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September-November 2021

  • November 2021: Cuts in Estonian defence endanger the sustainability of Mmilitary chaplaincy

In May 2021 the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces Lieutenant General Martin Herem announced that, due to financial cuts in defence sector, the chaplaincy service will most likely be disbanded. The same fate awaited the military orchestra. According to the reform only one chaplain, a coordinator, would remain in place and would organise the fulfilling of religious needs of military staff. The military chaplaincy was established in 1995 and has been part of the Estonian Defence Forces since. Chaplains have accompanied Estonian soldiers also in foreign missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commenting on the reform Herem explained that, “if someone in the daily ministry needs Christian pastoral care, this will be arranged via the local church. And if he or she belongs to another denomination, there is a coordinator for them, who will find the right church in time.” Herem also described the timeline of the reform, explaining that the cuts were first drafted already in 2020, because the corona virus was slowing down the economy.

The Estonian Council of Churches (ECC), representing the vast majority of the Estonian Christian community, responded that the decision seemed to be ideological rather than related with finances. The president of the ECC Andres Põder declared that there had been no complaints or critique over the activity of chaplains. In a meeting with the representatives of the ECC, Herem claimed that statistics proved that psychologists are more useful to the defence forces, but added that if the funding came from outside, the chaplaincy could perhaps continue as part of the defence forces. The ECC turned to Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and to head of the Parliament, former Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, to find the necessary funds to guarantee the sustainability of the chaplaincy. Several chaplains explained in the media that psychologists cannot replace chaplains, because chaplains were present at all times and covered a larger scale of tasks that the psychologists could.

Still, the reform has been steadily carried out. By November 2021 most of the chaplains have lost their job. Only a few are still in place, waiting for the reform to be finished in the coming months. The coordinator, as promised, will replace the chief chaplain and will coordinate all matters related to religion. Another chaplain will serve as an assistant to the coordinator. The final outcome of the reform and the detailed plan on how allow the Estonian Defence Forces to use local congregations for soldiers’ religious needs is yet to be defined.

  • October 2021: Anti-vaccination Advocates are Conservative Christians

While in the spring of 2019, religious associations and their leaders were quietly adapting to the situation caused by the new virus, the first critical speeches and writings about restrictions and state power were already being given or published by April. They came primarily from conservative Christian circles. Both the ban on public worship and the wider obligation to submit to secular authority were criticised. The basis was that the word of God was to be considered more important than the word of a man. The same criticism continued in November 2020, when the second wave of the virus began in Estonia.

At the end of December 2020, vaccination of the Estonian population started. Initially, doctors and the elderly were vaccinated, and from early spring the vaccination of the entire population began. The vaccination was initially successful because it took place in a situation where the second wave of the virus had reached its peak.

In February 2021, religious associations instructed their members on how to communicate with members of their congregations about vaccination. The church government of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is the largest religious association of Estonia, wrote to their clergy: “When deciding upon their own vaccination, clergy and church associates must follow expert advice, their conscience, Christian charity, and responsibility to their fellows and all others. When advising others on vaccination, it is not permitted for clergy to share recommendations on refraining from, postponing, or refusing vaccination, even if the pastor themselves are not getting vaccinated. The clergy, who had been critical of the country’s steps to suspend public worship in 2020, began to criticise the church leadership, saying it was the first time since the Soviet occupation that clergy have been told what they can or cannot say to their church members.

Illimar Toomet, a pastor at the Central-Estonian Märjamaa congregation who spoke on the subject, also mentioned the stem cells of embryos that had lost their lives through abortion and had been used in developing the vaccine. This argument was widely used by conservative Christians elsewhere in the world. They claimed that it made the use of the vaccine unethical. The Estonian press also asked who decides which deaths are allowed and which are not, drawing a comparison with the fact that abortions are allowed in Estonia.

At the same time, some clerics called for people to get vaccination and confirmed that the benefits outweighed the potential harm. The leader of the local Catholics, Bishop Philippe Jourdan, called it an act of love that allowed everyone to signal that they cared for each other, and supported Pope Francis’s call for vaccination https://arvamus.postimees.ee/7325799/philippe-jourdan-vaktsineerimine-on-armastuse-tegu.

The pace of vaccination slowed down in the summer, and more and more articles sceptical of vaccination were published. Among the vocal protestors, there were also conservative Lutheran clergymen, who had previously spoken out against abortion and the legalisation of same-sex cohabitation, and the representatives of Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition, whose leaders belong to the Catholic Church. The foundation is part of the ultraconservative Tradition, Family, Property movement that has spread from Brazil. The organisation has also contact with the Ordo Iuris movement in Poland.

Veiko Vihuri, a Lutheran clergyman, argued that vaccination is a belief in progress, an attempt to assert a revolutionary mindset that seeks to revolutionise the world through human reason, freeing people from the combs of religion and morality to create a new type of future through science and progressive ideologies. He added that, of course, such a being should also be free from the limits set by nature, be it the aging of the biological body or its susceptibility to disease.

When the requirement for a vaccine passport was introduced in Estonia from the beginning of August, Vihuri immediately claimed that the Republic of Estonia was no longer democratic because people were divided on the basis of vaccination. At the same time, the Lutheran church did not introduce the use of vaccination passport.

The introduction of the vaccination passport was followed in August by anti-vaccination demonstrations. The largest demonstration took place on 23 October 2021 in Tallinn and was organised by the Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition. Speaking in front of nearly 10,000 people, Veiko Vihuri called for an end to discrimination and the distinction between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, as well as for the promotion of vaccination. In October, when the demonstration took place, Estonia was at the peak of the third wave of the coronavirus, which makes Estonia the country with the highest infection rate in Europe.

  • September 2021: The ordination of a Lutheran gay pastor causes a discussion in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church

On September 11, Meelis Süld from Estonia was ordained a priest of the Lutheran Church in Great Britain. Süld is known in Estonia as a radio broadcaster of the Estonian Public Broadcasting, which hosts the weekly church life program. He is one of the leaders of the Estonian Gay Christian Society The ordination to priesthood was carried out by Bishop Tor Berger Jørgensen.

Meelis Süld’s desire to become a Lutheran pastor was known in Estonia, because he received a master’s degree from a private university owned by the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is a prerequisite for becoming a priest. This training is usually followed by a year-long pastoral seminar, which ends with clerical examinations. Meelis Süld wanted to be accepted to a pastoral seminary, but the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Urmas Viilma, announced that according to the principles of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, gay men are not ordained priests. At the same time, Viilma was ready to write a letter of recommendation to Süld, so that he could ask for ordination in Great Britain to . Both the British and Estonian Lutheran Churches belong to the Lutheran World Federation and are in communion. This means that after his ordination, Meelis Süld had the right to work as a visiting priest in a congregation in Estonia.

The ordination service on September 11 caused a scandal in Estonia, not only because of the ordination itself, but because of the participation of Bishop Tiit Salumäe from the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. There are three bishops in the EELC office, in addition to the archbishop. Among other duties, Tiit Salumäe is responsible for supervising Estonian diaspora congregations. During his visit to Great Britain, Salumäe visited Estonian congregations in Great Britain and partners of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in England. He was accompanied by Meelis Süld.

Tiit Salumäe’s participation in the ordination service, during which he took part the ritual of laying hands, received a sharp reaction among the conservative members of the Lutheran Church, and the topic also gained attention in the secular media. Fifty-five deacons and priests, and a similar number of lay people, turned to the bishops of the EELC demanding that they remain firmly in line with the current position of the EELC, and condemn Tiit Salumäe’s participation in Meelis Süld’s ordination service.

The church government has already convened a working group in the spring to develop a strategy on communicating and discussing theologically sensitive issues in the church. Nevertheless, the case ended with Bishop Salumäe asking for forgiveness in the ecclesiastical press for attending the ordination service. The church leadership confirmed that attitudes toward homosexuality have not changed in the church. To this day, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church does not allow the ordination of homosexuals, nor does it bless or perform marriage of same-sex couples.

D 25 November 2021    APriit Rohtmets

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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