The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church

The Estonians came under Swedish control in the late 16th century, and soon thereafter they adopted the Lutheranism of their rulers. Peter the Great conquered the region for Russia in the early 18th century. Under Russian rule, especially in the 19th century, a significant number of ethnic Estonians became Orthodox, and there was an influx of ethnic Russians into the province. Thus a sizable Orthodox community was established in Estonia.

After the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917, Estonia proclaimed its independence. This was recognized by the Soviets in 1920. In view of Estonian independence and the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, Bishop Alexander of Tallinn asked the Patriarchate of Constantinople to receive his church into its jurisdiction. On July 7, 1923, Patriarch Meletios IV of Constantinople issued a Tomos accepting the Estonian Church and granting it autonomous status. He named Bishop Alexander Metropolitan of Tallinn and All Estonia. By 1940 this church had over 210,000 faithful, three bishops, 156 parishes, 131 priests, 19 deacons, two monasteries, and a theological seminary. The majority of the faithful were ethnic Estonians.

In 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Estonia. The Germans occupied the country during World War II, and the Soviets returned in 1944. Metropolitan Alexander then went into exile in Stockholm, Sweden, with 23 of his clergy. The church based in Stockholm remained attached to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and served about 10,000 Estonian Orthodox exiles in various countries. After Metropolitan Alexander died in 1953, the Ecumenical Patriarchate consecrated a new Estonian Orthodox bishop, Juri Valbe, to oversee the Estonian Church based in Stockholm. After his death in 1961, these Estonian parishes were placed under local bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The Orthodox Church in Estonia itself had been incorporated into the Moscow Patriarchate after the Soviet annexation. In 1978, at the request of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate declared inoperative the 1923 Tomos that had established the autonomous Estonian church. Due to demographic shifts, Russians made up the majority of the Orthodox population of Estonia by the end of Soviet rule.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the renewed independence of Estonia in 1991, a dispute developed within the Orthodox community between those who wished to remain linked to the Moscow Patriarchate and those who sought the re-establishment of the autonomous Orthodox church under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Lengthy negotiations between Moscow and Constantinople failed to produce an agreement. On February 20, 1996, the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople formally reactivated the 1923 Tomos that had established the autonomous church under its jurisdiction and appointed Archbishop John of Finland as locum tenens to head the church pending the election of a primate. The Moscow Patriarchate reacted swiftly and strongly to this move, breaking relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and removing the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch from the diptychs of the liturgy.

In April 1996 delegations from the two sides met in Zurich, Switzerland, and reached an agreement in principle. On May 16 both Holy Synods formally adopted the recommendations made at the Zurich meeting. The agreement provided for parallel jurisdictions in Estonia, and allowed individual parishes and clergy to join either the Estonian autonomous church under Constantinople or the diocese that would remain dependent on Moscow. For its part, Constantinople agreed to a four-month suspension of its February 20th decision to re-establish the Estonian autonomous church. Moscow agreed to lift the penalties that had been imposed on clergy who had joined the autonomous church. Both Patriarchates agreed to work together with the Estonian government, so that all Estonian Orthodox might enjoy the same rights, including rights to property. As a result of this agreement, full communion was restored between Moscow and Constantinople, and the name of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was again included in the diptychs in Moscow.

On March 9, 1999, a Congress of the autonomous Estonian church met in Tallinn to consider the fact that the church still did not have a resident hierarch. Archbishop John of Finland, the locum tenens presided over the meeting at which representatives from the Patriarchate of Constantinople were also present. The Congress acknowledged that no appropriate Estonian candidate to head the church had come forward, and so decided to ask the Patriarchate to appoint Bishop Stephanos of Nazianzus (assistant bishop to the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of France, resident in Nice) to that position. On March 13, 1999, the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople accepted this request and elected Stephanos as Metropolitan of Tallinn and All Estonia.

The Holy Synod of Constantinople also asked Stephanos to reorganize the church and, in due time, to oversee the formation of a local Estonian episcopate. This was accomplished in January 2009 with the ordination of two new bishops to head two additional dioceses in the country: Elias (Ojaperv) as Bishop of Tartu and Alexander (Hopjorski) as Bishop of Parnu and Saaremaa. Along with Metropolitan Stephanos of Tallinn, the Estonian Church now had a synodal structure.

In 2006 it was reported that the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church had fifty-nine congregations with approximately 18,000 members, while the Estonian Orthodox Church, subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate had thirty congregations with approximately 150,000 members. In 2019 it was estimated that 13.1% of the country’s population belonged to the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate while 2.3% belonged to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church. Theological education is provided by Saint Platon seminary in Tallinn in cooperation with the Lutheran seminary there.

Location: Estonia
Head: Metropolitan Stephanos (born 1940, elected 1999)
Title: Metropolitan of Tallinn and All Estonia
Residence: Tallinn, Estonia
Membership: 18,000
Websites: (old) and (new)

Last Modified: 17 July 2021

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