Organization and Duties of the Lutheran Church

Organization and Duties of the Lutheran Church

The Lutheran Church was divided into eight dioceses, each headed by a bishop. An exception was the diocese of Turku, which was headed by an archbishop. Although he had no legal power over the other bishops, the archbishop was regarded as the first among equals and was the country's most prominent clergyman. He presided over important church meetings and was frequently the church's spokesman. One of the dioceses, that of BorgA, did not have a primarily territorial basis, but ministered to the Swedish-speaking members of the church throughout the country. For administrative purposes, each diocese had a chapter, consisting of the bishop, three other clergymen, and a jurist. The chapter also functioned as a court to resolve disputes and to answer appeals against church decisions. Appeals against chapter decisions were handled by higher state courts. The highest subdivision of the diocese was the deanery, an administrative entity no longer of much importance. The seventy-odd deaneries were divided into parishes. In the late 1980s, there were just under 600 of these core units of the church. The 600 parishes varied widely in both the number of their parishioners and their geographic extent. In the sparsely populated north, for example, a parish could have more square kilometers within its jurisdiction than it did parishioners, while there were nearly three dozen parishes in Helsinki alone.

The Lutheran Church of Finland employed about 18,000 persons in 1987, some 10,000 of whom worked full-time. There were about 1,400 ministers, enough to meet the church's needs. They received their training at two institutions, one in Helsinki and the other in Turku. The first women priests were ordained in 1988. Until that time, women had been limited to the secondary role of lector, with duties that encompassed teaching, pastoral work, and administering Holy Communion.

The highest body of the church was the Synod, which met twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. The 108-member body consisted of the 8 bishops, 1 military bishop, 2 high judges, 1 representative of the government, and 96 elected delegates--64 of whom were laymen and 32 of whom were clergymen. The number of delegates that the individual diocese sent to the Synod depended on its population, but each diocese sent at least six delegates, two of whom were clergymen. Chaired by the archbishop, the Synod had a number of responsibilities, including deliberating on legislative questions, directing disbursement of the resources of the central church fund, supervising Bible translations, discussing the nature of relations with other religious organizations, and resolving fundamental and highly divisive issues.

Two other central bodies were the Ecclesiastical Board and the Bishops' Conference. The former was a permanent body, chaired by the archbishop, that oversaw the church's administration and finances and prepared matters for discussion at the Synod. The latter, consisting of the bishops and eight other church officials, met twice a year to discuss, in an unbinding way, issues of concern to the dioceses.

The church placed great emphasis on congregational life. Despite the apparent episcopal nature of the church organization, parishes were quite independent. They made most of their decisions on their own and had only to observe the constraints of ecclesiastical law. By means of democratically elected councils and boards, they chose their own pastors, church musicians, and administrative personnel and, to some degree, set their own salaries. Every adult member of a parish had the right to vote, and he or she had the possibility of winning a place on the council or board, which meant that the laity had much say about how its parish was run.

Parishes were financially independent, for it was to them that the national government paid the church tax, equal to about 1 percent of the taxable income of parishioners. Corporations within a parish were also obliged to pay the church tax and, altogether, this tax represented about 75 percent of the Lutheran Church's income. Some of the religious and social services that a parish managed yielded income, too, as did the 1 percent of the nation's forests that were in church possession. An elected administrative board and an executive council managed parish finances, although in urban areas parishes sometimes banded together to handle such practical details. Parishes were obliged, however, to pay about 6 percent of their income to a fund, used by the church as a whole, to help poorer parishes and to pay for other activities like missionary work.

The historical role of the Lutheran Church as a state church was reflected in the services managed by the parish that in other countries were the concern of secular government. For instance, it maintained the official population records for all of its members. Those of nonmembers were kept by local government. Parishes managed graveyards. In an area where there was no alternative cemetery, nonmembers or nonbelievers could be buried in one belonging to the church. Weddings performed by the parish had the same value as civil services, provided both the bride and groom were Christians.

Parishes did not limit themselves to regular religious services and to other activities such as Sunday schools or study groups. They often organized a specifically Finnish religious meeting, the seurat, which had its origins in the revivalist tradition and was a mixture of hymns and addresses by both clergy and laymen.

Parish personnel also offered services of a secular nature that supplemented social services provided by the state. Church law required that each parish have a deacon or deaconess who had many of the responsibilities of a state social worker. Often trained as nurses, deaconesses ministered to the sick, aged, and handicapped and coordinated their work with state agencies. Since World War II, the church has been active in providing personnel and facilities to youth programs, such as summer camps.

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