Estonian Orthodox Church
Sociology of Religion
University of Washington
Michael Van Elsberg
Background and History
Background and History
The Estonian Orthodox Church has its origins in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. Orthodox missions, in fact, are believed to have existed in Estonia from about the 11th century. At various times throughout its history, Estonian Orthodoxy was influenced by the involvement of other nearby countries, especially Russia. Many Orthodox, for example, left Russia for Estonia beginning in the 17th century in order to avoid changes in the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church continues to have an important influence on Estonian Orthodoxy, much as the former Tsars and Soviet Union did (Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, 1995; Aunver, 1961).
About 13 percent of the population of Estonia is Orthodox—about the same number as Lutherans—in a country that was once predominantly Protestant but is now mostly secular overall. The number of Orthodox in Estonia was as high as one third, however, before the Soviet occupation (Libal, 2006; Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, 1995). It is important to note that earlier in Estonia’s history, when under Swedish influence, Lutherans made up as much as 70 percent or more of the population of Estonia. Later, under Russian influence, large numbers of Lutherans were converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Campaigns during the Soviet era later drove down the membership of all major faiths in Estonia, which like other eastern block countries experienced a temporary spike in religiosity immediately following its independence (U.S. Department of State, 2005; Adherants.com, 2006; Stark & Finke, 2000). According to Very Reverend Stefan Pettai, archpriest and Chancellor of the Estonian Orthodox Church in North America and the Diaspora, “the spike occurred just prior to independence when people showed nationalistic support by attending church which was frowned on by the officially atheistic state” (Pettai, personal interview July, 15, 2006).
Today there are approximately 150,000 members of the Estonian Orthodox Churches. They are part of the world’s third-largest religious body, however, the Eastern Orthodox Church, with about 250 million followers.  Only the Catholic Church (at 1.1 billion), and Sunni Islam (1 billion), are larger. Membership of the Eastern Orthodox Church worldwide is also about two-and-a-half times the number of the next highest world body, the Jinja Honcho, or Shinto of Japan. Most Japanese, however, are included in Shinto for mainly cultural reasons, and actually claim Buddhism or no religious preference at all. Therefore, while it is difficult to gain accurate numbers, the Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the three largest world bodies, by far, and its influence considerable (Statistics Estonia, 2002; Adherants.com, 2006).
We will further discuss the importance/significance of the Estonian Orthodox Church being part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition in our predictions section. Generally speaking, however, when we talk about the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Estonian Orthodox Church should be understood to be included; we will sometimes use the terms interchangeably or sometimes just the word Orthodox to avoid excessive repetition.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches share a common history with the Roman Catholic Church (sometimes referred to as the west) and also share many of the same beliefs and practices, such as celebration of the Eucharist, which celebrates the last meal of Jesus Christ and his disciples (Orthodox Church of America, 2006). Differences include doctrine, such as allowing priests to be married, but most importantly involve claims of legitimacy concerning apostolic succession. Like most Christian churches, however, both say that their churches began with Jesus Christ and that they are devoted to finding God through Him. The great schism between east and west occurred, according to the Orthodox, in 1054, between the bishops of Rome (the Pope) and the other major bishops, or patriarchates, over a proposed change in wording of the Nicene Creed and longstanding disputes over papal supremacy (Binns, 2002).
Many Estonians fled the country to maintain their religious practices and traditions, especially during the Soviet occupancy, but most members of the Estonian Orthodox Church still live in or near Estonia. There are also Diaspora in more distant places with the largest numbers outside of Eastern Europe being in Canada and the United States. Eastern Orthodox Church members worldwide are mostly Greek, Russian, Eastern European and western Asian (World Book Encyclopedia, 2000).
The Eastern Orthodox Church considers itself to be both the oldest and “correct” Church of Christ. Orthodox literally means “correct” or “right” teaching. The Church, according to tradition, is a direct continuation from the apostles by laying on of hands from each generation of priests to the next. Orthodox Christians believe in one God and follow the teachings of the bible, including the old and new Testaments, and also sacred traditions. They “consider the bible as the written memory of God’s activity in history and of God’s relationship to humankind” (Metzger & Coogan, 1993 p. 174). Therefore they believe, for example, that God created heaven and earth, in the Second Coming and in both heaven and hell (Orthodox Church of America, 2006).
The most important beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox are that Jesus is the Son of God; that He was incarnated in the flesh; that He died on the cross; and was resurrected for the salvation of humankind. These are all part of the Nicene Creed, to which the Orthodox are committed and recite often. Originally formulated at the first of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, which are central to Orthodoxy, in Nicaea, in 325, the Creed defined the divinity of the Son of God. The Orthodox also believes that, though there is one true God, He is revealed as three persons who share one divine nature, namely the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, or Trinity (Orthodox Church of America, 2006).
The sacred traditions, many of which arose during the Byzantine Empire, are especially important to the Orthodox. They also claim that these traditions have remained relatively unchanged since the beginning of the Church. Members of the Orthodox church, for example, “often point precisely to its changelessness, its determination to remain loyal to the past, its living continuity with the Church of ancient times” (Ware, 1963 p. 196). In addition to the bible, there are many other oral and written teachings, including the Acts of the Apostles, saints, martyrs, and fathers of the Church (who are all venerated through the use of icons), and the particularly the decisions of the seven Ecumenical councils that are central to Orthodox beliefs. It was during the last of these, the second Nicene Council, in 787, that the use of the icons, for example, was upheld. The Orthodox Church does not recognize any of the other councils that followed. The Catholic Church recognizes a total of 21 Ecumenical Councils, the last of which was Vatican II. It was at that council that the Catholic Church made their most significant changes, which Stark and Finke (2000) believe may have hastened a loss of membership (Stark and Finke, 2000; Abel, lecture 2006).
In addition to the Nicene Creed, which holds the central doctrine, the Eastern Orthodox emphasize the holy mysteries (sacraments), which include, but are not limited to, baptism; anointment with oil; confession; holy communion; marriage; ordination; anointment of the sick; following the Church calendar; feasts; fasts; and prayer. The Eastern Orthodox Church has been steadfastly apposed throughout its history to any of the kinds of changes that were similar to those of Vatican II. The Eastern Orthodox Church is considered to be strict, especially for those who are members of the monastic orders (Ware, 1997).
Requirements and Expectations
Members of the Estonian Orthodox Church are expected to follow most of the familiar rules and regulations from the Judeo-Christian tradition, including, for example, the Ten Commandments. These include prohibitions against stealing, murder, adultery and avarice, of course, among others. But the Eastern Orthodox Church is also distinctive in many areas, especially in its use of ritual and belief in sacred traditions, such as in its veneration of icons (Orthodox Church of America, 2006).
Generally speaking the Estonian Orthodox is expected to try to live a life of devotion to God. According to Very Reverend Pettai, “First and foremost . . . is meeting God . . . a process which for us begins in holy baptism and continues throughout our days. The goal is to become as Adam once was, before the fall and before sin” (personal interview, July 11, 2006). One of the few differences in the Estonian Church with the Eastern Church, according to Pettai, “is in celebrating Easter (Pascha) on the western calendar. This was done in 1921 by the Patriarch of Constantinople who felt that the Finnish and Estonian churches should celebrate this great feast day in union with the larger Lutheran churches of these countries” (personal interview, July 11, 2006).
Organization and Leadership
The Orthodox Church hierarchy consists of a fairly lose arrangement between presiding bishops of ecclesiastical regions, called patriarchates, and bishops or archbishops, called metropolitans, above clergy. According to Very Reverend Pettai, “the use of the term metropolitan is one of honor for larger dioceses” (personal interview, July 15, 2006). The current so-called Ecumenical Patriarch, or First Among Equals, Bartholomew I, of Constantinople, holds a symbolically important role, but should not be considered anything at all like the Roman Catholic Pope. What is central to Eastern Orthodoxy is the common faith and communion in the mysteries (sacraments); all bishops are actually considered equal and only Christ himself is considered to be the leader of the Church (Ware, 1997).
Major branches of the Estonian Orthodoxy within Estonia include the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox, who are subordinated to Constantinople, and the Estonian Orthodox, who are subordinated to the Moscow patriarchate. The Patriarchate of Moscow, who is also head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, was born in, and was once the bishop of, Estonia. The individual Estonian Orthodox Churches are now permitted to choose under whose jurisdiction they wish to be, but like all of the Orthodox Churches, not all recognize or are in communion with one another at all times, though they usually strive to be as unified as possible (Orthodox Church of Estonia, 2006).
The implications of the lose arrangement of the Eastern Orthodox Churches will be further addressed in our predictions section.
A Day in the Life
Eastern Orthodox members regularly practice a large number of ritual acts on a daily basis, especially among the most pious. These rituals include making the Sign of the Cross, daily prayer and veneration of icons, at home as in church. Interestingly, the Orthodox makes the Sign of the Cross differently than Roman Catholics. Sometime around the 14th century the Roman Catholic Church, for reasons apparently lost to antiquity, changed the way that they perform the Sign of the Cross. Today Catholics cross from left to right, whereas Orthodox still cross from right to left (Orthodox Church of America, 2006).
A typical day in the life of a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church would begin with a Morning Prayer. There are an established set of Morning and Evening Prayers which are part of a regular daily cycle (they also pray before every meal, for example). Daily scriptural readings that follow the liturgical calendar are not uncommon, and families usually gather for these prayers, which are typically led by the father.
The daily life of the Orthodox can also include regular dietary restrictions, including fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (plus four fasting periods during the liturgical year: Great Lent, Apostles’ Fast, Dormition Fast and Nativity Fast). According to Very Reverend Pettai, “The fasting tradition, among other things, prepares the Orthodox to be able to reject the antichrist who will promise food and security, according to Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (Orthodox Church of America, retired)” (personal interview, July 15, 2006).
Most importantly, though, might be that the Orthodox makes a daily effort to reject materialism and emphasize living a more spiritual life in devotion to, and in communion with, God (Orthodox Church of America, 2006).
As one of the world’s oldest and largest church bodies, the Eastern Orthodox Church has already proved itself to be pretty resilient despite a turbulent history of persecution and even active campaigns to destroy it. The Estonian Orthodox Church, however, remains a relatively small part of that much larger (and important) church world body. The population of Estonia itself is also currently in slight decline. Still, we predict that the future of the Estonian Orthodox Church is promising based on a number of factors and with a few qualifiers which we do not believe to be excessive.
First, members of the Estonian Orthodox Church are largely confined to ethnic groups who share strong social and religious capital with one another (Libal, 2006; Aunver, 1961). According to Abel, “retention strategies that require members to participate in culturally unique traditions and practices should be most successful” (Abel, 2005 p. 7). If true, we think that bodes well for the Estonian Orthodox Church. In addition, Stark and Finke (2000) propose that: “In making religious choices, people will attempt to conserve their social [and religious] capitol” (Stark and Finke, 2000 p. 119/121; Abel, lecture July 29, 2006). In the context of Estonian Orthodoxy, we believe that both factors should have good predictive value, provided that birth rates of members and other demographics remain fairly stable.
Second, as a result of memberships from these ethnic and social ties, and that the Estonian Orthodox are a strict religious group in a mostly secular society, they are in relatively high tension with the rest of society. This qualifies Estonian Orthodoxy as a sect, who, according to Stark and Finke, as higher tension groups, are more likely to have very committed members and be more likely to grow (Stark and Finke, 2000; Abel, lecture 2006).
Third, there is another aspect of the Eastern Orthodox Churches that we believe contribute to them having a strong base of highly-committed members. This aspect is partly doctrinal but mostly cultural. Specifically, this has to do with the fact that the Eastern tradition is more removed from rational thought (which is supposed to be more Catholic or western), and more involved in mysticism and monasticism. In fact, many Orthodox claim a present-day revival of monasticism, which has always been important the Eastern traditions (Orthodox Church of America, 2006; Ware, 1997). An example of the differences between east and west in regard to the use of reason was related by Very Reverend Pettai concerning the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, often attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas, a member of the Dominican Order (and the Roman Catholic Church). According to Pettai, another Orthodox priest, for whom he has great respect, asked him rhetorically about these kinds of questions, “What difference does it make?” According to Pettai, questions like that are simply irrelevant in Orthodoxy. Instead, Pettai argues, the only thing that is important is that which is actually revealed by God, especially through Christ (personal interview, July 15, 2006).
As mentioned earlier, although the Catholic Church may have experienced a decline in membership as a result of the reforms of Vatican II and the reduction of the rewards available to the clergy (Stark and Finke, 2000), the Eastern Orthodox Church has remained largely unchanged and continues to reward those who are in the clergy. Fundamental differences of the Eastern Doctrines and culture, such as those mentioned above, make it unlikely that an event similar to Vatican II is very likely (Binns, 2002; Ware, 1997).
Two important qualifications should be mentioned at this point: 1) In Estonia, of the total number of the Eastern Orthodox Church, there are far more who are ethnically Russian, 104,698, than Estonian, 18,517 (Statistics Estonia, 2006). Eastern Orthodoxy, in can be argued, is really made up of a family of national churches. Therefore a counter argument could be made that ethnically Russian Estonian Orthodox may, now or in the future, prefer to consider them selves Russian Orthodox. That is a possibility; however, we believe that, based on what we have learned about Eastern Orthodoxy in general, most Orthodox consider themselves to Christians above all, and Eastern Orthodox in particular, regardless whether they may or may not identify themselves as either Estonian or Russian Orthodox. Estonian national pride and the relationship between the ethnic Russians and Estonians are beyond the scope of this paper, so we will leave that aside for now. We acknowledge that, although this fact may be very significant, we have now way of knowing at this time how important or unimportant it may be. 2) Estonia, we concede, has relatively low birth rates and higher death rates (9.91 births/13.21 deaths per thousand), than, the United States (14.14 births/8.25 deaths per thousand), for example. Estonia also loses more people through emigration than it gains through immigration (-3.18/1000) and life expectance is relatively low, especially for men.
On the other hand, of the total number of Orthodox in Estonia, almost two-thirds are of likely-child-baring age (Statistics Estonia, 2006). We suggest that this increases the likelihood, that, all other things being equal, the number of Orthodox should actually increase in Estonia, especially when you take into consideration that Orthodox clergy are also allowed to marry and the strong social ties among the Estonian Orthodox Church members (Orthodox Church of Estonia, 2006).
Women in the Estonian Orthodox Church also outnumber men by two-one, which is also consistent with what we have learned from Stark and Finke, and others (Stark and Finke, 2000; Abel, lecture 2006). Of the total number of women in the Estonian Orthodox Church, more than 20% of them are of both marriageable and child-bearing age. According to Stark and Finke (2000): “Most people will marry within their religious group” (Stark and Finke, 2000 p. 124). Further, Stark and Finke (2000) argue that even in mixed religious marriages, the partner with the lower level of commitment is more likely to reaffiliate with or convert to their partner’s religion (also known as Greely’s Law).
Because we know that women are more religious than men, even if a number of those women marry someone outside the Church, we can predict that a sizeable number of them will likely convert their husbands. According to Stark and Finke (2000): “Marriage and migration are major factors tending to produce shifts in attachments. Newcomers must make new friends. Marriage tends to attach spouse to a new kinship network . . . Consequently, reaffiliation and conversion will be more prevalent” (Stark and Finke, 2000 p. 119). Within those marriages and of the ones who have children, their children are likely to be raised within the Church, all of which might contribute to an increase in membership within the Estonian Orthodox Church (Stark and Finke, 2000).
Finally, Estonia is now an independent country with religious freedom and a pluralistic society. According to Stark and Finke (2000), both religious freedom and pluralism should be conducive to the likelihood that there will be an increase in religiosity, especially following a period of oppression such as Estonia experienced in the recent past (Stark and Finke, 2000; U.S. State Department, 2006). If you add to that a group of highly-committed people from a relatively strict high-tension sect, like the Estonian Orthodox Church, who are also in the right demographics, you may well conclude that things look very bright for their future growth. In addition, the fact that there is no centralized control over the whole of Orthodoxy, as mentioned before, may allow the individual churches to remain strong and maintain their identity, allowing for just enough flexibility without losing their appeal. The Estonian Orthodox Church may therefore be an ideal religious “product” and able to compete effectively in the religious economy of Estonia.
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Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, July 10, 2006 http://www.holy-trinity.org
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Not all members of the Estonian or even Eastern Orthodox Churches are included in those numbers. In Estonia, for example, there are also smaller numbers of “old believers” and others not subordinated to either of the two major patriarchates cited. Similarly, the figure for the Eastern Orthodox world body does not include other independent groups or groups which are not under the Ecumenical patriarchate (U.S. Department of State, 2005; Adherents.com, 2006)
Dr. Eugen Ruus
Eugen Ruus' Ordination
Church Choir members - 2010
EHA-MALLE NURMING VASARA PÜSS
Malle was a revelation. It was amazing to witness how tirelessly she worked for the Estonian Community. She reached out to others in a spirit of disciple-ship, living her faith in action for justice, forgiveness and her love for humanity, accepting all regardless of colour, religion or sexual orientation. She saw individuals, not generalities or stereotypes.
Her celestial destiny was to nurture her community, embrace diversity and garner collective strengths. She was a woman piloted by her highly evolved principles, always taking the high road. What drew people to Malle was her energy, clarity and luminescence. She knew how to be a friend, having much to offer: humour, trust, generosity and unflinching honesty.
Born in Haapsalu in 1943, her family escaped to Sweden in 1944, eventually moving to Toronto where Malle participated in Estonian School and Girl Guides. At ten years old, she was thrilled to have a baby sister, Merike. For her twelfth birthday Malle was given the revered gift of an old piano to advance her lessons. As a teenager she participated in rhythmic gymnastics, taught Sunday school, and sang in the Orthodox Choir.
During her university years at University of Toronto she was a member of the archery team. For four years running her team enjoyed the status of Canadian champions. She had the honour of representing Canada in the quest for the Ambassador Cup, and in the same year, she graduated with a Bachelor of Physical and Health Education in 1967. She married Rein Vasara and had a son Ivar.
Malle embraced life passionately. After moving to Vancouver she attempted white-water rafting and parachute jumping. Her interests and hobbies, like her enthusiasm, were endless, varying from collecting hedgehogs to gold-smithing. Constantly busy, she taught Estonian School Tuesday nights for ten years, and served a smattering of terms as President of the Vancouver Estonian Society.
In 1991 she married Vello Püss. In tandem they continued as cultural pacesetters in the Estonian social village, folk-dancing every Monday night. A most challenging role she undertook in 1997 was the position of Chair of the West Coast Estonian Days, which entailed a year of intense organization. What made this event very strenuous for Malle was that her mother died during the middle of the five-day festival. It is a testament to the grit of her character that she was able to see it through to a successful finish.
She retired from her position as high school teacher and guidance counsellor. Never one to be idle, she took on the duties of choir leader of the Estonian Orthodox Church and revamped the material in the music binders....a very long arduous job.
Malle's activities continued energetically until early 2003 when she was diagnosed with ALS – a fatal disease destroying the motor neurons in the body. When the ravages of ALS made speech prohibitive she was limited to writing notes and once wrote to me "I'm a better listener now."
She died on the 23rd of September 2004 with her husband at her side. Malle will long be remembered by her family, friends, Isa Stefan and church members.