Centennial of Methodism in Russia Observed
By Elliott Wright
New York, NY, June 25, 2009--The 100th anniversary of Methodism in Russia was celebrated in St. Petersburg in an ecumenical service of worship June 13, 2009. The occasion also marked the 120th year since Methodism arrived in what was then Czarist Russia, in the region that is today the Baltic countries.
The anniversary festivities included the announcement that a building had been bought for a United Methodist Center in St. Petersburg, the city where a Methodist presence continued for 14 years after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The church resumed ministry when the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s.
Bishop Hans Växby, leader of The United Methodist Church's Eurasia Area, presided over the celebration, with the participation of Bishop Øystein Olsen (retired) of the Nordic and Baltic Area, and Bishop Sally Dyck of the Minnesota Area in the United States.
The Minnesota Annual Conference contributed $600,000 last year toward the purchase and equipping of the St. Petersburg Center, which will be centrally located in the city and accessible to United Methodist congregations in the region. The Minnesota Conference has a strong mission partnership with the Northwest Russian Annual Conference.
Lasting almost four hours and held at the Resurrection Lutheran Church, the St. Petersburg anniversary service on June 13th took place during the meeting of the Northwest Conference. It was one of several similar celebrations held this year at other annual conferences around the vast area that Bishop Växby leads.
A Cloud of Witnesses
"The St. Petersburg observance brought to mind the image of a great crowd of witnesses--from the past and the present," said the Rev. James Athearn, a retired Virginia clergyman who attended as coordinator the Russia Initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. "The church around the world was represented by guests, prayers, and the good will of congregations in the United States and Western Europe that are partners with Russian congregations."
Guests included representatives from other Protestant groups, including Russian Baptists in the region, and Methodist representatives from the United States, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. Congregations in the Eurasia Episcopal Area, from as far as Voronezh, sent choirs or other musical ensembles. The children's choir of Grace Church, St. Petersburg, brought the celebrants to their feet in applause.
Bishop Dyck, writing for the website of her annual conference in Minnesota, spoke of the celebration and the mission partnerships focused in Russia in terms of neighbors-to-neighbors. Noting that many Russian United Methodists are young, growing in faith, and anxious to share their faith, she said: "Let our brothers and sisters in Russia give us hope to rise again in our own communities to be the sharing..., giving witness to a life in Christ."
The Rev. Jorge Domingues represented the General Board of Global Ministries. The Evangelization and Church Growth unit of which he is interim deputy general secretary incorporates the Russia Initiative. Addressing the participants of the celebration, Rev. Domingues said:
The New Center
Bishop Dyck and other representatives from Minnesota--Steve and Kathi Austin Mahle and Ken Ehrman, together with the international guests--visited the recently purchased property that will become the United Methodist Center, headquarters for the annual conference and the district, and worship and educational space for St. Petersburg congregations.
"The building is two subway stops with a 10-minute walk from downtown St. Petersburg--a great location," Bishop Dyck said. "It has a police substation on the floor above and a youth center above that. It has replacement windows and is bright even without lights on…. The first worship services are expected to be held in September."
A Rich Heritage
Methodists had two original centers in contemporary Russia: St. Petersburg in the west and the Vladivostok region in the east. The exact origins are difficult to trace. There are indications of Methodist work among Swedish immigrants in St. Petersburg as early as 1881. The first Methodist church buildings in what was then Czarist Russia were in modern Lithuania. The work in the east, starting in 1910, is easier to date.
Since Methodism was officially recognized in Russia prior to the communist revolution, The United Methodist Church could legally resume ministries after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989. After the revolution that overthrew the czarist government, the Methodist Church continued in St. Petersburg through the ministry of Deaconess Anna Eklund until 1931, when political realities forced her to return to her native Finland.
The history of Methodism in Russia from 1889 to 1931 is surveyed in a new publication, A Pictorial Panorama of Early Russian Methodism 1889-1931, by ST Kimbrough, a retired executive of the General Board of Global Ministries.
A Hopeful Future
Today, The United Methodist Church in Eurasia has 116 congregations, each with an indigenous pastor. There are currently 48 students enrolled in residential and extension degree programs at the United Methodist Seminary in Moscow.
The Northwest Annual Conference and the St. Petersburg district have especially active outreach ministries to teenagers and young adults. An annual gathering of college students draws as many as 150 participants.
The Russia Initiative is the oldest and most successful of the Mission Initiatives sponsored by Global Ministries. It is a joint effort of the agency, individuals, local churches, and conferences, such as Minnesota and Germany. From a very modest start in the early '90s, it has grown to be a significant support for the whole episcopal area. Now, at this time of financial challenges and uncertainty, the Russian churches are taking their share of responsibility and visioning a future where local commitments would be an increased share of the sustaining of the ministry.
Global Ministries staff is working with Bishop Växby on the planning of a roundtable about the vision and future of The United Methodist Church in Eurasia, with the main partners this coming fall. It will be an opportunity to hear the result of the discussions that all annual conferences in the Eurasia Area are having this summer and to plan the long-term mission of the Church in the area.
For more information, go to the Russia Initiative page. Click here to give to an Advance project in Russia. Click here to read the Russia Initiative Newsletter. Click here to read Bishop Dyck's account of her visit to St. Petersburg: Russian UMs on the Road to Growth.
Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Jun 25, 2009