Loaded City Buses and Empty Churches

A historical center in Kaliningrad, Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia
A historical center in Kaliningrad, Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia (photo:  Vitalijs Barilo/Unsplash)
By William Yoder, Ph.D.January 5th, 2021

L a d u s h k i n – The September issue of the German newsletter „Gemeinschaft evangelischer Ostpreußen“ clearly reveals diverging views among Lutherans in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (Königsberg) regarding the proper response to Corona. The head Lutheran in the region, Dean Igor Ronge, has cancelled all worship services and does not as a rule receive any outside guests. He cites in his own defence the fact that he had in August requested official permission from the regional government to resume church services. Such permission was not given.

This restrictive practice has been highly controversial. Older Lutheran women in particular, who had suffered through the religious practices of the Soviet state, see no reason to halt all church services during an era of religious freedom.

„We take on full responsibility for ourselves when we meet,“ explained the lay person responsible for one congregation. “Each person answers for him- or herself. Gatherings of 10 or 15 persons are by no means forbidden; we are not breaking any laws. It would be a different case if there were 30 or 50 persons in our gatherings.” Yet due to questions of legal liability when minors are involved, this congregation has no current offerings for children.

At least since August, all other denominations in the region (Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc.) are holding worship services, sometimes with more than 100 in attendance. Communion is being served. The same is true for Russia in general. All known denominations are meeting openly in Moscow; Lutheran congregations are also gathering throughout the country. (Church services in Kaliningrad region had been halted in March.)

What will things be like if the pandemic continues into 2022? Will there by then still be a Deanery (Propstei) Kaliningrad under the umbrella of the “Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Russia” worthy of mention? Larger and more vibrant churches in the region are more than willing to welcome new Lutheran members. An Orthodox woman participating in the life of a Lutheran congregation warned: “If people stop coming because of the pandemic, then they will not be returning afterward.” There are other conservative Lutheran denominations in Russia eager to meet the needs of current congregational life in Kaliningrad region.

Most likely, Dean Ronge is facing a very long wait if he expects to receive explicit permission from the regional government for the holding of Lutheran services. When a state finds itself in the happy circumstance of not needing to accept co-responsibility for infections occurring within church walls, why then should it voluntarily rescind such privilege? 

Seen positively, one could claim that Kaliningrad’s Dean has forbidden all worship services out of love for his congregants. He – in contrast to virtually all pastors elsewhere in the country – is truly concerned about the health of his members. Yet I would think it proper in this instance to follow the lead of the all-powerful Orthodox church: It is holding large services in Kaliningrad region, sometimes even with children present.

CCD reprinted with permission.  

related articles