Via Integra

Fr Mark's progressive Anglo-Catholic take on European Christianity

  • This is my collection of material about the current state of the churches in Europe. I am interested in looking at how they are dealing with the pressing issues of our time: the issues of gay people and women in ministry/ leadership are particularly pressing at the moment, as is the area of declining church attendance.

    I would like to see how Europe's traditional religious institutions are coping with the new Europe currently being forged, in which public opinion and ethical attitudes are becoming inceasingly pan-European, and are evidently presenting a series of strong challenges for the churches.

Sweden – women priests

Posted by Fr Mark on August 17, 2009

coat_of_arms251px-Svenska_kyrkan_vapen_svgFrom womenpriests website:

http://www.womenpriests.org/classic/berglund.asp

 

THE SWEDISH LUTHERAN CHURCH

by The Reverend Kerstin Berglund (see biography)

from The Ordination of Women: Pro and Con, pp. 102-110,
edited by Michael P.Hamilton and Nancy S.Montgomery, Morehouse Barlow Co, 1975.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

It is reasonable to evaluate the development in the Church of Sweden(1) prior to and after the 1960 ordination of women in the context of Swedish society, where legislation for equal opportunity rights and careers for men and women was passed in 1945. It is worth noting that the question of women priests had already been seriously raised in Parliament in 1919, that is the year after women had received the right to vote in all elections. Since Sweden has a state church, all matters of church law must be passed by Parliament with the consenting vote of the General Synod of the Church (in which an equal number of clergy—including all the bishops and laypeople vote together). The initiative for such legislation can originate also in the Synod, but in the late 1940’s the initiative came from Parliament and the government appointed a study commission.

In 1950 the majority of this commission recommended the ordination of women, but the Synod of 1957 rejected the proposal after extensive and heated debates, asking for more time.

The government felt, however, that seven years (1950 to1957) had been enough and called an extra Synod (regularly it meets only every fifth year). At this Synod the proposal passed. This shift nourished the feeling among many, especially among the clergy, that the church had acted cowardly under the pressure of the state and of public opinion in a secularized land, dominated by the media.(2)

The opposition to women’s ordination within the church felt strongly that now was the time to protect the freedom of the church and stressed that the question of women’s ordination was not a question of secular emancipation, but must be judged by biblical and theological standards within the church. Once the Synod had acted, Parliament passed the new legislation. The first three women were ordained on Palm Sunday, 1960.

The opposition consolidated itself and promulgated “seventeen points” outlining a program of action and urging clergy and laypeople to boycott all services and official priestly acts of women. A polarization resulted, mainly in the clergy, and the traditional weekly journal of the clergy which supported the ordinations was supplemented by a new journal that became and still serves the main expression of the opposition.

But there was not only polarization, there were also alliances. The high church movement and the low church biblicists made common cause in the opposition, and in such a manner that the high church movement thereby lost its catholic sense of tradition and historic realism.

In any case, it would be hard to find a church in which the arguments pro and con the ordination of women have been so purely biblical as in the Church of Sweden. That is how the abate shaped up in this Lutheran land in the late fifties.

But let me tell how I experienced all this—from a great distance. I was then a teacher at the Swedish School in South India. I had no thought of becoming a priest, but, of course, I was interested in the issues and the events. When I got newspapers and journals—usually about six weeks late—I found plenty of articles about the ordination, many that argued that this was against God’s will, that the church was going to be split and that women priests would destroy the life of the parishes.

And I remember my reaction very well. There I was with all the problems of India, spiritual and material, very close to me, so far from good old Sweden. I read about that small country high up in the north, where a group of people said that they were absolutely sure of the will of God almost two thousand years after the time Jesus was preaching the Gospel and Paul had written his letters. My perspective was so different: How could they afford to discuss such problems in a world like the one in which I found myself? Could God really be interested in such a question and could a church be paralyzed by such a debate? Or was my reaction naive? I guessed not and it was encouraging to me that my perspective from those days came to assert itself in Sweden when, for example, one of the influential Swedish theologians who had been a sharp and respected spokesman for the opposition, Dr. Ragnar Holte, professor of ethics at the theological faculty of the University of Uppsala, wrote a celebrated article in which he told how he had changed his mind and why. Having participated in the preparatory work of the Uppsala Assembly of the World Council of Churches, the Swedish debate had been so completely dwarfed for him by the problems of the third world and the urgency of questions of justice that it became an absurd inconsistency in the church to deny full equality to women in this specific matter of ordination. He came to see that any kind of subordination of women does mean giving them less value. He seems to have brought with him from the W.C.C. the well demonstrated experience of the blacks in the United States and elsewhere, that the model “separate but equal” does not work among sinful human beings. It may work in heaven, but the church (I would guess) is, in this respect, closer to the sinful earth than to the blissful heaven.

The only minister and theologian that, as a member of the Study Commission Report of 1950, had filed a dissenting opinion against the ordination, Dr. Olov Hartman, has also declared that he now welcomes women priests. In this he was lead by his growing awareness that the ministry in the early church was far more diversified than the one concentrated in the one parish priest of today. Hence he stresses that a diversified clergy—including women ministers—better serves the church and fits the image suggested by the early church.

To the best of my knowledge, I know of no case where someone in favor of the ordination has declared a change of mind.

After publication of the action program of the opposition with its seventeen points and the ordination in 1960, the opposition consolidated its stance. It is one of the recognized facts of life in the Church of Sweden.

In the late sixties it looked to many as if this issue would lowly die out, mainly for the reasons given by Professor Holte. The W.C.C. Assembly in Uppsala 1968 had considerable impact in Sweden and placed global, social, and ethical issues high on the agenda of the church, including its theological students.

But now, in the mid-seventies the question seems to gather new momentum in the journals and debates of the clergy and theological students, while the vast majority of laypeople marvel, or even get turned off from the church in amazement over this debate and its arguments.

The strict policy of the government not to appoint anyone a bishop who is known to have doubts about ordaining women has certainly contributed to keeping the issues alive and to the polarization of the clergy.(3) The government has so far acted on the principle that since ordination of women is the law of the land, it cannot in good conscience appoint a person who has declared that he will not comply.

More than any other factor, this policy has perpetuated the issue, and allowed it to surface each time there is a vacancy in one of the dioceses. This has given the feeling of martyrdom to the leaders of the opposition and—what is even more sad—it has deprived the church of some first rate potential leadership. Many who favor the ordination of women deplore this policy of the government as too legalistic.

On the other hand, the government is impressed with its responsibility to the many parishes that like to call a woman priest, or could consider it immoral not to have women priests in the church.

At the time of the first ordination in 1960, a few priests, some theological students, and some laypeople became Roman Catholics, other students turned to teaching rather than seeking ordination. As time has gone on, some ordinands chose to seek ordination in dioceses where the bishop would not ordain women and some clergy did not apply for vacant posts in dioceses where the bishop was known to be in favor of women priests. Now, there are two bishops who are against ordination of women.

Among the thirteen dioceses of Sweden, there are women in ten and there will be two women ordained this year in one more diocese.

The situation today.

At the moment there are about 165 women priests out of about three thousand priests. (The Church of Sweden does not have a diaconate as a step to the priesthood). Two dioceses, Stockholm, the capital, and Lund in the heavily populated south, have together about eighty women priests and one of the northern dioceses has a great number. In the cases where priests are appointed rather than elected, it is common practice for a bishop not to put a woman priest into a parish where the rector is against it.

In short, the bishops try to avoid practical problems and do place a woman priest where she is wanted both by the members of the parish and by the other priests—this is the case in the large majority of situations. It is also worth noting that practically all women priests serve in regular parish work and are “promoted” equally with men. The typical Swedish parish has many priests, especially in the cities, and the position as rector requires seniority. There are now three women rectors: one elected with enthusiasm by a vast parish up near the polar circle, one in charge of a prestigious inner city parish in Stockholm, and one in a rural parish.

Some of the women priests, maybe about half the number, are married and a few are married to priests. The number of the married women priests is increasing. Of course, all married women have the problem of combining work and family, and the married women priests share this problem. Family duties and the husband’s work may affect her choice of positions, but the bishops report that such practical problems are not among the more difficult ones.

Even Sweden is still a male-dominated society, but is working towards equality and there is much legislation which helps the mother. For example, a woman has the right to leave for seven months just before and after childbirth—a thoughtful parallel to the male’s leaves for military services.

Day-care centers are a natural part of Swedish life. There are also part-time positions, or joint appointments for man and wife where both are priests. In a country where about eighty percent of adult women belong to the work force there can be little doubt that married women priests, especially those with small children, can identify well with a significant segment of their parishioners. They really know how it feels to leave the child for work or to leave work for the child, or find a new division of labor and priorities between man and wife in the family. In short, these women priests find it far easier to recognize the problems of the modern family and society than do their male colleagues.

When I was recently in England to witness to my experiences as a priest in the Church of Sweden, three questions were addressed to me as the Church of England pondered its forthcoming voting on ordination of women. Let me repeat them together with my attempts at answering.

1. Is it true that the Church of Sweden is split in two?

The answer is, “No.” There are two distinct opinions in the matter of the ordination of women, but there are no indications that the minority that objects to women priests is contemplating a schism or secession. The tensions are certainly far less striking than those within the Anglican communion with its high-and-low-church problems. Furthermore, the tensions are more or less within the clergy and theological students, their journals and debates. The laypeople, also deeply involved in the life of the church, are not touched and I would in most cases neither feel nor understand this tension. Our situation in the large university town of Uppsala, where I have been a priest for more than five years, is that there are four or five priests out of a total of twenty-five priests (we are two women) who are against women in the priesthood, but it would be difficult to notice a split in the church life here.

The priests who are against ordination are my very good friends on the personal level. It would of course be impossible for them to come to my services and I would not be allowed to preach in theirs. People in Uppsala go sometimes to the church where they preach and sometimes to the church where I preach.

If you asked people in the parishes about the split, they would usually not know what you are asking about. But a small group consciously attach themselves to the four or five priests whom they know as opponents to women priests. This we respect.

2. Does the parish suffer very much from the women priests? From my own experience, and also from what I have heard from my colleagues, I must answer a plain, “No.”

From the very beginning my parish has welcomed me. Many people attend the services and I believe that many who have been strange to the church come for the first time and seem to come back again.

Sometimes we are told by people who are against the priesthood for women that many will leave the church and that the life of the church will be destroyed. I dare say that more people have come to the church than have left because of women priests.

In our large parish there are many funerals. That is where people often meet a woman priest for the first time. I have never heard anything other than positive statements that they feel it easier to talk with a woman in this time of bereavement. I have heard so often during these five and a half years, how thankful people are to have a woman priest in the parish— perhaps I have heard only “the good”—but this question of “the suffering” sounds very peculiar.

3. What have women given to the priesthood?

I think, especially, of two things: a.) As priesthood for women is a question of justice, theologically seen, many rejoice that the church has taken the consequences by ordaining women. b.) Priesthood for women has given the masculine priesthood a complement. When God created man in his image, male and female he created them. And in our churches there are both men and women—in Sweden more women than men.

I have the definite opinion that women priests have enriched the priesthood with just this: It has become a complementarity, a complementarity which the parishes have been waiting for. The women and men do the same work, but sometimes we do it in different ways and I am convinced that the priesthood is enriched when the women also have access to it.

As far as I am concerned—and I have contact with several women priests—the consequences in Sweden are that there are no or few problems where we are—of course, there are ordinary problems everywhere. The parishes really welcome us, the male priests who are our colleagues work very well with us. We do the same work, we have the same task in the Kingdom of God.

What has puzzled and saddened me in the debate about women priests in Sweden is the fact that the debate has been cast in fundamentalist and biblical terms. When I compare this with the international debate, when I listen to Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and, also, to some of the Orthodox I find the debate more open, even quite sharp. Tradition rather than scripture and dogma seems to be its setting. The Swedish debate has been harder in its biblical mood. Even so, the church holds together, it is far from a split. But there is a wound, a pain, felt deeply by some, and hence felt by us all. That pain we are willing to live with. The church will be able to fulfill its mission despite our differences.

Notes

1. All of the five Scandinavian countries have national churches, Lutheran in their tradition and state churches in their constitution. In the Church of Denmark, three women were ordained in 1948. The Church of Norway ordained women for regular parish duties in 1961, although one had already been ordained in 1950 for hospital work only. The first women priests in the Church of Sweden were ordained in 1960. The Church of Iceland ordained the first woman in 1974. The Church of Finland is now the only country in Scandinavia which has no women priests. There Archbishop M. Simojoki recently said in an interview: “The question about the ordination of women is basically a theological question of justice which the church cannot neglect.”

The major freechurches in Scandinavia: Congregationalists, (The Mission Covenant Church) Methodists, and Baptists all have women clergy. The pentecostals have neither women pastors nor women elders.

2. On this debate see Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1966).

3. The right to ordination rests with the bishop. The government appoints the bishops from a slate of three names, the three persons who have received most votes from an electoral college of the diocese. The electoral college consists of all the clergy of the diocese plus an equal number of laypersons. In almost every such election since 1960 at least one representative of the opposition has been placed on the list of three.

Biography

The Reverend Kerstin Berglund taught for fifteen years in Primary school and high schools in her native Sweden and in India before her ordination in 1969. She obtained her Master of Arts degree in Uppsala, Sweden and was ordained in the cathedral there. While teaching, she studied music and psychotherapy, both of which she finds useful in her ministry.

Ms. Bergland became interested in the priesthood while teachng in an adult high school in Sweden where theology was a chief portion of the curriculum. She is now in charge of Vaksala församling, a large parish in Uppsala which has two churches, one over eight hundred years old and one only fifteen years old.

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