LETTER FROM THE BALTIC
A candidate who doubts the ordination of women as priests will no longer be ordained in the Church of Sweden. In a motion to be moved at the General Assembly of the Church in August this is proposed to be part of the law of the Church.
If it is so decided the experiment in the Church of Sweden to give room for both convictions in the issue of women as priests has finally failed. In 1958 it was decided to open the priesthood to women, and in 1960 the first ordinations took place. To begin with the pace was slow, only a few new women priests every year. But in the last ten years about half of those ordained have been women. Now 27 per cent of the priests in the Church of Sweden are female.
When the decision was taken it was combined with a ‘conscience clause’. No woman priest should be forced upon anyone and everyone should have the right to be ordained and consecrated bishop even if he disagreed with the official standpoint of the Church. (In face, however, only two bishops opposed have been appointed. On all other occasions the government, out of the three candidates emerging form the diocesan elections, chose one who was in favour.)
Later on the conscience clause began to be interpreted merely as a right to abstain from services and other priestly functions where women priests took part. In 1982 the clause was completely withdrawn. Even so it was still honoured in many places, and candidates who could not accept women as priests were ordained in some dioceses. But now finally it is proposed that the ordination of those opposed should be stopped by law. For the time being nothing is being said about those who are already priests, but that could well change in a few years time.
The sad, but significant, fact is that this comes after official talks in the Church on the issue. After discussions for several years, including a visit to England in 1991 to get a picture of how things were developing there, a report was issued in 1993. The two sides stated their convictions. At about the same time a survey made showed that more than one third of the priests were opposed to women as priests.
The reactions were violent. The bishops who took part in the talks were accused of being too kind to those opposed. When the report said that opposition is founded on a theology which ought to be respected, the women priests shouted that opposition to the equal rights of women could never be respected. The bishops quickly gave in and said that they would ordain only those who did not invalidate the orders of women priests. But even the right they gave to doubt was too much. The General Assembly last year stated that you should recognise women as priests and affirm the sacraments they perform in order to be ordained. Now it is proposed that this shall be put into Church law.
The experiment of Church of Sweden to live together with different views of women as priests has completely failed. There is much to be learnt from that. The Church of England is trying to accommodate those opposed by the appointment of ‘flying bishops’. Seen from the horizon of Church of Sweden one cannot but have the suspicion that this, in the same way, is doomed to failure. Slowly, but probably faster than in Sweden, voices will be raised affirming that the Church must be consistent. There must no longer be any place for doubt; new ‘flying bishops’ should not be appointed.
In the tradition of Church of Sweden the bishops have not had the same central position in the life of the Church as in the Anglican tradition, even if the apostolic succession of the episcopate has been considered essential. But when they fail altogether or by Church law are forbidden to lead their dioceses in an apostolic way, then there is a crisis. If groups in the Church (small but significant groups), are no longer allowed to generate priests after their conviction, they must seek for another leadership than that provided by the national Church.
So the problems of the Church of England and of the Scandinavian Lutheran churches are rapidly converging. The issue of ordination of women as priests is of course only the most visible point of a whole strand of liberal and feminist theology. What has been believed for 2000 years, and is still the doctrine of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, is pushed aside in the national Churches in Northern Europe. Cooperation, which has started in the Westminster International Committee of Forward in Faith and the Free Synods of Sweden and Norway, is needed to find a way to preserve the Catholic heritage in our traditions.
Goran Beijer, the author of this letter, is Parish Priest of S. Jacobus, Stockholm