Sunday, September 4, 2016
A Swede for Latvia!
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL) consecrated a priest barred from ordination in Sweden to be bishop. The Reverend Hans Jönsson, 48, was consecrated Saturday (August 6) at the cathedral in Riga to serve as bishop of Liepaja Diocese in southwestern Latvia. Bishop Jönsson graduated from Lund University in Sweden but was denied ordination in the Church of Sweden. He was, however, certified as qualified for ordination by the Church Coalition for The Bible and Confessions, an umbrella organization encompassing several Swedish Confessional Lutheran movements that was founded in 1958 at the initiative of Bishop Bo Giertz to defend traditional Lutheran faith in the Church of Sweden. The Coalition was originally formed by those who rejected women’s ordination as contradicting Scripture and tradition.
Since the founding of the Swedish Mission Province in 2003, approximately 40 men have been ordained in Sweden and in the Mission Dioceses in Finland and Norway who would otherwise have been excluded because they believe the Holy Scriptures limit the pastoral office to men. The ELCL has a close historical relationship to the Church of Sweden. Unlike the Church of Sweden, however, the Latvian church has remained faithful to Confessional Lutheran theology. Rev. Jönsson was elected June 3 to replace the retiring Bishop of Liepaja. The diocese consists of 124 congregations served by 40 pastors.
Archbishop Janis Vanags conducted the consecration, which was broadcast in its entirety by Latvian national television. Abp Vanags was assisted by Latvia’s bishops as well as Bishop Tiits Salumäe of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK), who is Chairman of the International Lutheran Council. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was represented by Dr. Albert Collver, Director of Church Relations and Assistant to the President. Provisional Bishop Torkild Masvie of The Lutheran Church in Norway also participated in the service. Representatives also attended from the Nordic Mission Dioceses, as well as the Swedish Luther Foundation and other Confessional Lutheran movements.
With nearly 300 congregations, the ELCL is the nation’s largest church. It is in fellowship with the LCMS and also has close ties to the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany. In June, the ELCL amended its constitution to reverse a policy imposed during the Soviet domination that opened ordained ministry to women (although no women had been ordained since shortly after Latvia’s liberation).
Missouri has enjoyed a very close relationship with the Lutheran Church in Latvia and it has been a catalyst for the confessional Lutherans in the entire region who seek to be faithful to Scripture and the Confessions in the face of changing culture and churches that merely reflect back wherever culture goes and whatever it values. We should commend all involved and in particular rejoice with them at this consecration. Further, it proves again that the key to confessional identity lies not in some democratized church structure nor in an episcopal structure alone but where the faithful remain steadfast and immovable in their confession. I am hopeful, however, that occasions such as this will wear down Missouri's instinctive resistance to anything episcopal -- be it office or function -- and remember that Lutherans were not always so opposed to bishops as they have been in Missouri's history. The stand of the Lutherans in Latvia was certainly enhanced by the ability of the episcopal structure there and a good man in the form of Archbishop Vanags.