Siegfried Springer, Bridgebuilder between East and West, Passes Away

By William Yoder, Ph.D., April 23, 2019 09:04 AM

Siegfried Springer(Provided by William Yoder, Ph.D.)

B e r l i n - On 16 February, Bishop Siegfried Springer passed away shortly before his 89th birthday. A memorial service was held in his hometown of Bad Sooden-Allendorf/Hesse, on 9 March. Born in the Caucasus city of Mineralnie Vody, USSR in 1930, he needed to come to terms with the execution of his father and a grandfather seven years later. His ethnic German family lived in Ukraine after that. Their flight to Germany began in 1944. He was finally able to set up housekeeeping in West Germany in 1947. He later studied theology and became a pastor in the provincial Lutheran church of Hanover. Commuting between Germany and Russia, he served as bishop of the "Evangelical Church in European Russia" from 1992 to 2007.

Siegfried Springer was one-of-a-kind. As a pietist, he moved constantly between the mainstream German church and the confessionalist Lutheran denominations. This refers to the "Evangelical Church in Germany" (EKD) along with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) on the one side and the German Synod of the evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of the Missouri Synod (LCMS) on the other. He always saw Lutheranism in its entirety. He was able to converse and joke with everyone. Virtually no one was tabu. But he went his own way based on his own theological convictions. This insured that he not only had friends. Yet he had a loyal following within the ELCA - which was less true within the EKD's foreign office in Hanover. That relationship in any case became more difficult as the foreign office came to be increasingly "open" and syncretic.

Springer was very much honored among the Lutherans of Russia - he was after all one of them. He was a father figure for many. He understand very well that Russian-German Lutherans were virtually all pietists and he acted accordingly. He knew they had little tolerance for same-sex marriage and "scientific" theology as practiced in Germany. During his last years as bishop in Russia, he even spoke out against the ordination of women. But his reasons were primarily pragmatic; ecumenical considerations in the context of an Orthodox Russia made being a women pastor complicated.

Bishop Springer was also courageous. When he was still single, he traveled to the Soviet Union in 1957 - the first time for him since the war - without any guarantee that he would be allowed to return westward. Allied agreements at war's end had freed the USSR from any need to recognize new citizenships acquired during the course of the war. (Of course: Those who lived full-time as committed Christians in the USSR were more courageous.)

At the World Youth Festival in Moscow in July and August 1957, the Soviet Komsomol youth organization then asked him and the budding evangelist Klaus Vollmer (1930-2011) to participate in a debate on the question of God's existence. The two of them were thereby able to preach to thousands at Stalin's massive „VDNKh" exhibition grounds. Following the exchange, their atheistic hosts even conceded that the guests from Germany had won the debate! Springer reported on this in his memoirs from 2013, „Closer to Heaven in Russia". (They have also appeared - or are appearing - in Russian and English.)

The return of ethnic Germans from Russia played a major role in his work and thinking. He regarding leaving as entirely normal, as a matter of course. He did not criticize those thousands and was always concerned to ease their integration into German church life. This irritates some of who have chosen to remain in Russia.

His efforts to aid evangelical pastors from Romania emigrating to Germany during the 1980s were also controversial. He believed they should be permitted to continue their work as pastors within the EKD. He had in any case a big heart for the suffering and needs of others.

He was nevertheless also committed as no other to the restoration and growth of Russian Lutheranism after 1991. He paid little attention to his own health; he traveled thousands of kilometers with a heart condition. He was a bridge between those who had left Russia and those who remained at home.

Bischof Siegfried Springer will not be easy to replace - a pastor at home in two worlds. May persons with a similar amount of passion and attention to detail be found willing to commit many years of their lives to service in Russia! Russian Lutheranism needs them badly. 

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