Latvian Lutheran Church rules that women cannot be ordained priests

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

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The Latvian Lutheran Church has gone back on its 40-year-old decision by officially ruling that women cannot be ordained priests.

Two-thirds of the 337 synod members voted in favor of changing the church constitution and only allowing men to be ordained from now on, according to the Latvian daily Diena.

Women's priesthood was first introduced by the Latvian Lutheran Church in 1975 when Latvia was still a part of the Soviet Union. From 1975 until 1993, women were ordained and served as priests, but in 1993, the conservative Janis Vanags, the present archbishop of Riga, was appointed.

Since the appointment, no women have been ordained. The women that already had been ordained were allowed to continue with their ministry. In February, Vanags, 58, told the German Protestant information service idea that the practice of only allowing men to be ordained was based on the Bible and on apostolic tradition.

Lutheran clerics in Germany and Austria are appalled at the news. In a press release, Bishop Michael Bünker, the leader of the Protestant church in Austria and general secretary of the Association of Protestant Churches in Europe (GEKE) based in Brussels, described the news as a "slap in the face." The decision was "highly regrettable," he said, and showed that the "development in some Churches in some European countries is more backward- than forward-looking."

The Association of Protestant Churches in Europe was "most concerned about the decision," Bünker said. "It fears that thereby an essential basis of the church community could be put in question. The Protestant Churches in Europe have for years recommended that all Protestant Churches that have not yet done so, should introduce women's ordination. The Latvian Church's decision is therefore a slap in the face for the Community of Protestant Churches."

Austria had had women pastors for years, Bünker said, and the decision to allow women to take on all church offices has stood the test exceedingly well. Meanwhile, women's ordination has become an indispensable hallmark of the Protestant church, Bünker emphasized.

"I am appalled by this decision. For me equality for women is something we take for granted in the Protestant church," the public relations officer of the Lutheran Church in Vienna, Martina Schomaker, said.

The Latvian church itself will suffer most from the decision, the chairman of the Protestant Churches in Germany, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, made clear. "It has been robbed of the great riches of women pastors and the experiences they bring with them," he said, adding that the German Protestant churches have had "wonderful experiences" with women pastors.

"That is indeed the limit! Back to the Middle Ages or what? Where is the storm of protest?" the Lutheran Bishop of Bavaria, Susanne Breit-Kessler, wrote on her homepage.

"We are appalled by this decision, which in our view is theologically untenable," the chairwoman of Protestant Women in Germany (EfiD), Susanne Kahl-Passoth, underlined. "The priesthood of all the baptized is a key message of our church and gender equality belongs to that key message. Women's and men's ordination are an essential part of the Protestant Church's message which cannot be given up."

Approximately 30 of the 145 members of the Lutheran World Federation's members do not ordain women -- including the Polish Lutheran Church. 

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]

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