Jumalanpalvelus elämäksi, seurakunta kodiksi!

Defrocked, set aside (Dean Juhana Pohjola)

Hiippakuntadekaani Juhana PohjolaIn Plenary Session of 5 August 2014, the Cathedral Chapter [consistory] of the Diocese of Oulu ordered me, the undersigned, to be defrocked of pastoral office in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF). According to the decision of the Chapter, I had acted against the responsibilities of the pastoral office and broken my pastoral vows by serving the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. Therefore, I was assessed as being “clearly unfit” for pastoral office. In my response of 6 June 2014 to the Chapter, I submitted that I had not broken my ordination promise [vows] since I  understood that I had acted both in accordance with the Chapter’s assessment of my Christian teaching as being correct and in conformity with the writ of Pastoral Commission to serve Luther Foundation Finland [direct predecessor of the Mission Diocese] issued by the same ELCF Cathedral Chapter in 1999. Thus, observing carefully the confession of the ELCF, I have served, albeit in my manyfold human weaknesses, the parishioners of the ELCF.

While the decision of the Cathedral Chapter was to be expected, I cannot deny that it pains me deeply. The words “clearly unfit” do not leave any room for interpretation. These are harsh words, particularly when the matter at hand is the pastoral office, which is constantly served with one’s eyes fixed upon the Great Day of Judgment. Being defrocked also carries dimensions of personal shame. Surely no one wants to be judged unfit, and then be dismissed. In my maternal family line, the Simojoki family has had, generation after generation, pastors serving this Church ever since the late 1600s. I may be the first one to be defrocked. Amidst all this, I nevertheless feel I am privileged to have first received Holy Baptism and then Ordination on 18 December 1999 to Jesus Christ’s own church universal, in the service of the ELCF. In these 14 some years in the pastoral office of this Church, I have been placed in many hot spots, and even chilly ones, and so I have spent many sleepless nights. Yet I have not felt like this time has been spent working for a thankless and greedy Laban. I have had the the privilege of serving the One Who loves me and Whom I love. Christ and His church have upheld me and my family. Even the years have seemed like only a few days.

Although the decision for dismissal targets me as a person, this issue is actually about the relationship of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland to the Mission Diocese. This matter is clearly visible in the arguments[i] given in the resolution. The reasons for the foundation of the Mission Diocese have been repeated time and time again.[ii] The position of the Mission Diocese is connected to a broader underlying question: How is the church to be reformed? This is an ever-current reformatory theme. The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation will be celebrated in 2017. Within the ELCF there has been a confessional movement for decades. This campaign has aimed at ecclesiastical reform based on the Church’s own spiritual essence and starting point. The Bible and the Lutheran Confessions are the basis on which the church as a community of faith is built and renewed, not on majority resolutions constructed within a national church from the spirit of the times [Zeitgeist]. These competing programs of renewal have clashed over the Bible on such issues as the essence of the church, the mission of the church, the nature of foreign missions, baptism and qualifications for godparents, the pastoral office, admission to pastoral ordination, the rights of unborn infants, the Decree on marriage between a man and a woman, and many others.

Without indulging in the pathology of self-sacrifice, we can say that this decision issued by the Cathedral Chapter is yet another step forward in the ongoing “reformation” [in Finnish: “the purge of the faith”] of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Instead of the ELCF being purged by God’s Word, she is being purged from God’s Word. This is most clearly visible in the fact that since Bishop Olavi Rimpiläinen’s [Bishop Emeritus of Oulu] retirement no candidates adhering to the Apostolic pastoral office have been ordained, nor has there been any possibility for these men to apply for positions in parishes since the so-called Bishop Mikko Heikka paper.[iii] At present, pastors, ministers of the Word, who have been building the Lutheran alternative in our Mission Diocese congregations within the ELCF are being dismissed or threatened, at a time when the ELCF allows no alternative for service. It is still possible to proclaim part of the Word of God, but there are fewer and fewer places where the whole Word of God can be declared. More and more often one has to be quiet about urgent current issues or apologize that the Bible actually happens to say something about some matter. One wonders what the church will be like in the Jubilee Year of 2017!

With regard to a pastor who officiated two prayer events for same-sex couples at the Helsinki Gay Pride event this summer, Bishop (Ms) Irja Askola, of the Diocese of Helsinki stated that the emotional message of acceptance is more important than ecclesiastical, judicial questions. Law and emotions are also applied to the Mission Diocese, but in the opposite direction. The disciplinary proceedings issued by the ELCF are, in the most serious possible manner and with the utmost precision aimed at the Mission Diocese, first at Bishop Soramies, and now me. But Bishop Askola is correct in that jurisprudence is superseded by an emotional message. The message: “You are quite clearly unfit for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland” has been given to the thousands who attend the divine services of the Mission Diocese.

For my part, my service as an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is over. No longer am I allowed to serve parishioners as a pastor in the ELCF. I must confess, sadly enough, that my endeavors to renew the ELCF have been altogether rejected. But the office and ordination I received from Jesus Christ did not disappear with the bang of the gavel sounding out the Cathedral Chapter’s decision. The calling and the ordination will now be accompanied by a fresh sending forth. I still wish to serve in the work of building Jesus Christ’s church universal through the congregations of the Mission Diocese. Admittedly, I will evaluate my work of the past four years in a rather strange situation. Next week (15 August 2014), I will defend my doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki. Its title is: Calling, Blessing, and Sending – Understanding of Ordination and the Pastoral Office in the Ordination Rites of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, 1963-2003.

And what will follow? A friend of mine reminded me of the liberating Bible verse: “…set apart for the Gospel of God…” (Rom 1:1). There is enough work there for me too in the Apostolic office to the end of my life!

Juhana Pohjola, Pastor

Dean of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland

[i]  For further detail, see the report of The Rev. Samuli Siikavirta, pastor of the Mission Diocese, doctoral candidate in New Testament at the University of Cambridge:

Church of Finland Defrocks Dean Juhana Pohjola

[ii]For a brief overview, see: English homepage.

[iii]  Deliberation of the Select Committee under Bishop Mikko Heikka, 2006: within the Church, there will “be no discrimination of the sexes.”