Democracy activist who fought behind Iron Curtain ordained into Kirk

Rev Dr Urzula Glienecke lived in Latvia under Soviet Union rule when it was dangerous to be a Christian.

Katharine Hay
Thursday 20 January 2022 12:15
Rev Dr Urzula Glienecke, who has been inducted as an associate chaplain at Edinburgh University (Church of Scotland/PA)
Rev Dr Urzula Glienecke, who has been inducted as an associate chaplain at Edinburgh University (Church of Scotland/PA)

A political activist who “grew up in a family of rebels” and campaigned for democracy from behind the Iron Curtain has been inducted as an associate chaplain at the University of Edinburgh.

Rev Dr Urzula Glienecke, who first began studying to be a minister in the early 1990s in Latvia – when it was dangerous to be a Christian under Soviet Union rule – has been ordained into the Church of Scotland at Greyfriars Kirk.

As associate chaplain, she will help run a listening service, which also offers out-of-hours support, for people of all denominations and none across the campus.

“As part of the role I can bring in the things that are most important to me, such as working for social justice: against racism; against poverty, promoting the environment; supporting LGBTQ+ people; and working with people of other faiths,” she said.

“Everybody is welcome to come if they want a listening ear which is non-judgemental.”

There is a lot of pain and a lot of violence that I can remember my own family faced growing up in this oppressive system, especially being connected to the church

Rev Dr Urzula Glienecke

Dr Glienecke’s path into ministry, however, was far from welcoming.

At the age of 14, she was required to attend an underground church group, which was literally underground in the cellar of a church, because of the dangers of exploring her faith under strict communist and atheist rule.

She described her relatives as “a family of rebels”, giving a particular mention to her grandmother who played the organ for more than 30 years for the Lutheran Church in Latvia when such an activity was considered highly dangerous.

Any dissidents caught, including Christians, were at risk of deportation to camps in Siberia she said.

Then, while studying for her theology degree, the Latvian Lutheran Church “changed dramatically” and excluded women from ordination.

“I lost my church home so I moved away to Norway, to Germany – where I met my husband – then to Ireland and to Spain,” Dr Glienecke said.

“There is a lot of pain and a lot of violence that I can remember my own family faced growing up in this oppressive system, especially being connected to the church.”

Dr Urzula Glienecke as a teenager with other fellow activists holding the Latvian flag, which was banned under communist rule (Church of Scotland/PA)

Latvia fell to the east side of the Iron Curtain – a political boundary dividing Europe into two separate areas from the end of the Second World War in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991 – an effort from the Soviet Union (USSR) to block itself and its satellite states from open contact with the West and its allied states.

Yet despite the dangers, the Latvian Christian community was committed to the pro-democracy movement from the late 80s.

Many of them took part in the “Baltic Chain” in 1989, otherwise known as the “Baltic Way”, a peaceful political demonstration that involved about two million people linking arms or holding hands and forming a 600km-long human chain through the Baltic countries, demonstrating their unity in their efforts towards freedom.

“We knew it was very dangerous, but we wanted freedom to believe, we wanted to communicate with the world,” she said.

“I don’t know a single Baltic family who didn’t lose a family member either due to being deported to Siberia or having to escape to the West, especially in the early days of the Soviet occupation.”

When her denomination stopped ordaining women, Dr Glienecke moved abroad and completed a PhD at the Jesuit-affiliated Milltown Institute in Dublin.

She then moved to Spain where she ended up learning about the Iona Community in Scotland – a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace, social justice and communities – and eventually was able to move to the Isle of Iona and become a member of staff there.

“I loved the open-mindedness, the inclusivity, the focus on peace-making and justice and the environment,” she said.

She then completed her journey into ministry after spending time as a probationer at Greyfriars Kirk, where she will now take on her role as associate chaplain after being ordained on Tuesday evening.

Speaking about her latest role, Dr Glienecke said she feels “very much at home” and “loves its democratic nature”.

She described her next step in the church as “the opportunity of a lifetime” and says her ordination brought her “joy”.

She added: “It felt very definitely right and I still can’t quite believe it.”

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