A Church Fellowship with Endangered Future

By William Yoder, Ph.D., January 10, 2019 11:01 AM

Russia(pixabay.com)

Regarding the present state of the "Evangelical-Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession"

K a l i n i n g r a d - After the departure of five of approximately eight total bishops during the past 20 months, Moscow's "Evangelical-Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession" (ELTsAI in Russian) appears to be on its last legs. The nearly 40 congregations of yore have shrunk to six: Irkutsk, Barnaul, two in Moscow, Vladimir und Kaliningrad. Congregations along from the very beginning such as Ryazan, Kaluga and Voronesh have made their exit and are now attempting to regain legality under the umbrellas of other evangelical organisations.

Since the Moscow synod of 7 and 8 November 2018, not even the church's founding father, Vladimir Sergeyevich Pudov, is still on board. Pudov, who has been living in the Kaliningrad enclave since 2015, describes the church's present state as a "fiasco". At the November synod, Moscow's Pavel Begichev was confirmed in his function as metropolitan of the Old Catholic church without needing to give up his role as bishop and "„General-Ordinarius" of the ELTsAI. Vladimir Pudov calls that nonsense: "How am I to explain to the Orthodox that an Old Catholic metropolitan is one of our bishops?" 

This church has since its inception always been characterized by multi-confessionalism and an unclear profile. The well-known Moscow church jurist Konstantin Andreyev, a bishop of this church since 2011, left in March 2017 to become a non-messianic Jew. The Lutheran-Old Catholic metropolitan and bishop Begichev is a former Pentecostal and Baptist. The Ukrainian Vitaly Gut, a talented preacher and pastor in Kaliningrad, has Pentecostal roots and attended a Reformed Bible school in far-off Magadan. The current archbishop, Alexander Franz from Barnaul/Siberia, is apparently the church's only clergyman with historical Lutheran-Brethren roots.

This church has not committed itself to a single liturgy - the charge of arbitrariness is audible. Although its occasional outfit - mitre and shepherd's staff - would seem to indicate a high-church orientation, many of its church services are mostly charismatic in style. In the Kaliningrad service on 9 December, a deacon introduced a cloth with special spiritual powers.

Yet the ELTsAI has achieved consensus in a few matters: Female ordination has never been practiced and it shares Russia's usual rejection of the West's liberal-humanistic-secular form of Christianity. Vladimir Pudov has always considered himself a patriot: Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014 was quickly sanctioned by his church.
 Relations with the internationally-recognised "Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Russia" (ELCR, once ELCROS) were always strained. This was caused in part by the fact that the ELTsAI's web appearance was more attractive than the ELCR one. This caused mix-ups among outsiders - including government officials - on nearly a daily basis. The ELCR's embarrassed archbishop, Dietrich Brauer, was constantly being forced to explain.

 On 24 Nov. 2014, Slovakia's Old Catholic church signed a partnership agreement with the ELTsAI. That was a breakthrough, for no other church had ever officially recognised the ELTsAI. The brain behind this step was the Slovak archbishop Augustin Bacinsky from Bratislava. Pudov notes that an Old Catholic church has never existed on Russian turf. Despite the late hour, the current venture could be interpreted as an attempt via a Lutheran connection to gain a foothold within Russia. The Old Catholic church arose as a protest against the proclamation of papal infallibility in matters of teaching at the I. Vatican Council of 1870. Today it is regarded as more liberal than the Vatican: Some priests are married and the ordination of women is becoming more frequent.

Pudov's past

One could say that Vladimir Pudov hails from the anti-church counter movement. Though a nearly life-long resident of Moscow, he was born in Uzbekistan in 1952. At a relatively advanced age, he completed philosophy studies at the famous „Lomonossow-University Moscow" in 1987. After graduation, he was taken on by the Moscow branch of the government's "Department for Religious Affairs". There he was given the task of dealing with free churches and sects. He was involved not only with literature censorship, but also with visas, the acquisition of cars, construction supplies and hotel space for visiting clergy. In this context he became acquainted with and learned to cherish the Riga Lutheran Harald Kalnins (1911-1997, bishop after 1988). Pudov already had a certain affinity for Lutheran matters: The grandmother of his wife of that time was a Lutheran from Finland. When the USSR and Pudov's department disintegrated in 1991, he decided to work with and for the church. It was Kalnins who had won him for the cause of the church.
 
Bishop Kalnins then asked for his help when Kalnins' former secretary, the youthful Jonas Baronas, attempted to snap up Moscow's historical "Peter-and-Paul-Cathedral". It was said that Kalnins had sent Baronas to St. Petersburg to establish a congregation. Instead, he founded a new Lutheran denomination. It was then above all Pudov who kept Peter-and-Paul from falling into the hands of the Baronas-church. But Pudov insists: "In the beginning, none of the official church leaders wanted anything to do with the cathedral." The partially-ruined church, completed in 1905, was seen as an oversized and bottomless money pit. German President Franz-Walter Steinmeier and Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Council Chairman of the "Evangelical Church of Germany", were then present on 25 October 2017 for the celebration commemorating the return of the cathedral to official church ownership. Pudov had been right after all - but he was not invited to the commemoration.

Pudov also notes that the partial return of the Moravian property in Alt-Sarepta on the southern edge of Volgograd early in the 1990s was made possible by his contacts with state authorities.

Pudov's absence from the cathedral celebration was related to the fact that he had helped found a new Lutheran denomination - the ELTsAI - in June 2006. There had been congregations around who, despite repeated attempts, had not been taken over by the ELCR. They apparently had not been regarded as sufficiently Lutheran. Frustration must also have played a role: From 1994 until May 2006, Vladimir Pudov had served as the ELCR's representative for relations with the national government in Moscow. Although he had been supplied with an office and a partial salary, the national Lutheran church offices in St. Petersburg had availed themselves less-and-less frequently of his services. During the leadership of Edmund Ratz (1933-2017), Lutheran archbishop from 2005 until 2009, cooperation finally came to a complete halt.

 Pudov assures today that one should not expect any new church founding from him. He is currently most interested in the confessionalist-Lutheran Wisconsin-Synod based in Milwaukee. "I myself am and can only be a Lutheran", he insisted in Kaliningrad. "Those are my roots." Bishops Franz and Begichev will now be calling the shots in the rump ELTsAI. Vitaly Gut is keeping himself financially afloat with a secular job; Pudov himself has been active on-the-side for decades in the construction business. Perhaps there will soon be only four confessions on Russian territory answering to the name "Lutheran".

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