By Ivars Kupcis*
In addition to ecumenical prayer and celebration – with the participation of Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Adventist, Pentecostal, Methodist churches, and sometimes even representatives of the Old Believers’ community – Christian unity in Latvia usually takes the form of practical cooperation.
That includes joint theological conferences, cooperation in theological education or preparation of the ecumenical religious education curriculum for public schools. Also, in relationship with the state authorities, Christians of various denominations have been able to take a common position – the ability to speak in one voice has allowed churches to communicate their values more effectively.
"Relationships among the different churches and congregations of various denominations here can be described as unusually good and trusting. Church leaders are not only colleagues, but also close friends", reflected Janis Vanags, archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. "This is mainly due to the persecution during the Soviet regime that taught us to put aside disagreements and competition, and to see that we all are Christians, children of the same Heavenly Father."
At the same time the archbishop admits that what encumbers the ecumenical dialogue in Latvia is the lack of sufficiently qualified theologians in ecumenism. For this reason, there is practically no expression of the local ecumenical dialogue, nor even sufficient study and discussion of the documents generated in the global ecumenical process.
Nevertheless, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is like a culmination of ecumenical cooperation and a good opportunity for testimony to the broader public. In Latvia, one of the main events of the Week of Prayer this year was an ecumenical worship service on 21 Thursday at St James' Cathedral in Riga, with the participation of the Latvian Roman Catholic Archbishop Metropolitan of Riga Zbigņevs Stankevičs, Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia Janis Vanags, Bishop of the Union of Latvian Baptists Pēteris Sproģis, Metropolitan of Orthodox Church of Riga and Latvia Alexander, as well as the clergy from other Christian church bodies.
Theology students and believers from various churches and denominations attended as well.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has encouraged the congregations to organize joint activities in other regions of Latvia as well. Every day this week, the ecumenical church services will be celebrated in Sigulda and its surroundings at the Catholic, Lutheran and Baptist churches, Sigulda hospital chapel, and the churches in Inčukalns, Mālpils, Krimulda and Turaida.
Every evening, ecumenical events will also take place also in Madona. For example, on Wednesday, congregations from Madona gathered for evening prayer at the Ecumenical Prayer Chapel, where participants of the Lutheran, Catholic and Baptist denominations provide continuous prayer 24 hours a day year round.
On Saturday, clergy from Madona churches and representatives of the local media will participate in a public discussion on ecumenism in Latvia and the experience of unity among Christians in Madona.
Meanwhile there are churches and regions in Latvia with a long history of regular ecumenical fellowship throughout the year.
A good example of this are the four churches situated in one neighborhood in Riga – the Luther’s church in Tornkalns, the Agenskalns Baptist Church and the Catholic churches of St Therese and Mary Magdalene, whose ecumenical friendship has lasted for two decades. The clergy of these churches meet once a month to discuss current events, and annual broader gatherings of church members are held in one of the churches.
The congregations also publish a common calendar, widely distributed in their communities, and churches have a joint spiritual care ministry at the Riga Children's Hospital.
"Consonance among the churches of various denominations strengthens the credibility of the Christian witness, and peace between religious traditions is a stabilizing factor in the society", Archbishop Jānis Vanags of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said in light of the current developments in the world.
Churches who do not fight each other are more likely to become credible peacemakers, working together to relieve the suffering of the wounded world, he added.
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity set to begin (WCC press release of 14 January)
“Bible App” brings Week of Prayer texts to smart phones (WCC press release of 11 January)
*Ivars Kupcis is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Latvia