The Lutheran Church in Latvia Wants to Ban the Ordination of Women

[1] On November 11, 2009 there was an atmosphere of anxiety in the Youth Center of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church (LELC) in Riga’s Old City as LELC pastors and evangelists met. The agenda of the LELC Pastors’ Conference had as a point of debate the question of women’s ordination — should the new Constitution to be accepted in June 2010 include a gender restriction for the ordination of pastors in the LELC? Since the 1993 election of Janis Vanags as archbishop, there have been no new ordinations of women in the LELC. Vanags, when elected, stated that he would honor the ordination of women already in the ministry. This applied to 6 women — Vaira Bitena and Berta Stroža, the first to be ordained in 1975, Sarmite Fišere, Railvija Rozite, Aida Predele and Dace Rublevska, who in 1993 were in the ministry. But, because of his biblical interpretation and his personal conviction, the Archbishop discontinued the practice of women’s ordination. He understood from the letter of Paul that women could not “have (usurp) authority over a man” (1Tim 2:11-12); thus, in his understanding only men can be pastors and lead the church.

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
– 1 Tim 2:11-12

[2] For 15-16 years the issue of women’s ordination in the LELC has been more or less in “limbo”, and some conservative male pastors decided that in 2009-2010 this question should be settled “once and for all” by proposing an amendment to the LELC Constitution to say that one of the requirements for ordination would be the candidate’s gender.

[3] Women’s ordination in the LELC started in 1975 but in 1993 was suspended
It is reasonable to ask: Why a correction of the Constitution to officially affirm the stand of the LELC is necessary? Women’s ordination was practiced for some years in the LELC, but was suspended in the 1990s. Women’s ordination took place between 1975 and 1991. Women’s ordination started taking place in 1975 under archbishop Janis Matulis, who saw the great shortage of Lutheran pastors in Latvia and decided that willing theological students — including women — should be considered as candidates for the ministry.

[4] During the Soviet occupation, all churches and churchgoers in Latvia were persecuted. It took courage for men and women to attend the Lutheran theological seminary, affirm their belief in God, and preach to their fellow countrymen and countrywomen. On August 23, 1979 the first three women in LELC history were ordained. This same day marked the 40th anniversary of the signing of the odious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, dividing Europe into interest spheres. This date may not be well known for Americans, but the Pact meant that Nazi Germany was given free license to attack Poland and France, and Soviet Russia could occupy the three Baltic States. August 23 1939 has been an important, sad date for Latvia, giving the Soviet Union freedom to come into our country, arrest and shoot or deport our citizens.

[5] Thus, to choose August 23rd in 1975 to ordain the first women as pastors meant to put a great deal of responsibility upon their shoulders — to be witnesses to the ordeals and persecutions experienced by their countrymen and countrywomen under Soviet occupation. The women who studied and were ordained in 1970s and 1980s were mostly elderly; as pensioners they could not be forced to leave their [previous] jobs. A small group of younger women — Sarmite Fisere, Railvija Rozite, Aida Predele and Dace Rublevska — surfaced when reform movements took hold in the Soviet Union and in Latvia the Soviet control eased.

[6] During the time of perestroika in the Soviet Union, the dissident Renewal and Liberation Movement began inside the Lutheran Church. This new generation of activists spoke out and acted in opposition to the Soviet-installed archbishop in Latvia. Among these young men was Janis Vanags. The historic LELC Synod of 1989 ousted the Soviet installed archbishop Eriks Mesters and elected a new archbishop Karlis Gailitis, who favored liberalization in the church. This Synod also took a vote on women’s ordination. The vote was two-thirds in favor of women’s ordination.

[7] Since 1989, this resolution about women’s ordination has been in effect. Archbishop Vanags has not complied with this resolution, nor has he called for a discussion about this question.

[8] During 2009 written requests from two deaneries in the LELC — Valmiera and Cesis — asked for the issue of women’s ordination to be amended in the governing document of the LELC — the new Constitution, which is to be adopted in June 2010 by the Synod, which has the final authority.

[9] About one-half of all clergy (the total is about 200) — bishops, deans, pastors, assistant pastors and evangelists — attended the Pastors’ Conference. There was no real discussion of the theological bases for the ban on women’s ordination. However, evangelist Ieva Zeiferte addressed the conference, presenting the Lutheran World Federation’s position and recommendations to member churches concerning women’s ordination. Quoting from the March 2008 paper The Ongoing Reformation of the Church: The Witness of Ordained Women Today, Ieva Z. emphasized the LWF’s view that the ordination of women is “not primarily … a societal or women’s issue but as a matter that goes to the heart of what it means to be the church.” From some pastors’ surprised reactions, it seemed that many were hearing for the very first time that the LWF actually has a position on this issue.

[10] The outcome of the vote
An open vote was taken on the resolution to forward the proposed change in the Constitution on to the LELC Synod in June 2010. The vote was 39 for continuing the process to the Synod, 32 against, with 11 abstentions. From this it can been seen that the movement to ban women’s ordination at this point is supported by only one-fifth of the clergy. In the Synod, the resolution to amend the Constitution must receive two-thirds of the votes of the Synod participants.

[11] In the official communiqué of the LELC to the Latvian News Agency LETA, the LELC announced that the Pastors’ Conference voted to officially affirm the ban on women’s ordination in the Constitution, but gave no details of the voting. The voting details were, however, announced by the LELC in the church newspaper Svetdienas Rīts (Sunday Morning) November 21, 2009 issue. In both reports it was mentioned that “discussions will be organized to consider the theological bases of women’s ordination.”

[12] This question has raised lively and emotional debates in the Internet Forum of the LELC. The LELC has a webpage — — where at present 43 pages of commentaries from men and women alike can be found. Here, fortunately, both sides of the issue are allowed to be presented.

[13] Similarly, the secular press in Latvia has shown interest in this LELC issue. In the November 21st issue of the daily newspaper Diena appear comments from persons with different viewpoints, including archbishop Vanags. It is curious to find that archbishop Vanags says that he voted against the resolution to amend the Constitution because he thinks more discussion is necessary. At the same time he reiterates his view that the issue of women’s ordination is closely linked with the liberalization of views in the church to accommodate homosexuals.

Vija Klive

Vija Klive was until recently president of the Association of Lutheran Women Theologians in Latvia.