the author—an apostle for instance—had no proper understanding of it, then, as Augustine said, there remains no other passages in the Bible that you cannot explain away.
What is the reaction of your colleagues just across the Baltic Sea? As you know, in the Church of Sweden the church opponents of the ordination of women cannot be ordained, and my Norwegian friends say it is going to go that way in the Norwegian State Church. So this takes us to the matter of ecclesiastical and collegial relations between the ELCL and, say, the Scandinavian Lutheran churches and, more generally, within the worldwide Lutheran Fellowship.
JV: Of course it is affecting and even damaging our relationships. This question is not a simple one. On the one hand, we could say that they are overreacting, because I really do not see why the ordination of women should be so important that it becomes almost the only confession that is required: Do you believe in the ordination of women? It is a shibboleth.
On the other hand, it might be easier for our partners to accept the idea that we don’t ordain women because people in our post-Communist society are damaged in their souls and minds, and therefore, they would not accept ordained women.
But they would not so easily go along if we say that we don’t ordain women for biblical reasons and theological convictions, because it implies that we think that they, in ordaining women, are doing something that is scripturally unfounded and theologically wrong. This is difficult, of course, for our partners to hear, especially because they are bigger churches that have lived in the Free World and benefitted from their own educational opportunities. Then this little Latvian Lutheran Church comes and says it is wrong, and they think it cannot be so.
I would like to ask about the Porvoo Agreement, the 1996 agreement between the four Anglican churches in the British Isles and six of the eight Scandinavian and Baltic Lutheran churches. As I understand, the Danish State Church has effectively rejected it because it would “smuggle in” apostolic succession to the Danish Church and because it threatened to raise difficult questions about authority in that church vis-à-vis the State there. Except for the Latvian Lutheran Church, it has been accepted by the state churches in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, by the dominant Estonian Lutheran Church, and by the tiny Lutheran Church in Lithuania. What is the attitude of the ELCL to the Porvoo agreement?
JV: It has to be regarded in the context of ecumenical relationships in general in Latvia. There are two expressions of ecumenism possible in Latvia, or in general. One is theological dialogues and agreements, the other is practical cooperation. As concerns the latter, we have five Christian churches that work closely together—Catholic, Orthodox, Old-Ritualist, Baptist, and Lutheran—and we do many things together practically.
On the other hand, there is no theological dialogue, at least not with the goal of visible unity. The Catholic Church here says, this is not our business; it is the business of the Vatican. But the problem is also that the realm of ecumenical texts is one that requires special training, and we have no theologians here who would be ready to head very hard and deep discussions.
The other problem for theological discussions and dialogues is that the idea of “visible unity” or “church fellowship” is very explosive on the Lutheran side and totally, I think, without interest for the Roman Catholics here, as I found out myself concerning the Joint Declaration on Justification between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. I invited a priest from the Vatican who worked with the document, along with a responsible leader from the LWF, to come here. They came and presented it. For a year I tried to reach an agreement with the Catholic Church to form a little group in Latvia to deal with these questions. I received a very friendly positive answer. But when we arrived with our theologians and these two guests at the Curia across the street, we just had a friendly chat with the archbishop and nothing more. I realized he was not interested in entering such a dialogue.
Taking into account that on our side it could cause really big problems if I were to sign such a document, and that the other side has no interest, we have postponed this question for the future. Doing so will not change anything, neither on the Latvian scene nor worldwide, because nobody even notices that this ELCL has not signed the Joint Declaration, but postponed it.
However, this gave us time to get more acquainted with the document after some of the Lutheran churches had already ratified it, and then in the final stage some changes were introduced in it. This seems to have happened upon Vatican initiative, and it is clear that in its present form the document reveals a more Roman Catholic than Lutheran view on justification, and its signing demands from the Lutheran side a big compromise with its traditional teaching.
We still go on with practical cooperation, and we sometimes have ecumenical services on state occasions like the anniversary of Independence.
With the Porvoo Declaration it was the same. Actually, this is not our local issue, as there are almost no Anglicans here and we have no reason to believe that we will start exchanging priests, because of the language barrier. We still have the partnership relations with all the involved Lutheran churches, but we have no practical encounter or cooperation with the Anglican Church on Latvian soil, where church fellowship would be essential.
But we discussed this document very thoroughly, and there was very strong opposition to it. A theologian came from Sweden to oppose it strongly, and I invited Bishop Christopher Hill from the Church of England to present their view, and there were some serious conferences devoted to it.
The reason why many pastors were not satisfied with the document was somewhat odd, I would say. They said that the Anglicans are by nature Calvinists and that they do not teach the Real Presence in Holy Communion, which as far as I know is not quite true. The problem for many of our pastors is that the Anglican Church does not have any documents like our confessional writings that Anglicans could show as proof that they do teach the Real Presence in Holy Communion. Bishop Hill could say that our pastors could look in the Anglican Prayer Book and take into account their practice, what they do with the sacramental elements. For our people, though, this was not an adequate response.
Lutheran thinking is that it must be written somewhere in your confessional documents that you teach the Real Presence, but if we read the Thirty-nine Articles we think we see a purely Calvinist approach to Holy Communion. Therefore, they said, we cannot have church fellowship with a church that does not have the same views on the Sacrament; how can we share the Sacrament if we don’t believe the same thing about it?
We are very glad to be accepted as observers at all the meetings of the Porvoo group. This is an extremely interesting discussion forum that can be distinguished from the many forums familiar to me in the Lutheran world by its peaceable atmosphere and concentration on theological topics. In the future we can see how Porvoo functions and see what the practical results will be.
Another issue that has made you notorious is the question of homosexuality and homosexual practice. A Lutheran pastor in America who visits Latvia from time to time has attacked you in my hearing for being against homosexuals, whose only fault, he said, is that they love one another the way that most men and women love one another. He said that, as on the ordination issue, you are leading the ELCL in a “backward” direction. What position formally has the ELCL taken on this issue, and why has there been such a fuss about it?
JV: It was in 1995, I think, that the Latvian media started to produce pro-gay propaganda. Gays were invited to talk, and they were interviewed. The view was strongly presented that it is a normal, natural life-style. Not having deep Christian roots, the Latvian people, especially the young people, accept different ideas very quickly.
As a church we felt that we had to say something about it. So in 1995 the Consistory drafted a resolution, which very unfortunately was picked up by a journalist who was here in the Consistory for some other reason—he noticed the draft on the table and took it away with him, and it went into the press in this unfinished form.
The draft had two problems. First, it described homosexual acts as “mortal sins,” as if Lutherans would sort sins into “mortal” and “non-mortal”—this simply is not a Lutheran approach. But it was there in the draft. Second, it contained an appeal to the government to pay attention to what was going on, and this was interpreted in the press as though we were inviting the power structure of the State to persecute homosexuals, as was done in Soviet times. That was not the case, and I personally was against such a formulation, but unfortunately it went to the press as it stood.
The point of that resolution was that a homosexual inclination by itself is no sin. If people struggle with this and admit that to perform homosexual acts is sinful, even if in struggling they sometimes fall, the church wants to support them and offer to them the same way of obtaining the forgiveness of sins, if they acknowledge it as sin. They might hold office in the church because homosexual behavior should not be singled out from all other sins. Just as we do not exclude from office in the church those who sin in one way or another, so we don’t want to do this with homosexuals.
But if a person openly lives in a homosexual relationship and if he announces that this is a normal alternative to the biblical partnership between man and woman, and also proposes this behavior to others, such people we should consider as unrepentant sinners, and therefore they cannot hold office in our church, nor take part in Holy Communion, until they repent. So this was the content of it.
This just sounds like the traditional teaching and practice of common orthodox Christianity in all times and places, Protestant, Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox. So what’s the fuss then?
JV: I don’t know. The resolution was first passed by the Consistory in 1995, and then it was endorsed in the synod, in early 1996 I think, with only one vote against out of some 300.
When this went to press, gays held a demonstration outside the front door of our Consistory building here—a big demonstration, with posters about the persecution of homosexuals in the ELCL. There was also a man who is the standard-bearer for homosexuals in Latvia, Karlis Streips, a very effective TV journalist. He comes from Chicago. He’s a Lutheran, but he goes to St. Saviour Church, the Anglican church in Riga—it used to have a mixed status, both Anglican and Lutheran, but now it is part of the Church of England’s diocese of Europe. When George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, came to our church, there was a procession planned, and Karlis Streips was to be the crucifer—but I said, “No, I won’t permit this.”
Now, Streips was smart and polite enough not to make something out of it publicly, but it was immediately reported to the LWF, and I got calls from Geneva to ask what was going on. Also, our German partners said that they would not object to the exclusion of practicing homosexuals from holding offices in the church, but they insisted the church cannot exclude anybody from Holy Communion.
It would be hard to justify from church history and practice, that no one can be excluded for any reason. Did they really mean that?
JV: Well, the comment that I got from a former high official in the LWF in Geneva was, “Homosexuals will soon be able to get married in the Lutheran Church, but you won’t accept them at Holy Communion.”
So was this fuss about the position of the ELCL on homosexuality at least as much a media event or media creation as something coming from within the church?
JV: I think so, although I also think the ordination of women is the main issue. First of all, we always see that feminists and homosexuals support each other—maybe not every time, but in most major cases.
The ordination of women has become “respectable” even among Christians who otherwise are quite conservative. But the ordination of women, at least in churches that believe in a doctrinal and biblical version of the Christian faith, is almost inevitably followed at a distance of 10 to 40 years later, depending on the sociological circumstances, by desires to “revise” Christian teaching on homosexuality, heterosexuality, any kind of sexuality. Once you’re able to say that St. Paul (or any sacred writer) is wrong about ordination and that the Bible is mistaken, what else in it might not be mistaken?
JV: If St. Paul writes, “in Christ there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), and this means that it makes no difference whom I ordain, then it makes no difference whom I marry.
Another matter we haven’t yet touched on directly is the relationship between the ELCL and the Latvian “Exile Church.” I have the impression that the two churches were on the way to uniting or reintegrating themselves at the time when you were chosen to be archbishop; and I have been told in so many words that it is only the stance of the ELCL on the ordination question under your leadership that has stopped this process.
JV: It is quite clear that the issue of the ordination of women is relevant for our relationship with the “Exile Church,” where the majority of ordination candidates presently are women. One can say that this is the fault of our position, but we can also look at this from the other side—we are sticking to the traditional position of the Christian Church in this matter, but the “Exile Church” has chosen another, “innovative” way to deal with their Orders. Their decision could, of course, cause some resistance from our side. You can’t speak of “one church” if you don’t support each other’s practices in the matter of Holy Orders. However, I think there were also other reasons, e.g., the very diverse conditions in Latvia and in the various home countries of the “Exile Church.”
I think it is an exaggeration to say that only my position has decided this issue. After all, I had to be reelected three years after I was chosen archbishop, in 1996, since the ELCL’s church Constitution then contained that requirement. But now we have returned to the original church Constitution, since the provision for reelection was introduced by the Soviet authorities to enable them to replace leading persons without much noise.
So you don’t have to be reelected again?
JV: Right. We accepted our episcopacy from the Church of Sweden, and so we have the same theological attitude toward the episcopal ministry as they do. And if you speak about apostolic succession and episcopal ministry, you cannot make a bishop such a political person as needs to be reelected every three years; that would hinder him from doing his work of oversight. This is not the traditional position, and it was not the position of our church originally. So in 1996 at the synod I was reelected with 85 percent of the votes, a huge margin, so that now I’m not a person who came into the position only by chance and has gone on to do crazy things. I believe that I represent widely held views in our church—in fact I’m sometimes regarded as too liberal, too ecumenical.
In some of the Scandinavian Lutheran churches there are “orthodox opposition” groups—the Free Synod in the Church of Sweden, the Council on the Church’s Foundation in Norway, or the Paul Synod in Finland, for example. To a greater or lesser extent they are marginalized in their own churches. To what extent are there contacts between these groups and the ELCL?
JV: I have many friends among the members of those groups, although I think that conservative Lutherans split far too easily. This is a disease that should be cured somehow, because they sometimes find such reasons for splitting that you never really know whether the issues are theological or personal. I try to keep in contact with those people, although it is not so easy for our official church relationships. Sometimes the official church leaders receive it quite painfully if I have contacts with some opposition groups within their churches—although they themselves have openly supported opposition groups here in Latvia, inviting them to Sweden, for instance. I think that we should somehow coordinate our efforts, not in terms of opposition and not so as to enter into the church politics of other churches, but I think it is good to try together to keep the so-called “old faith.”
As you know, Touchstone is interested in the unity of Christians based on the “old faith,” as you put it. What are your thoughts on this in Latvia?
JV: My concern is that conservative Christians should find and use all opportunities to come together. Of course, in Latvia, we are different churches, different denominations, but still there are possibilities where we can cooperate and come closer; this is maybe where Touchstone can play a role by looking for such possibilities and opening fields where, for instance, Lutherans among themselves, or with Catholics and Orthodox, can discover what unites us, what brings us together, what helps us to have a firm stand in the situation of postmodernism, when the society around us does not accept truth as a fact and says each one’s “truth” is equally valuable. We are not like those who say we have to disregard all differences, all the facts, and just go and establish visible church unity without a real foundation for it. It can help us to maintain our position and not just to run after all changes in the society around us.
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“Latvia Revived” first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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