On 2nd February 1920, the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed between Estonia and Soviet Russia ending the Estonian War of Independence. The Treaty stated that ‘Russia unreservedly recognises’ the independence of the Republic of Estonia and renounced all rights to the territory of Estonia. The Tartu Peace Treaty is regarded as the birth certificate of the Republic of Estonia and it is commemorated every year on 2nd February.
On 2nd February 2015, when Christians around the world celebrated Candlemas and citizens of Estonia also celebrated the ninety-fifth anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Estonia celebrated the consecration of Urmas Vilma as Bishop and installed him as the seventh, and at 41 years of age, the youngest Archbishop of Estonia. In his sermon, the new Archbishop wove together the themes of Candlemas and the Tartu Peace Treaty, speaking deeply into the hearts of Estonians who were very aware of the battles taking place in neighbouring Ukraine and were also aware that, like their Ukrainian neighbours, they, too, share a border with Russia.
The service was attended by government officials, guests and bishops from within Estonia and around the world. Munib Younan, Bishop of Palestine and Jordan and President of the Lutheran World Federation, was one of the consecrating bishops, and being a Palestinian would understand concerns about the intentions of powerful neighbours. I was there to bring greetings from the diocese of Rochester, praying that our link with Estonia would go from strength to strength, and also from the Church of England on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The communion between the Baltic Lutheran Churches (which includes Estonia) and the Church of England was signed in 1994 and is known as the ‘Porvoo Communion’. A number of the Baltic bishops spoke of the high regard in which they held the Porvoo Communion.
The service, very similar to Anglican consecrations, was a wonderful mixture of old and new and was a musical feast. The Gloria was an adaptation of an Estonian folk song accompanied by a zither. A brass band played Mendelssohn and beautifully led music from Taizé. A violin provided a haunting accompaniment to a children’s choir singing, ‘We need to hold one another’ specially written for the occasion. And then there were the hymns accompanied by the magnificent cathedral organ. Lutherans sit to sing and stand to pray, except for the singing of Martin Luther’s great hymn (like a national anthem for Lutherans, originally written in the sixteenth century as an appeal for religious freedom against the power of Rome), ‘A safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon,’ for which everybody stands. English hymns were also sung (in Estonian) including, ‘The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord,’ which was a favourite at the time of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 when the Church of England faced division – little changes!
Estonia has a young church in a young nation: it was a symbolic moment to see the 41 year old Archbishop speaking with the 38 year old Prime Minister. Both face leadership dilemmas of drawing possibilities out of challenges. Archbishop Urmas takes up his responsibilities at a time of declining church attendance combined with the need for the church to speak to a young nation. While the political contexts of the dioceses of Estonia and Rochester are different, we can learn a great deal from each other through our prayer and fellowship and in the focusing of our mission and the organising of our ministry.