Women priests voiced dismay on Wednesday after Latvia's Lutheran church ruled it would no longer allow women to be ordained, putting it at odds with its counterparts in other countries.
Lutheran churches in the United States, Canada, Germany, Norway and Sweden for example not only allow female priests but have also appointed female leaders.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL) synod, which gathers every four years, voted on June 3 to amend its constitution so that only men could become priests.
“The decision of the synod is very sad,” said 38-year-old Zanda Ohff, who trained for the priesthood in Latvia but moved to Germany to become ordained.
Ordination was theoretically open to women before, although Archbishop Janis Vanags has refused to ordain any new women priests since becoming head of the church in 1993.
According to latest official figures, about a third of Latvians identify themselves as Lutherans, followed by Catholics and Orthodox.
“I started my studies when archbishop Vanags had already been elected but I hoped that some day I might become a pastor,” said Ohff, one of many women priests driven abroad.
“I hoped it would be in Latvia but the last 23 years have shown that it's not possible,” she told AFP, adding that the church has become more authoritarian under Vanags.
The ruling does not affect the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church Abroad (LELCA), which is a separate organisation formed during the years of Soviet Occupation to keep the church alive among emigre Latvians.
One congregation in Latvia's third-largest city of Liepaja has already voted to leave the home-grown church and join the overseas body since the synod ruling, and others could follow.
LELCA even has a female archbishop, Lauma Zusevica, who is based in the United States.
She voiced shock at the decision - and the reaction of those who supported it.
“Those who had wanted the resolution to pass absolutely burst out in loud applause and were shouting cheers of victory!” she said.
“They had absolutely no regard to others who were deeply distressed by the outcome.”
“Various Lutheran churches in Germany and in Great Britain, as well as in the US have expressed their grave discontent with the decision and have indicated that their own relationships with ELCL will be re-examined.”