Is the Mission Diocese a church? I hear this question often. How do I answer? Yes, the Mission Diocese is truly a church, even though it is not a registered religious community. What does this mean and what are the consequences of it?
“The Mission Diocese is part of ‘the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ (…) and that, because of and by the power of the means of grace administered within it, is truly a church.” This is how the Diocesan Order expresses the matter. We have not founded a new church, but we partake in the apostolic church when we receive Christ at the altar and by the pulpit at the divine services in our congregations. How could we not be a church when “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17)?
When we began to gather for divine services amidst the spiritual state of emergency in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF) in the year 2000, it meant existing as a ‘church growing into a church’. On the one hand, we already partook fully in the reality of the Church of Christ, but on the other hand, through various ecclesial crises and cases of ‘being thrown out’ from the ELCF, the outline of a church began to take shape amongst us ever more clearly.
After our congregations organised themselves as the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland in 2013, the development of ‘churchification’ was reinforced. Now we have the express foundation of the Bible and the confession, a congregational membership based on baptism, participation in divine services and church ceremonies, the pastoral office and ordination into it, our own church governance with episcopal polity, and an independent decision-making in the ecumenical field. Therefore it is good to say aloud that when you head out to mass in the Mission Diocese on a Sunday, you are really coming to a Lutheran church in the full sense of the word.
The registration paper is not what makes a church a church. The Finnish Patent and Registration Office does not define the marks of the true church
We have not made use of the possibility offered by the legislation of our society to become a registered religious community. Although the status recognised by society and the legal protection attached to it have their important role to play, the registration paper is not what makes a church a church. The Finnish Patent and Registration Office does not define the marks of the true church. After all, a great number of Christian churches exist amidst persecution without any societal status or protection. When we ponder this question that stirs up a lot of emotion, we must do so peacefully, starting from the activities of our congregations and the needs of our parishioners and not because we want to gain the name of a church. As a church growing into a church, our biggest challenge is to ensure the continuity and development of the basic work of our congregations.
When talking about the ecclesial identity of the Mission Diocese, one is often looking for an answer not so much to the essence and mission of our congregations but to our relation with the ELCF. Most people are not asking about the theological definition of the essence of the church but about very practical and emotional questions. It is, therefore, good to keep in mind two basic horizons. First, the Mission Diocese is not part of the activities of the ELCF, but it acts fully independently as a church. Secondly, the Mission Diocese continues to cherish the spiritual heritage of the ELCF, serves also those left spiritually homeless in the ELCF, and supports employees and parishioners who confess the same faith there.
Many have also been pondering the question of membership in the ELCF. The ELCF archbishop Mäkinen’s statements in support of same-sex marriage caused a membership crisis amongst the many who hold to the traditional view of the faith. In some ELCF revival movements, people were told not to quit their ELCF membership, but at the same time it was voiced that they welcome also those who have renounced their membership. So they curtsied to criticism, but because of their churchly ties and action plan, they encouraged people to stay in the ELCF.
What do we say in the Mission Diocese? On the one hand, as we confess our communities to be true congregations, membership in them already meets the spiritual need and requirement for belonging to a church. Renouncing one’s membership in the ELCF is not simply about detaching oneself from its unbiblical decisions but also an expression of having found one’s congregational home in the Mission Diocese. It is plenty to be a member of it and to support it. On the other hand, we stress that leaving one’s ELCF membership is no requirement for participating in our divine services and for being a member of our congregations. After all, our work came about within the ELCF, through the agency of its members and for them.
We live now in this tension. We cannot deny our own churchly character and mission, but neither can we deny our history and responsibility for those left unattended. The pace of change in the established church has been earth-shatteringly fast and it seems only to be accelerating. Instead of impulsive decisions, we continue to need peaceful wisdom when we trust in the good providence of the Church’s Lord on our journey as a church growing into a church.
Rev Dr Juhana Pohjola
Dean of the Diocese
Originally published in Finnish in February 2015
[box]Registered and unregistered religious groups in Finland
According to Finnish law, religion may be practised in registered or unregistered religious communities. A community comprising a minimum of 20 people of age has the right to apply to the Finnish Patent and Registration Office for the status of a registered religious community. Other requirements are having a creed and by-laws. Having this status recognised by the Finnish state comes with some legal and tax benefits such as the right to apply for the licence to perform marriage ceremonies (instead of simply blessing civil marriages) and purchase tax-free communion wine.
It is also possible to practise religion in associations that are registered or unregistered. Of the 46,000 Finnish Pentecostals, for instance, only ca. 8,000 are members of the registered religious community called the Pentecostal Church of Finland, whilst the majority are members of congregations acting as associations.
The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland functions legally as an unregistered association. Its faith and practice are decreed in its Diocesan Order. The Mission Diocese is an independent confessional Lutheran body founded in 2013 that comprises 29 congregations with ca. 1,700 members nationwide, in addition to many non-members in attendance. The clergy of the Diocese consists of 47 pastors of whom 22 are stipendiary. You may read more about the identity of the Mission Diocese in English here and about the recent developments here.[/box]