|Rev.Tomas Šernas. The State is Still Learning to Respect The Ecclesiastic Law|
|Šeštadienis, 17 Gruodis 2011 19:43|
There has been a certain tension among separate members of the Lithuanian Evangelical Reformed Church recently, and this year it has culminated in two Ev. Reformed communities sueing each other because of the sale of the buildings belonging to the Ev. Reformed Church. In the eyes of the state everything is legal. Rev. Tomas Šernas is known to many as the minister of the Vilnius Ev. Reformers congregation. In 2010 by the Synod of the Ev. Reformed Church he was elected the head of the Church - the General Superintendent. Rev. T. Šernas agreed to comment on the processes that the Lithuanian Ev. Reformed Church is undergoing currently to the readers of "www.bernardinai.lt".
Could you once again briefly introduce our readers to the current situation of the Ev. Reformed community in Lithuania?
Lithuanian Reformed, like other Christians, are facing a lot of challenges of the current times. Twenty years have passed but we are still experiencing the outcome of the damage and losses made in the Soviet period. Scientists insist that, speaking of religious groups, it is evident that various historic cataclysms, war, migration of the population, after- war fights, various kinds of prohibition, atheistic persecution, constant hostility against confessions and not- ceasing competition among denominations affect the minor confessions most considerably.
After Lithuania had regained its independence, a restitution process started, proving to be very difficult for religious minorities, especially those who reject the one-personal mode of self-governing. Admittedly, several generations have grown up in Lithuania, who have neither experience, nor practice of democracy. Democratic juridical system in Lithuania is still under the process of forming, there are no clear regulations of what contacts and relationship between the state and religious communities should be. The state representatives can very well negotiate and participate in talks with international subjects but at home the culture of a dialogue and relationship is still being formed.
The citizens are being taught to respect the state laws but the state itself should start to learn how to respect the law acts of communities representing the citizens.
All these processes occurred and are still going on in the historic background which is formed by the dramatic changes in the society: privatization, fights among certain groups for power and resources, etc. Consequently, all this has influenced religious communities, too.
While speaking about church, we often think of the divine grace, mystery and high ideals forgetting that church is made not only of a system of ideals and mystery, but of different people, too. They inevitably make mistakes, have to make decisions of their own and do everything themselves. The Ev. Reformed in Lithuania are growing and maturing along with the society in Lithuania. It is not always easy.
How did it happen that a break up occurred in the Church? Do you think it was practical decisions or quite a different attitude towards the identity of Ev. Reformed that became an incentive for the discord?
We think there is no break up in the Ev.Reformed Church of Lithuania (LERB). The LERB is one and undividable community of believers, acting according to its canons which are recognized by the state itself. A break up in a church has to be caused by the difference in the faith or, for instance, a declaration of a new confession. Today we have three juridical persons who have the name of Ev. Reformed Church in their title. This is nothing extraordinary, as the church can have as many juridical persons as necessary. They are all subject to the same law of the Ev.Reformed Church of Lithuania.
The church entity is stipulated by the theological truths and the statute. All this can be named as the church tradition. The law of the LERB clearly defines what an authorised governing body of the church is.
Unfortunately, institutions responsible for the relationship between the state and the church disregard the church law though it is this law that describes the real situation.The state tends to treat the LERB as an individual enterprise and holds its separate juridical persons as "separate churches", allegedly having the system of church law of their own. Because of this position of the state a situation when unauthorised by the Synod of Ev. Reformed Church - the senior collective self-governing institution- persons start governing the juridical person of the church.
The outset of this church problem dates two decades back. After regaining independence, people who had no necessary theological education were at the head of our Church. Some of them were sincere, some very ambitious and some were seeking for personal benefit. How did it start?
The LERB is governed by the Synod of Ev. Reformed Church. According to the set rule the Synod holds annual assemblies. The Synod solves the most important issues, adopts the church law acts and regulations. In the period between the assemblies the Collegium, elected for a defined term of office, is operating. To make it clear, the Synod may be compared to the Seimas, i.e. the Parliament, which is a legislative institution, and the Collegium - to the government.
It is difficult to predict the legal consequences in a young country, supposedly that is why our Ev.Reformed Church was represented by its governing body, i.e. the Collegium, which was registered as a juridical person, instead of the "Seimas". Even a thought had not occurred to anyone that the "government" of Ev.Reformed Church might ignore its higher authority, "Seimas".
The reasons of the conflict were really commonplace: 2 or 3 people from the Collegium understood they had very few chances of being elected for the next term during the 2001assembly.Then they started looking for opportunities to keep their position. There is really no need to mention them all because it will not be interesting for our readers to go into the details of our republican ecclesiastic law. One of the pretexts was a request to postpone the Synod, allegedly because of a trip abroad. They would lose the opportunity to account for their activities at the Synod, they said. In the end, they did not go abroad, most likely, that had not even been planned. Neither had they appeared at the Synod. Unauthorised by canon law persons started representing the Lithuanian Ev. Reformed Church which had been recognized as traditional, by the state.
Our problem was ignored by the state: "That's your problem , so go to the court with it". Nobody is interested in such things. The state and the church are separated. People who have got and use the requisites of a juridical person of a confession are treated as a legal governing body of a religious community in our state. Surprisingly, that it is not important for the state who to recognize and in what way to do it. Suffice is to say that traditional religions have a special status in the state, have some tax privileges, the church hierarchy can use diplomatic pasports, etc.
Thus, the situation of the Synod - the organized and legal majority of the Reformed - became threatening. It was hard to believe that we will have to go to state courts because of church issues. That is a shameful sin. On the other hand, even having overcome that obstacle, we could not take up any legal actions: the Synod was not registered and the Collegium elected could not work without its own banc account, could not receive any letters and documents. Our efforts to negotiate were unsuccessful. As the "government" had already had the status of a juridical person, there was only one way out - to register the LERB "Seimas".
Such are the reasons of the so called "break up". We have been initiating negotiations lots of times trying to come to a compromise, but unsuccessfully. We have faced the logic and behaviour quite different from ours: there is no wish to negotiate, as possible decisions might restrain their activities, in fact - the activities of one person.
Reports have appeared saying that the cause of the disagreement is the question of the property belonging to the Ev. Reformed community: people in Biržai are still watching the church building, there have been rumours of selling the Synod House in Vilnius and other buildings.
Let's consider the facts. The situation has not changed: unothorized persons are cheaply selling the historic property of all the Ev. Reformed Church of Lithuania thus causing great damage to the whole community of Lithuanian Ev.Reformed. Fourteen deals have been registered so far .That is illegal.
It is important to emphasize that before starting those deals there were attempts to close the church of our largest congregation in Biržai, allegedly for repairs, with the help of a private security firm.Thus it became clear even to those uninformed of the details that functioning churches are not being closed using armed security guards.That is an outrageous injustice and absurd.The members of the congregation started a continuous vigil of prayers in the church.
I myself felt as if I went back to the times of the fights for our independence when being a volunteer of the Sąjūdis movement [the National Revival Movement in the end of 80‘ies] I stood in guard of important objects in Lithuania. The sight is similar in Biržai: sad but resolute faces, the lists of those on vigil, instructions, hot tea, lists of phone numbers for an extra case, a minister in service clothing on a hard narrow bench in the vestry: if the X hour happens at night, if force is used to take over the church, he wll be ready to conduct the long-lasting service. The church service cannot be interrupted in our country.
And just at that time when people with tears in their eyes were praying on vigil in the church, participated in the hearings at court, deals of selling the Church property were being made. The dates of the deals speak for themselves. I have got some information that certain actions were committed against some members of the church hierarchy, their telephone conversations were being listened to. The fact is eloquent : the telephones of those who were praying in the church, and not of those who started selling the church property were being listened to.
What are your steps as the elected head of the Ev.Reformed Church - Unitas Lituaniae - at the moment?
I am doing what the headof the church has to do. We have the case in court, we are trying to protect the Church, its property and its rights. Currently efforts are being made to stop the illegal activity and make the sale of the church property illegal.
What do you think is the message that this situation carries to the Reformed community and Lithuania on the whole?
The situation is unpleasant both for us and the international organizations of the Reformed Church who support us. Actually, Western Europeans see our situation as typical of post- soviet, post- communist historic period, characteristic of politically immature society and the state lacking responsibility, including the trace of the veil of special services and so on.
It is complicated to speak about the society in Lithuania, as it is very varied. The Lithuanian Ev. Reformed are also part of the society, and suffering very much because of these events. It is true, we do not know what atheists or pagans think of it. The opinion of Lithuanian Christians is more important to us and we are aware of their reaction. We have received support and understanding from the representatives of different Christian confessions and we are thankful to them.
I have found out that different notions of Christianity exist. Some Christians identify themselves with the magnificent past of the church, the famous people who cherished writing and soberness, church anniversaries and places of miraculous events. The picture of such a church is beautiful but incomplete and even reversed. Our state identifies Christianity as a certain historic and cultural heritage of the state. But another notion exists. I suppose that there are more and more Reformers who understand that Christianity and the church are not only there where there is glory and magnificence. The vitality and strength of the church are concentrated where there is a fight for Christ and where there is a personal suffering.
The church hierarchy and social leaders know too well that the church, the state and society ,even entire financial systems have always been balancing and holding on the „word of honour"only. There are no other quarantees. All the laws, regulations and canons are only an attempt to protect oneselves. As soon as an opportunity arises to break the „word of honour" unpunished, people appear who do so. The amendments last very long to make by the others. Thus the words of the Gospel according to Mark are always relevant to all Christians: "Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is." (Mk 13,33).
What are your expectations?
I want peace and the blessing of God to Lithuanian Reformed and all Christians in Lithuania.
Corespondent Saulena Žiugždaitė