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The XV theological dialogue of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Orthodox Church of Finland (held by webinar)

The fifteenth theological conversations between delegations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Orthodox Church of Finland were held on 10 December 2020 at the invitation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The meeting was held remotely because of the coro-navirus pandemic. The themes of the conversations were “The Nicene Faith and the Apostolic Gos-pel” and “A Common Witness in Finnish Society”. Bishop Seppo Häkkinen emphasised in his statement that the church must have a strong identity and remember its core mission. Metropolitan Elia emphasised that ecumenism required encounter, dialogue, and the courage to listen and be open to a reality that might seem foreign. The churches encourage dialogue at both the personal and par-ish levels, and decided to continue joint theological conversations.

Bishop Seppo Häkkinen led the delegation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Its other members were the university researcher Dr Heta Hurskainen, Pastor Jukka Hildén, Vicar, Docent Sammeli Juntunen, and Docent Anni Maria Laato, as well as leading expert Tomi Karttunen and expert Ari Ojell in the meeting’s secretariat. Metropolitan Elia led the delegation of the Orthodox Church of Finland. Its other members were Diocesan Secretary Artturi Hirvonen, Canon Heikki Huttunen, university lecturer, Dr Ari Koponen, Soili Penttonen MDiv, and the Revd Dr Canon Mi-kael Sundkvist, Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference.

Bishop Seppo Häkkinen pointed out in his opening remarks that there had been significant changes in Finnish religiosity and its relationship with Christianity and the church in the twenty-first centu-ry. It was now essential to pay especial attention to two issues. The church must have a strong iden-tity first. The church could take her place in the world only when she knew what she was, and what her task was. The Christian church had been sent into the world to witness to Christ and make all nations his disciples.

Second, the church must remember her core mission. The church’s identity grew from the apostolic faith. The church’s core task arose in turn from her associated mission. The Nicene Creed strength-ened faith in the Triune God and Jesus Christ as God’s only begotten Son. The other ecumenical councils were really just explications of Nicaea’s message of salvation.

The second theme of our current dialogue, “A Common Witness in Finnish Society” was now more relevant than ever. It discussed the search for the ways in which Christianity was relevant in this age, and appealed and touched the people of this age. It also steered the change of both our folk churches. The revolution in religiosity in recent years, attitudes to Christianity, and the change in the churches’ status had rendered our joint conversations even more important.

In his words of greeting Metropolitan Elia characterised the pressures for change in the church from two quarters: first, from society – concerning the kind of role the church should play in society; second, the internal pressures for change that called for the church’s internal reform so that she could better serve people in this age. Herein lay a tension: one must know about one’s own tradi-tion, and be a global church and at the same time a folk church that drove the church’s recognition in this age. Knowledge of one’s identity was a prerequisite for witnessing to the Christian faith.
The Metropolitan also stated that ecumenism required encounter, dialogue, courage to listen, and an openness to a reality that might itself seem alien. This required us to have the courage to accept our differences. We must strive to listen and accept our difference, not seek to create something that was unreal and untrue. However, this presupposed the desire to find a common tone, connectedness, and unity among Christians

The Nicene Faith and the Apostolic Gospel

Docent Tomi Karttunen and Dr Ari Koponen introduced the topic. In his presentation Karttunen stated that baptism was one element of the proclamation of the apostolic gospel. It was a gift of the Triune God. It was the initiation of the Christian life, the starting point of one’s Christian action. Koponen outlined the Orthodox concept of tradition and the church through two Russian emigré theologians, Bulgakov and Florovsky. In combining two different theological approaches, one could perceive the need for an interaction in which the understanding of tradition and the church was his-torically rooted but open to the future. All the presentations given in the doctrinal conversations will be published in the theological newsletter of the Lutheran National Church Council’s Department for International Relations, Reseptio.

Based on the presentations and discussion, it is jointly stated that Christian doctrine, in its crys-tallisation by the Bible and tradition, is a positive phenomenon. It is an aid to understanding the content of the Christian faith. At the heart of the doctrine is faith in the Triune God and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the mediator of grace and salvation, who shared our humanity, was cruci-fied, and is risen. In an atmosphere of prayer and faith, doctrine makes salvation present. As the crystallisation of the Christian message, it conveys the reality of the apostolic gospel, and of the Christ who is present in the Word and sacraments.

Based on the presentations and conversations that have taken place, it is proposed that our churches establish a working group to prepare a proposal for the following doctrinal conversations:
1) a joint declaration concerning baptism and
2) a joint declaration concerning salvation as deification (theosis) and justification;
3) to concretise a plan for the order and schedule in which future themes will be addressed in our doctrinal conversations.

A Common Witness in Finnish Society

The topic was introduced in a joint presentation by Pastor Jukka Hildén and Canon Heikki Huttunen. The presentation addressed the fundamental question of how the encounter of people within the framework of the church’s faith might be promoted. There was also reason to ask what the position of Christianity and religion in general was and would be in the Finland of today and tomorrow. This reflection was especially important for the Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox Churches, which bore our country’s millennial heritage of Christian faith and culture. Perhaps the trust and friendship built between these communities might serve as an example for the current ef-forts being made in dialogue and cooperation of faith communities? The churches and Christians could increasingly join in meeting members of other religions at the local level. The quest for the visible unity of the church was the special gift of ecumenism in comparison to interreligious dia-logue. We were united by the risen Christ.

It was also stated that each generation must through its own repentance rediscover the church’s pro-phetic mission in its own context. The church was in the world, but not of it. At the margins, on the edge of society, the church might be able to listen especially carefully to the mind and will of God. The Holy Spirit was given room to act in a time of uncertainty.

The conclusion about the churches’ shared witness is that ecumenism should be encouraged at both the personal and parish levels. The commitment of vicars, as leaders of parishes, is paramount. It is also good to remember the development of new forms of twinning work, and its potential as an activity of grassroots ecumenism. As Lutheran and Orthodox Churches, we are united by a strong common destiny in Finnish society. We should work together in seeking ways to live as the church at this time.

The continuation of doctrinal conversations

It was decided to continue the joint theological doctrinal conversations. The questions of baptism and salvation as theosis and justification will be addressed next. A still more concrete plan will be developed for the systematic handling of doctrinal issues for future conversations by next year’s meeting. It will also be necessary to consider which current issues should be addressed, and how to promote local ecumenism and parish twinning.

The Orthodox Church will host the next meeting. It was agreed it should be held between 20 and 21 October in Tampere. A working group will undertake the preparatory work for the meeting. It would still be good to obtain more publicity for the dialogue’s results, which are too little known. Joint declarations and guidelines for practical ecumenical cooperation in both church services and other ecumenical cooperation might promote concrete reception in local parishes and at various levels of church life.