11.05.2017

Russia’s Lutheran Pietists are not Alone

Alexander Scheiermann consecrated as bishop of Siberia and the Far East

M o s c o w -- Elected on 16 October, Alexander Scheiermann was consecrated as bishop of the “Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the Urals, Siberia and Far East” (ELCUSFE) in Omsk on 23 April. Looks can be deceiving: Though representatives of the “Evangelical Church of Germany’s” (EKD) Department for External Relations usually appear in the front row at major Russian Lutheran events, the coming of the tall, soft-spoken and amiable Alexander Scheiermann to Siberia proves that pietistic forces within church leadership remain alive-and-well. The German evangelical missions of Liebenzell, Marburg and Hermannsburg were all present at the festivities. The conservative Volker Sailer from Stuttgart, bishop of this church from 1998 to 2004, as well as Brigitte Schaude, the widow of Otto Schaude, the German bishop of this church from 2010 to 2016, also found their way to Omsk. The legendary “Sister Luise”, a German deaconess from Elbingerode who had served in Moscow until 2005, is spending 90-day visa periods at Omsk headquarters.

The Hermannsburg mission though has discontinued its programme for educating East European pastors. One of its last students was present in Omsk: Tomsk pastor Vitaly Moor, who graduated in 2011.

Russian Lutheran theological convictions vary: though one group is committed to evangelism, others appear more committed to violins and dance. At events on Saturday, the 22nd, the latter appeared to enjoy the upper hand. Yet the activities of German cultural clubs under the church umbrella are barely sanctioned by those stressing the Russian character of national Lutheranism. Indeed, the independent “Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia” (ELCIR) is in ethnic terms much more Finnish than German.

A representative of the German and Russian Evangelical Alliances was present, but the Omsk celebrations were nearly bereft of non-Lutheran attendees. Yet one Lutheran guest, Pastor Wille Melanen from Ingria’s superintendency in Krasnoyarsk, insisted on acting in the spirit of the original Reformation. In a word of greeting on Sunday, he criticized the EKD representative’s (Arend de Fries from then provincial Lutheran church of Hanover) glowing report on rapprochement between German evangelicals and Catholics. Most – but not all - found the setting unfitting; one foreign observer called the greeting “courageous”.

Bradn Buerkle, a US-theologian based at the Lutheran seminary in Novasaratovka near St. Petersburg, thinks it inappropriate to read church politics into Scheiermann’s appointment. “Here’s a man whose history is tied to Omsk region. He is well-liked here, has foreign contacts, speaks German and possesses a great combination of gifts. A person of state-church piety would not have kept Scheiermann from being appointed here.” The Bishop, who is a German citizen born in Omsk region in 1967, only spent the years 1988-95 in Germany and Switzerland. He had served as superintendent in Saratov/Volga since 1997.

Buerkle, who was sent by the US “Evangelical Lutheran Church of America” in 2001, is now supported by Germany’s Hermannsburg mission. Yet the ELCA remains interested in Russia and sent a representative from Kansas to the Omsk festivities. Theological training for lay pastors remains Buerkle’s speciality and he heads Novasaratovka seminary’s “Equipping for Ministry” programme. He organizes educational events throughout the country and is starting a programme for continuing education among theologians. Diagnostics are a problem. He laments: “The places most direly in need of education have so little experience that they do not even know how to express their basic needs.”

Buerkle predicts that the number of preaching points in remote locations will continue to shrink. “But we have dozens of viable congregations and I do now know why they should disappear. Some of them are even growing. The tendency will be to concentrate resources on the viable congregations, irregardless of whether they are located in larger cities or not.”

One example from European Russia: A decade ago one still spoke of 50 congregations and preaching points in the Kaliningrad enclave. Some insiders predict that only six of them will survive, several of which are located in small towns. The ELCUSFE, the globe’s largest Lutheran church in terms of real estate, has 3.000 to 5.000 members. Total membership of Russia’s “Evangelical-Lutheran Church” may not exceed 20.000.

Crimea’s roughly six congregations have transferred their loyalty to Moscow. Events there might have transpired less peacefully if the weak Lutheran offices in Odessa/Ukraine would not have been mired in strife.

The ELC, headed by Archbishop Dietrich Brauer in Moscow, demonstrates theological continuity. The ordination of women remains on the books. The candidates are few – the last such ordination occurred several years ago. Brauer of course led the consecration in Omsk.

Alexander Scheiermann’s spouse, Irene, will not be moving immediately to Omsk. One child is still attending elementary school in Saratov.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
London, 11 May 2017
kant50(at)web(dot)de”

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #17-06, 764 words.