Challenges and Joys in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland
To understand the present context and challenges and joys of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, an examination of some of the significant features of the Finnish church’s history will be useful. As with any historical account, there are many choices to be made. I engage here with only a few features I consider most relevant for our purpose. I will then present the challenges and joys which in my opinion best reflect our church’s current situation.
The first historical point is the gaining of independence and its relationship with Lutheran identity. Before 1809 Finland was part of the kingdom of Sweden. The Finnish War of 1808-1809 between Sweden and Russia ended with Sweden’s defeat. Finland gained the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy within the wider Russian Empire, with the Tsar as its Emperor. Finland was allowed to preserve its own legislation and Lutheran tradition from the time of Swedish rule.
For the church this meant Lutheran Christianity could support the construction of a Finnish ethnic and national identity within the deeply Orthodox Russian Empire. The church became a clearly independent national church after the ties to Sweden were broken. An indication of this is that in 1817 the Tsar accorded the title of Archbishop to the Bishop of Turku.
The second historical point concerns the influence of revival movements on Finnish religious life. At the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries several religious movements arrived or arose in Finland. Their origins lay mainly in German Pietism but also in Anglo-American evangelicalism, and were characterised by low-church views, personal Christian conviction, and a distancing from secular culture. The revival movements changed Finnish religiosity significantly and helped root Christian faith more deeply in the people’s mindset. It is noteworthy that while revival movements in other Nordic countries organised themselves for the most part outside the national church, in Finland such movements have been determined to stay within the church. This means that the Finnish revival movements have both enriched parish life and served constantly to raise a critical voice in the church.
The third historical point is the transformation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church from a state church to what has been called a folk church. During the century of autonomy (1809-1917) nearly every Finn had to be a member of either the Lutheran or Orthodox church. From the 1860s it became possible to establish registered Protestant minority churches, but the state church system persisted until the beginning of the 1920s. At independence Finland became a religiously non-confessional republic. This resulted as a loosening of the ties between church and state. Full religious freedom took effect in 1923. Despite fears within the church, only a small number of Finns left it.
The fourth historical point sees the church depicted as a servant of the people. Following the change in the church’s relationship with the state and the World Wars the Lutheran church began to seek a new role in Finnish society as a unifying force and servant. New models for parish work were developed – for example, work among children and families, family counselling, diaconal work, church music, evangelisation, and broadcasting. An understanding of the church’s mission saw new possibilities at a time when Finnish society, the church included, was becoming wealthier. This saw a rapid growth in the number of church employees; the total now stands at nearly 20,000. However, the 1960s saw many Finns distancing themselves from the Lutheran church and religion more generally due in part to secularisation and the internal migration of people from the countryside to the cities, resulting in a weakening of ties within families and communities. Although many still belonged to the church, they distanced themselves from its activities and could no longer be relied on to provide their children with Christian education. All this contributed to a rapid decline in church membership
That decline in church membership presents an acute challenge. In fifteen years the number of people belonging to the church has declined from 85% to a little less than 70% of those living in Finland. The most worrying detail is that younger age cohorts seem further from the church than older ones; many parents, although themselves members of the church, do not get their children baptised. The decline in membership will therefore continue.
Another challenge, closely related to the previous one, is financial belt tightening. The decline in membership combined with an increase in the number of employees retiring results in a heavier financial burden. Already many parishes are being forced to seek ways to save and cut costs. This means the nature of their work requires reconsidering. Within a couple of years all this will also apply to the central administration, which may affect how the church can address challenges in mission and international diaconal work.
The polarisation of society and the intellectual atmosphere in general is the third challenge. This is especially discernible in conversations and rhetoric touching immigration and asylum seekers. The ELCF cannot avoid this within its own circles, where a hardening of expression is a cause of concern.
The fourth contemporary challenge is the issue of same-sex marriages. A new marriage law took effect on 1 March 2017. The discussion concerning the possibility of same-sex marriages or blessings has been going on for many years in the ELCF. In 2018 the General Synod abandoned an initiative which sought to widen the understanding of marriage to include same-sex couples. The issue is now on the bishops’ agenda.
Reform in the church is necessary due largely to financial reasons but also because there are numerous opportunities for parish life that have gone largely unnoticed. Parishes are reforming their activities to enable the increasing input of parishioners. This requires employees to give more responsibility to parish members. The church’s central administration is also facing reform, and there are plans to establish a new unit focusing on the development of church work and parish life.
Confirmation schools are very popular among 15 year olds. In 2015 84% of the entire age cohort attended confirmation schools, which are deeply embedded in Finnish youth culture. The church has consciously and constantly sought to develop confirmation schools and their programmes to keep them up to date. Young
group leaders play an essential role in Finnish confirmation schools, making them one of the largest sectors in the church’s voluntary work. In 2015 more than 23,000 young confirmed people participated in group leader training, and nearly 16,000 served in confirmation schools.
The role of the church in society is the third reason for joy. Lutheran Christianity has had a profound impact on Finnish society. This was widely acknowledged during the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Many features of the Nordic welfare society – education, social responsibility, and enduring values – owe their origin to the Lutheran understanding of the role and position of the human being and the church. Even many who are not members of the church often appreciate these features. The perspectives of church leaders are heard and sometimes also widely discussed.
There is one further cause for joy to be mentioned: the ELCF is actively engaged in combating climate change. Some twenty years ago a special “Environment Diploma” was launched to underline the importance of responsible care for nature. The National Church Council grants the diploma to parishes with a clear plan for decreasing waste, taking climate issues into account in education, and using renewable energy, for example. In 2008 the National Church Council approved the “Environment Programme“, a guide to sustainable parish life. Only a few months ago the National Church Council approved the Church Climate Strategy, the aim of which is to make the church carbon neutral by 2030. Alongside these measures the ELCF seeks to reinforce hope amidst the anxiety caused by climate change.
A concluding remark
The ELCF has many joys as well as challenges. Some have remained constant through the years; some have changed with time. I should like to point to one special joy and one special challenge we always face in our church life. The joy is that our future lies in God’s hands. The challenge is how we remain attentive to this faith. This means the role of the church’s spiritual life can never be exaggerated.