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The Orthodox Church of Finland

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Thoughts of Finland conjure up images of fir trees blanketed with snow, crisp cold Arctic air, fresh water lakes, lingonberry preserves and reindeer. Golden icons, clouds of incense, beeswax candles and polyphonic chants do not figure in these musings. Yet, the world of Byzantium exists even in this land of Scandinavian simplicity.

The Orthodox Church of Finland includes an estimated 62,000 Finns, about 1 percent of the population. The church, however, plays a disproportionate role in modern Finland. The Finnish constitution establishes the Orthodox Church as a national church. The government collects taxes for the church while the Orthodox clergy (together with their Evangelical Lutheran peers) preside at affairs of state. In recent decades, the church has been energized by an increase of converts, an influx of Orthodox Greek, Romanian and Russian immigrants and renewed public interest in iconography, Orthodox theology and monastic spirituality.

Firmly rooted in the culture of the Byzantine East, the Orthodox Church of Finland is no stranger to the ethos of the West. Similar to the nation’s dominant Lutheran Church, Orthodox leaders emphasize the frequent reception of the Eucharist, encourage lay leadership and utilize the Gregorian calendar even for the celebration of Easter.

Origins. Though established in 1918, the autonomous Orthodox Church of Finland has ancient antecedents. Byzantine traders once exchanged their golden ducats for the flax, fur and timber of the Norsemen, who inhabited Scandinavia and the Russian north. Known throughout history as Normans, Vikings or Varangians, the Norsemen were a dynamic lot — traders, soldiers and mercenaries — who from their Scandinavian base intimidated much of Europe until the 12th century. They plundered Irish monasteries, raided Frankish settlements and threatened even the city of Constantinople, then the center of European civilization.

Perhaps as early as the ninth century, the Byzantines brought the Norsemen not just their currency, but their distinct form of the Christian faith. But the Gospels seem to have had little appeal among the Norse; the attributes and powers of Ovid, Thor and Freyr commanded a powerful hold.

Eventually, these “men from the North” assimilated with their Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Italo-Greek and Slavic subjects. They established states in the British Isles, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Sicily and, over time, most adopted Latin Christianity. In the 10th century, however, the Varangians of Rus’ accepted Byzantine Christianity. The faith took hold in the Rus’ cities of Kiev and Novgorod, helping to forge a distinct identity throughout the realm. The consequences remain even today: Modern Belarussians, Russians and Ukrainians regard ancient Rus’ as theirs.

A major commercial center on the trade route linking Scandinavia to Constantinople, Novgorod quickly became an important Christian center as well. From its cathedrals and monasteries, priests and monks worked among the people, including the Finnic tribes living in the region of Karelia and lands hugging the coast of the Baltic Sea. According to tradition, two 12th-century monks, Sergei and Herman, left Novgorod and founded a monastery on the nearby island of Valamo in Lake Ladoga, the largest fresh water lake in Europe. From this monastic center and its subsequent daughter houses, most of Karelia was evangelized.

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Tags: Ecumenism Orthodox Church Church history Finland