A group of clergy and lay people from the United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross have recently returned from Finland where, as guests of the Bishop and Diocese of Borgå (Porvoo), they undertook an extensive programme of encounter, dialogue and travel. Finland is a bilingual country (Finnish and Swedish) and the Diocese of Borgå (also known as Porvoo) is the non-territorial Diocese of Swedish speaking congregations within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.
Last year, Bishop Björn Vikström and his staff visited Cork, Cloyne and Ross, and Bishop Vikström subsequently invited the Bishop of Cork, Dr Paul Colton, and Mrs Susan Colton to make a return visit. They accepted, and were accompanied by: the Archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne and Ross (the Venerable Adrian Wilkinson), the Dean of Cork (the Very Reverend Nigel Dunne), the Reverend Elaine Murray (Bishop’s Chaplain and convenor of the Diocesan Children’s Ministry Group), the Diocesan Secretary (Mr Billy Skuse), the Diocesan Youth Officer (Ms Hilda Connolly), and the Director of Music at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, and Director of the Diocesan Church Music Scheme (Mr Peter Stobart).
The group flew from Dublin to Helsinki on 1st November and, being Paul and Susan Colton’s wedding anniversary, the group, together with some Irish and Finnish friends, joined them for dinner that evening in Helsinki at a table looking onto Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral.
The visit proper began the next morning with a visit to Church House in Helsinki for meetings, first of all with the Swedish speaking staff of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. That Church is not an established church, but is a national, or folk, church and comprises 72% of the population of Finland. It is interesting to note that even though the Church comprises 72% of the population, in fact, 85.6% of all 15 year olds (the set age for Confirmation in the church) are confirmed.
A briefing and dialogue followed with the Department of International Affairs of the Church Council. The new Irish Ambassador in Finland, Maeve Collins and her Deputy Head of Mission, Caoimhe Kett (both of them from Cork), accepted an invitation to attend that briefing, to take part in the dialogue and to join everyone for lunch afterwards.
A musical visit followed lunch in the largest Swedish speaking parish in Finland where church music was on the agenda. Mr Peter Stobart is hoping to create musical links between Cork, Cloyne and Ross, and the Finnish Church. In the early evening, following a visit to the famous Church of the Rock, the group travelled by local bus to Porvoo (Borgå) for a reception and interesting conversations in the parish community centre of the Swedish speaking parish.
On Friday, 3rd November the morning was spent at the Chapter House of the Diocese of Borgå where the Cork group received presentations from the diocesan staff and co-workers. After lunch there, the group received a presentation from the Anglican chaplain in Helsinki, the Reverend Tuomas Mäkipää. Tours of the Cathedral and of the old town followed prior to an evening reception at Bishop’s House as guests of Bishop Björn Vikström and Mrs Maria Björkgren-Vikström, during which there were a number of local musical performances and interludes.
Saturday 4th called for an early start to drive the two hours, first of all to Toijala for the large gathering of youth from the Diocese (15 to 18 year olds) known as Höstdagar – autumn days. In attendance were over 500 young people from the Diocese together with many youth workers and young adult helpers who themselves had previously attended such a camp. These camps for people preparing for confirmation are a national phenomenon, so much so, for example, that Archdeacon Adrian Wilkinson reported that Finnish parishioners of his in Cork, returned to Finland in the summer so that their children could attend such a camp. Having spent most of the day in encounter with young people and leaders, lunch, the group attended the afternoon session at which the Cork, Cloyne and Ross Youth Officer, Hilda Connolly spoke to all the young people. Plans are afoot now too to plan a return visit of young youth leaders to Cork.
The group then set off to Tampere where the Cork group was received for afternoon coffee by the Bishop of Tampere, the Right Reverend Dr Matti Repo. Bishop Colton and Bishop Repo and worked previously together on a number of occasions.
By then darkness was falling, and Saturday, 4th November (the closest Saturday) is observed in Finland as All Saints Day. There is the strong custom throughout the country of remembering the faithful departed in families and visiting their graves to light a candle. En route to Turku two hours away to the south-west, the Cork group stopped at the rural churchyard at Urjala where hosts of candles were already lighting on graves. The local vicar got a fright when he saw, emerging from the darkness, a bishop, then four more clergy, and just when he thought that was it, another bishop, an English-speaking one, emerged also from the darkness! The group paused at a designated place in the churchyard to light candles to remember loved ones buried in places other than that churchyard. It was very moving. As the bus continued on its journey, churchyards, rural and urban, were speckled with candlelight on almost every grave.
The group continued to Turku where Bishop and Mrs Colton, together with the Cork group, reciprocated the hospitality of Bishop Vikström and Mrs Björkgren-Vikström by hosting a dinner for them. They were joined by the Reverend Tomas Ray, Executive Secretary for Ecumenical and International Work in the Diocese of Borgå, who had done all the practical work for the Cork visit. The local Swedish Vicar – Kyrkoherde Mia Bäck – was also a guest.
On Sunday 5th November the group from Cork were honoured guests in Turku Cathedral for the special Mass of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Service was broadcast live on Finnish National TV: YLE.
After lunch, the group visited the Faculty of Theology at Åbo Academy for a presentation by the Dean, Professor Mika Lindfelt. An interesting exchange was had about theological education, training of teachers, ordination training and selection for training for ordained ministry.
Another early start was needed on Monday, 6th November. The visitors from Cork attended the opening session of the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland in its purpose built modern convention room in Turku. Beforehand Susan Colton and Elaine Murray, both members of the Diocesan Children’s Ministry group, met with Anna-Mari Kaskinen, a well known figure in Finland – poet, writer and songwriter – who engages in children’s ministry work there and who produces a national children’s magazine for the church. Anna-Mari-Kaskinen was at school with Bishop Colton in Canada from 1976 to 1977 and this was their first reunion in forty years!
The General Synod has only 109 members and was being chaired by a lay woman. Bishop Paul Colton had been invited to address this opening session. In his address the Bishop spoke of the many ways he had encountered Finland and the Finnish Church over the years, and how that encounter had enriched and transformed him. He spoke also about the possibilities and potential within the Porvoo Communion of Churches. Setting out the common experiences of Ireland and Finland on their respective peripheries of Europe – emigration, famine, independence, civil war, large neighbours to the east, for example, Bishop Colton also spoke about the contemporary topics which are on the agendas of both church (one a national majority church, and the other a minority church): the threat of global terrorism, hospitality to asylum seekers and refugees, sexuality, marriage equality, levels of engagement and participation by church members (especially 18-30 year olds), church finances, and national debates about the role of Church in society. The address was warmly received, gifts were exchanged, and the Cork, Cloyne and Ross pilgrims set off on the four-stage 12 hour journey homewards.
Participants from Cork, Cloyne and Ross reflect on their visit:
Billy Skuse, Diocesan Secretary said:
After a very enjoyable and educational trip to Finland to visit the Evangelical Lutheran Church I was struck with a number of observations. Financially the Lutheran Church of Finland is very stable given the process of collecting money from it’s members, which is a 1% charge, on taxable income collected by the state. It was also noted that the Bishop’s Residences, were state owned and therefore maintenance was not a burden on the Diocese. The General Synod of the Lutheran Church comprised of only 109 members which is a huge difference to the size of the Church of Ireland General Synod which stands in membership at 648. Perhaps the Church of Ireland could learn from this and make the General Synod more concise and a better decision making vehicle.
Archdeacon Adrian Wilkinson commented:
It was wonderful to meet people with whom we had so much in common despite our different church structures and contexts. While they have many professionals involved in the work of the church, given their greater financial resources, we all face the same challenges and enjoy the same opportunities.
Hilda Connolly, Diocesan Youth Officer reflected:
Our trip to Finland was an educational one in every aspect. As well as meeting with bishops, clergy and staff from all over Finland, I also had the opportunity to meet with young leaders at a Confirmation camp and chat to them about the differences between our youth events and theirs. I had the privilege of speaking to some of the youth during the camp too. It was a pleasure and an honour to be included in this venture.
Peter Stobart, Director of Music at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, and Director the Diocesan Church Music Scheme came away with lots music-related ideas:
Meeting fellow church musicians in Helsinki and in the Porvoo diocese was an interesting and stimulating experience. The similarities in their instruments for accompanying choirs are striking…. Contrasts were very evident in the Reformation 500 broadcast and our own broadcast service. The National Cathedral in Turku choose to adapt their regular Sunday morning service, adding in brass band fanfares to the hymns and opening procession. Their use of choirs and organs at both ends of the cathedral made for an all encompassing surround sound experience. I hope that a choir tour to Helsinki and Porvoo will be possible in the future. The infrastructure which the Porvoo diocese has in place to administer church music and musicians is a resource which we may be able to make use of now that firm contacts have been made.
The Reverend Elaine Murray said:
It was refreshing to go to another country and yet not feel like a tourist. Our gracious hosts in the diocese of Porvoo/Borgå allowed us such access to their homes , churches and culture that we really felt at ease in a different country. Old connections were strengthened and new connections were made. This is, I suppose, what the Porvoo Communion is all about!
Dean Nigel Dunne summed it all up:
It was most interesting to visit a church that is so well financially resourced and yet faces many of the same issues as we do in the Church of Ireland – engaging younger people after Confirmation, proportionally low church attendance compared to actual membership, growing secularism in society etc. In fact it made me realise just how much we achieve in Cork, Cloyne and Ross with comparatively fewer resources, alongside the generosity of finance, time and talent that underpins so much of what we do for ministry and mission here. In short, the effective witness of the church is not always about money – it is about people and their commitment to Church life.