Anne Burghardt: my aims with the Lutheran Federation
My country, Estonia, is known as one of the most secular countries in the world, so something I will definitely bring is an experience of being able to share the word of God to people in secular societies. I was born in 1975 during the Soviet occupation and I grew up in a secularised family environment. While my grandparents had been active members of the Lutheran church, my grandmother, together with my father and my aunt, were deported to Siberia in 1949. Like many who went through these experiences, my grandparents were cautious about actively involving their children in the life of the church as they were concerned about the consequences it would have had in an aggressively atheistic state.
Invitations and journeys
It was an invitation to a confirmation class from a high school friend that set me on the path to ordination – a path I would have struggled to believe if someone had suggested it to me 30 years ago! My school was one of the few in Estonia at that time which offered religious education classes and the discussions I had with classmates sparked something deep inside me. Everyone was searching for an identity, both on a national level and at a personal level too, and I became more and more interested in religious questions.
Looking back on my own faith journey, I would say that some people experience a path of natural growth in a traditional Christian family. A few have sudden conversions, like the Apostle Paul. Then there is another path where I belong, a path of slow growth through many questions, moving forward step by step, being grounded ever more deeply in the faith. In 2004, ten years on from that high school invitation, I found myself in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Tallinn being ordained as a pastor, as I sensed I wanted to serve the church with the gifts I had been given.
Ecumenism and education
Nel frattempo avevo studiato teologia presso l’antica università di Tartu, trascorrendo del tempo anche a Berlino e in Baviera, dove avevo preparato il dottorato in studio delle liturgie ortodosse. Avevo svolto la formazione pastorale, insegnando in seguito all’Istituto di Teologia a Tallin, che comprende una cattedra di teologia ortodossa, raro esempio di cooperazione ecumenica di alto livello in una istituzione accademica ecclesiastica. Visto il mio interesse per il mondo ortodosso sono diventata membro della prima commissione di dialogo luterano-ortodosso in Estonia e ho fatto parte della Commissione congiunta globale luterano-ortodossa. Poi ho lavorato per cinque anni come segretario per le relazioni ecumeniche presso il quartier generale della Federazione Luterana Mondiale a Ginevra, sovrintendendo al dialogo con gli anglicani e i mennoniti, come anche, in seguito, con i cristiani ortodossi e pentecostali.
In the intervening years, I studied theology at the ancient University of Tartu, spending time also in Berlin and in Bavaria where I prepared my PhD in Orthodox liturgics. I did my pastoral training and then later taught at the Institute of Theology in Tallinn, which includes a chair of Orthodox theology, a rare example of high-level ecumenical cooperation within a church-owned academic institution. [AB1] [AB2] [PH3] [AB4] [AB5] [PH6] [AD7] Due to my interest in the Orthodox world, I became a member of the first Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue commission in Estonia and I also served on the global Lutheran-Orthodox Joint Commission. After that, I worked for five years as secretary for ecumenical relations at the LWF headquarters in Geneva, overseeing dialogue with Anglicans and Mennonites, as well as later with Orthodox and Pentecostal Christians.
During that same period, I helped to coordinate preparations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which saw Pope Francis praying alongside Lutheran leaders in the Swedish city of Lund where the LWF was founded in 1947. Although we are a confessional communion of churches, I believe the LWF has always had a very strong commitment to Christian unity and its formation was profoundly influenced by the broader ecumenical movement of the early 20th century. Just as each Christian communion brings its own special gifts to the global Church, our Lutheran tradition brings its emphasis on the centrality of God’s unconditional grace and the freedom that flows from that.
Another characteristic of the Reformers was their focus on education to share the gospel and to encourage critical thinking, principles that are central to my own understanding of the church’s mission in our contemporary world. A key innovation during my time as director of development at Tallinn’s Institute of Theology was the setting up of a Master’s programme on ‘Studies in Christian Culture’. The course was conceived as an ‘academic mission’ to those working in the secular world but wanting to understand more about their Christian history and traditions.
Critical thinking to combat polarization
That programme has been very successful, building on the legacy of the Theology Institute that stayed open throughout the Soviet era. During those years, the Institute provided an academic education that ensured that pastors were trained to think in differentiated ways, not just in black or white responses. Today, when many societies are facing increased polarisation, it is vital that the church is not supporting a black and white paradigm, but rather reflects a more differentiated way of thinking. One of my goals is to strengthen the LWF’s theological education and formation network, making materials widely available for students who lack access to resources and training for critical thinking. In doing this, I hope to share some of my own experience of research and training in diverse fields, including conflict resolution, HIV counselling and community development in rural areas.
Another of my aims is to develop theological discussion around the Lutheran understanding of ordination, to support those Churches that are moving towards including women in the ordained ministry and in leadership positions. As the first woman to lead the LWF, I believe that in many regions and in many of our Churches, there are women who feel encouraged by this example. The first women in Estonia were ordained as pastors more than half a century ago, but I think that my appointment marks a historic moment for our Church and for our region. However, at the same time, I look forward to the day when gender is no longer an issue in the discussion of leadership positions in our Churches or in society.
Theology, mission and justice
Among the key tasks that I will be facing as the new General Secretary is overseeing preparations for our next LWF Assembly to be held in Krakow in September 2023, focusing on the theme ‘One Body, One Spirit, One Hope’. Alongside the theological and ecumenical work, this includes setting directions for the church’s aid and development arm, known as LWF World Service. Operating in 27 countries, often in remote and hard-to-reach places, our World Service department is known for its professional humanitarian work linking local communities to international advocacy for justice, peace and human dignity, especially for the most vulnerable. For many years, we have been one of the largest faith-based implementing partners of the UNHCR and we work closely with ecumenical partners, including Caritas Internationalis, as well as with other faith groups like Islamic World Relief. Just as it was a concern for the LWF’s founders in the wake of World War II, the plight of refugees continues to be one of our major preoccupations in the work with vulnerable communities. Around the world today, over 80 million people have been internally displaced or forced to flee their countries because of conflict, poverty, persecution or the climate crisis. At the same time, we are seeing the rise of authoritarian regimes, the slow pace of actions taken by states to reduce the impact of climate change and pushback on human rights, particularly the rights of women. Another concern for us is that access to COVID vaccines continues to be very unequal across the world and vaccines themselves are increasingly made into a weapon of a misinformation war, adding to the existing polarisation and conspiracy theories. As the LWF, we remain committed to just and long-term solutions that are consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals, which address the root causes of poverty, so that all people can enjoy their rights and a life with dignity.
Having grown up in an era when rights and dignity were routinely trampled underfoot by the Soviet regime, I believe that our Churches can and must play a vital role in speaking out for these Christian values in the public square. In an increasingly fragmented world, we are called to discern the will of God in complex situations and to be agents of positive change and reconciliation. As Christians, we ourselves must ‘walk the talk’, responding to Christ’s will for unity and healing of our broken world.
By Anne Burghardt
First Woman Secretary General
Reverend Anne Burghardt, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Estonia, is the first woman, as well as the first person from the Central and Eastern European region, to be elected General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. A theologian and pastor, she began her term in November 2021, succeeding the Rev. Martin Junge, who had led the worldwide fellowship of 148 Lutheran churches since 2010. Burghardt, 46, a wife and mother of two biological children and an adopted Palestinian refugee, reflects on her path to leadership and the special gifts she hopes to bring to her work.