24 November 2015
Archbishop Leo, head of the Orthodox Church of Finland, speaks during the opening of an ice church in Juuka, Finland, on 24 January 2015. (photo: Timo Hartikainen/AFP/Getty Images)
Thoughts of Finland conjure up images of fir trees blanketed with snow, crisp cold Arctic air, fresh water lakes, lingonberry preserves and reindeer. Golden icons, clouds of incense, beeswax candles and polyphonic chants do not figure in these musings. Yet, the world of Byzantium exists even in this land of Scandinavian simplicity.
The Orthodox Church of Finland includes an estimated 62,000 Finns, about 1 percent of the population. The church, however, plays a disproportionate role in modern Finland. The Finnish constitution establishes the Orthodox Church as a national church. The government collects taxes for the church while the Orthodox clergy (together with their Evangelical Lutheran peers) preside at affairs of state. In recent decades, the church has been energized by an increase of converts, an influx of Orthodox Greek, Romanian and Russian immigrants and renewed public interest in iconography, Orthodox theology and monastic spirituality.
Firmly rooted in the culture of the Byzantine East, the Orthodox Church of Finland is no stranger to the ethos of the West. Similar to the nation’s dominant Lutheran Church, Orthodox leaders emphasize the frequent reception of the Eucharist, encourage lay leadership and utilize the Gregorian calendar even for the celebration of Easter.
Once tied to the Russian Empire, a nascent Finnish state severed its ties with the abdication of the tsar in 1917, and the turmoil that followed. In 1921, Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow and All Russia granted autonomy to Finland’s Orthodox Christians as well. Despite the protestations of the Moscow patriarchate, the ecumenical patriarchate declared the Orthodox Church of Finland an autonomous church under Constantinople in 1923.
While some Orthodox parishes could be found scattered throughout the new country, the center of the Orthodox Church of Finland remained in its eastern province of Karelia.
The Winter War (1939-40) between Finland and the Soviet Union, and the subsequent Soviet annexation of Karelia, however, soon changed that. About 90 percent of the parishes and properties of the church were lost, including its historic seminary and monasteries in Lake Ladoga. Rather than submit to Soviet oppression, Orthodox Karelian families, monks, priests, seminarians and sisters fled for the security of central Finland.
The Finnish government quickly resettled the refugees. Throughout the 1950’s, new parishes were founded, churches built, a seminary set up and eparchies erected. Monks reestablished the historic Valamo monastery in central Finland and, shortly thereafter, a convent for women religious was built nearby. Today, the centers receive hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and visitors each year and host an ever-growing number of academic workshops and spiritual retreats. Icon conservation studios also flourish.
In 1988, the Orthodox Church of Finland closed its independent seminary and moved its students to the state-run University of Joensuu, where an Orthodox theological faculty was established. Cantors, catechists and seminarians live in a separate residence near the campus, where they focus on liturgy and spirituality and study with other students at the university, which also offers degree programs for seminarians in the Lutheran tradition.
While the Orthodox Church of Finland includes some 150 churches and chapels scattered across Finland, its influence reaches far beyond Scandinavia. Orthodox Finns support the apostolic endeavors of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria in Kenya and Uganda. They participate in international ecumenical forums with the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church. And they have partnered with their Russian colleagues, providing moral support and financial assistance to reconstitute the original Valamo Monastery in Russian Karelia.
Though small, the Orthodox Church of Finland is unique in the Orthodox world, fusing in a creative way the contributions of Orthodox and non-Orthodox clergy and laity — regardless of gender — and in fostering ecumenism in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
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