Latvian Lutherans split over women pastors - Feature

Riga, Latvia -­ The Lutheran Church in the Baltic state of Latvia has chosen to break communion with its neighbour Sweden - because it does not want to accept women pastors. After the Latvian Synod of Bishops ­ the church's governing body ­ elected conservative Janis Vanags as Archbishop of Riga in 1993, the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church decided to end its fellowship with the Lutheran Church of Sweden.

Instead, it joined the conservative Missouri Synod in the United States, which is one of the few Lutheran synods which refuse the ordination of women pastors.

The Latvian situation reflects a trend across Eastern Europe: even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, faiths raised in persecution remain far more conservative than those forged in the West.

During the 50-year Soviet occupation of the Baltic state, the Communists, who were officially atheist, allowed the ordination of women in the semi-underground Latvian Lutheran church.

Ironically, the women who were ordained under Communism are allowed to keep serving in Latvia, but Vanags, the country's first post-Communist archbishop, refuses to ordain any more.

Vanags' office, contacted several times by Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, did not respond to requests to be interviewed.

But in 1994, in the heat of the church row over the ordination of women pastors, Vanags explained his position to the New York Times.

"It's not that I don't think women are just as capable as men - they often get better marks than men in the theological faculty," Vanags said. "But we have to follow what the Bible tells us, we can't impose our ideas of human rights or equal rights."

The issue has alienated both those Latvian women who wanted to be ordained as pastors, and foreign-based Latvian churches that were established by Latvians who fled the Soviets after 1940.

After graduating from the University of Latvia's theological school, Biruta Puike left the country to pursue her calling as a pastor, because it became impossible to do so in the small Baltic nation which joined the European Union in 2004.

"In essence, we, the graduates of the theological department, unable to follow our calling in Latvia, were forced to leave our homes and relatives to move to places where we would be accepted and ordained as pastors," Puike said in an e-mail from the Midwestern US state of Michigan, where she works as a pastor at a Lutheran church for the Latvian diaspora.

Before his election as archbishop, Vanags said he would not approve ordaining women pastors in the Lutheran Church, which boasts more than 300,000 members in the country of 2.3 million.

Graduates like Puike had hoped the 49-year-old Vanags would not be re-elected for a second term, the church elected to have the archbishop for life.

But while some critics attack the church's rigid policies, others say that it is, in part, created by the very same upheavals which led to the end of the Soviet Union, and represents a search for stability in a bewildering world.

"It comes at a time when a lot of new things are happening," said Juris Calitis, the head of the University of Latvia's Theological department and Lutheran pastor whose licence was revoked after he served at a worship service related to the gay pride parade in Riga in 2006.

"Democracy is new, independent Latvia is new, the church is new, the EU is new, openness to dialogue and discussion are new," he said.