The Plight of Conservatives in the Church of Sweden by William J Tighe

THE Church of Sweden finally became disestablished on 1st January 2000. The process by which this came about appears to have consolidated the hold of the liberal establishment upon it, and offers little hope of better treatment to the marginalized traditionalists within it, barring the collapse of the church structure itself, which some foresee in the next decade or two.

Ordination has been effectively barred to all opponents of women’s ordination by the terms of the disestablishment. And with the advent of women bishops and a concurrent drive to secure the acceptance of same-sex partnerships and their blessing by the Church, tensions have only increased. Underground congregations, or koinonias, have emerged within, and yet in defiance of, the Church of Sweden, while the orthodox opposition vacillates between revolt and departure.

The Debate & Its Aftermath

In 1945 the Swedish Parliament passed an Equal Rights Law guaranteeing men and women equal employment rights. Since the State Church clergy were reckoned part of the Swedish civil service, in 1946 Parliament requested a study of the question of the ordination of women. The Church Assembly, however, would also have to approve any recommendation the study commission would make, since it had the legal right to accept or to veto civil legislation applying to the Church.

A Royal Commission was appointed; in 1950 it produced a majority report recommending women’s ordination and a minority report opposing it. After a vigorous but not vitriolic debate, the Swedish government made a formal proposal to the 1957 Church Assembly for repeal of the exception to the Equal Rights Law allowed for the Church of Sweden. Acceptance of this proposal (with subsequent endorsement by the Swedish Parliament) would effectively open ordination to women.

But the proposal was defeated by a vote of 62 to 36: all thirteen bishops voted against it, as did all but one of the clergy delegates and 21 of the 57 lay delegates. This came as a shock. All the political parties in Sweden had come out in favour of the proposal, and the lay delegates to the Church Assembly were mostly elected under the same political party labels as members of the Swedish Parliament.

An uproar ensued in the press and the political world in general. In retrospect, it appears that the bishops and clergy regarded the proposal as a secular intrusion into the internal life of the Church, while the Swedish public, thinking the proposal obviously in accord with modern times and Swedish ideals, had found it impossible to imagine its rejection.

In December 1957 the Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs, Ragnar Edenmann, called for new elections at a special session of the Church Assembly to meet in September 1958 to reconsider the proposal. Meanwhile, the Swedish Parliament passed the proposed act, so it rested with the Church Assembly to accept or veto it. The elections were fought over vigorously, with something of a crusading attitude on the part of proponents of the measure. The governing Social Democratic Party intimated that if the proposal were not endorsed, the Church of Sweden would be disestablished and most of its assets confiscated by the state – or at least, the State Church would lose its veto over church-related legislation and come totally under government control, as was (and is) the case in Denmark.

Second Attempt

This time, when the vote came, the proposal passed by a wide margin: 69 in favour to 29 against. Six of the 13 bishops who had voted against it a year earlier now voted in favour. But the drafting committee had included a conscience clause designed to guarantee that no bishop could be forced to ordain women, nor could a candidate be denied ordination because of his opposition to the ordination of women. Minister Edenmann made a formal declaration on behalf of the government that the conscience clause would have legal force.

During the year-long pause that followed, the opposition began to coalesce into an organized group. Meanwhile, a new Archbishop of Uppsala (the Church of Sweden’s primate) was appointed: Gunnar Hultgren, one of the bishops who had switched his vote in the second election to favour the ordination of women.

On Palm Sunday 1960, the archbishop and two other bishops each ordained a woman. Still, until 1978, when there were roughly 275 women priests out of a total of 3,000, most bishops were willing to conduct, if reluctantly, separate ordination services for male ordinands opposed to the ordination of women and thus unwilling to be ordained alongside women.

End of the Conscience Clause

On the other hand, from the beginning the government made clear its unwillingness to appoint as bishops clergymen opposed to the ordination of women if at all possible. Bishops were nominated by an electoral body consisting of most of the clergy of the diocese concerned, plus one layperson from each parish. The names of the three candidates receiving the largest number of votes were submitted to the government, which was then free to appoint any one of them.

The five bishops who had voted against the ordination of women in 1958 had retired or died by 1971. Only two bishops opposed to women’s ordination were appointed in the meantime, Olof Herrlin to Visby in 1961 and Bertil Gaertner to Gothenburg in 1970. In both cases all three men on the short list of nominees were opposed to women’s ordination.

By 1978 the conscience clause was widely under attack as ‘discriminatory,’ and a growing number of bishops were refusing to conduct separate ordination services for ordinands opposed to the ordination of women. In that year, the Archbishop of Uppsala, Olof Sundby, set up a six-member commission, drawn from both constituencies, to reconsider the conscience clause.

In December the archbishop promulgated rules for co-operation in the Church of Sweden between those who held different opinions concerning the right of women to be ordained. The document stated that the ordination of women was the norm in the Church, but that ‘those who hold another opinion concerning a woman’s right to ordination than that which the church’s law proclaims shall also in the future be able to be ordained and to obtain a position as a priest in the Church of Sweden.’

The document went on to state, however, that the option of separate ordination services for those opposed would cease, and while opponents might be able to seek ordination in a diocese where there were no women ordinands, there was no guarantee of this. It further stipulated that clergy opposed to the ordination of women could abstain from doing liturgical services with woman priests but had to co-operate with them in all other respects (for example, administrative or financial).

Milestones along the road to collapse

1945 Swedish Parliament passes Equal Rights Law

1950 Royal Commission recommends women’s ordination

1957 Church Assembly rejects women’s ordination

1958 Church Assembly accepts women’s ordination

1960 First ordination of a woman minister

1982 Removal of the 1958 conscience clause

1983 Formation of the Free Synod by the orthodox

1997 Consecration of the first woman bishop

2001 Disestablishment of the Church of Sweden

2001 First ‘public’ same-sex-union blessing

More state pressure

The statement that ‘the person who accepts becoming a bishop must be willing to be a bishop for both male and female priests in the diocese’ seemed implicitly to rule out the episcopate for those opposed to the ordination of women. But another clause allowed women candidates from dioceses whose bishops would not ordain women to be ordained in another diocese for service in the diocese of the bishop who was unwilling to ordain them.

These guidelines were accepted by the 1979 Church Assembly, but the government refused to accept them and instead appointed a committee to investigate the status of women priests in the State Church and to make its own recommendations. When the committee reported in 1981, it recommended abolition of the 1958 law allowing the ordination of women, including its conscience clause. This would make the general Equal Rights Law of 1945 (itself incorporated into the 1975 Swedish Constitution) binding upon the Church of Sweden. It would not of itself prohibit the ordination of opponents, but it would remove all legal safeguards ensuring their access to ordination.

After a long debate on 11th May 1982 the Church Assembly accepted the government’s proposal. While the opposition was in no sense proscribed by this act, Archbishop Sundby’s declaration that ‘all priests should co-operate with each other in all priestly functions’ was hardly reassuring.

The Free Synod

From 1982 on, pressure on the orthodox opposition steadily increased. No longer were there separate ordination services for opponents of women’s ordination. In reaction to the abrogation of the conscience clause, Bishop Bertil Gaertner of Gothenburg played a leading role in the formation in 1983 of ‘the Free Synod of the Church of Sweden’. This orthodox opposition group set about erecting a ‘shadow church’ within the Church of Sweden, to serve as an ‘orthodox alternative’ within it and to provide mutual support for their increasingly marginalized constituency. But Gaertner was and has remained reluctant to envisage or to involve himself in a split from the State Church.

Gaertner retired in 1991, and Lars Eckerdal, a theology professor at Lund and the only liberal among the three top candidates, was appointed to replace him. Within a short time Eckerdal had his diocese in an uproar over his authorization of clandestine blessings of same-sex unions by some of his clergy.

Bishop Gaertner meanwhile in his retirement of sorts – for he has continued to oversee the religious communities in the Church of Sweden – has remained the symbolic leader of the Free Synod and of the orthodox opposition in general. He uses his pre-eminent influence within traditionalist circles to restrain tendencies to seek a split from the Church of Sweden and, equally importantly, to insist that the theologically divergent groups that comprise the orthodox opposition work closely together and co-ordinate their efforts. While this strategy works well defensively, it tends to frustrate bold initiatives.

Decreasing Tolerance

In 1993 the Bishops’ Conference, the Central Board (the coordinating organization for church activities), and the Free Synod tried to work out a modus vivendi for those opposed to the ordination of women in the State Church. A document was drafted, formulating areas of agreement and disagreement between the two sides.

When it was published, however, it was criticized by the supporters of women’s ordination for not having gotten the opposition to admit that ordained women were validly ordained and that Eucharists celebrated by them were valid sacraments. Evidently their intention was to offer to make concessions to their opponents’ ‘psychological difficulties’ with the ordination of women, provided they conceded these points. But the opposition refused, so the discussions collapsed in mutual recriminations.

The Bishops’ Conference then decided that from henceforth no opponents of the ordination of women would be ordained in the Church of Sweden. One bishop, Jan-Arvid Hellstrom of Vaxjo, a liberal but a liberal-minded one, stated his intention to ordain whatever candidates he pleased, regardless of their opinion on women’s ordination. For a time, other less courageous bishops sent candidates to Bishop Hellstrom whom they did not dare ordain themselves. But Hellstrom was killed in an automobile accident in January 1994, and after that, all the bishops fell into line.

Various tests were devised to prove the soundness of priests or ordination candidates on the women’s ordination issue. Priests whose views were suspect were often required to administer the chalice at a Eucharist celebrated by a woman priest; ordination candidates were required to receive communion at a Eucharist celebrated by a woman and to bring a testimonial to the bishop recording it.

The Reverend Dr Folke T Olofsson of Uppsala University related the case of a Pentecostalist minister who sought ordination in the Church of Sweden in the Gothenburg diocese, but was uncertain about the ordination issue. Bishop Eckerdal told the minister that, if he would but once receive communion from a woman priest, he could be ordained. He added that, as there was a woman priest working in the same office, he could call her in then and there to celebrate the Eucharist for them both.

The troublesome faithful

The proscription of opponents extended also to already-ordained clergy who were seeking to leave their current ministerial positions and receive another one. This became all but impossible unless they were willing to take precarious junior or temporary positions. A notable instance of this occurred in 1999, when the position of Dean of Stockholm Cathedral fell vacant. Among those who applied for it were four opponents of the ordination of women, two of whom, Dag Sandahl and Goeran Beijer, were prominent figures in the Free Synod. Sandahl was a long-serving member of the Church Assembly and something of a media personality.

Beijer had been dismissed in 1998 from his position as pastor of St Jakob Church in downtown Stockholm for repudiating the authority of the Bishop of Stockholm, Henrik Svenungsson, when the latter participated in the consecration of Sweden’s first woman bishop in October 1997, and for his subsequent refusal to recognize the orders of Svenungsson’s successor, Caroline Krook, Sweden’s second woman bishop. Still, the candidates stated their willingness to co-operate with women clergy in all ways save liturgical ministrations.

Perhaps their candidacies were intended from the start at least as much to evoke a response from the ecclesiastical and civil authorities as to pursue the position. If so, they succeeded, as the Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs, Marita Ulvskog (an atheist), intervened to have the four candidates’ names removed from consideration.

Some days later, a Swedish television station featured a joint interview with Minister Ulvskog and Dag Sandahl. What was most striking about the programme was that Ulvskog not only attacked Sandahl’s opposition to the ordination of women, but refused even to acknowledge his presence on the programme, speaking of him only in the third person, as though he were not there. Less than a month later, the Bishop of Vaxjo removed Sandahl from his position as Rural Dean of Kalmar, claiming at first that he had rudely insulted those opposed to his views, but ultimately admitting that he found it impossible to work with a clergyman opposed to the ordination of women.

The advent of women bishops with Christina Odenberg’s appointment to the Lund diocese in 1997 and Caroline Krook’s appointment to Stockholm in 1998 has, of course, increased the tension. The orthodox opposition can recognize neither the spiritual authority of these women as bishops nor the validity of the orders of those ordained by them, both men and women alike.


By 1995 both the civil and ecclesiastical authorities determined that the disestablishment of the church was inevitable, and they agreed that it would take effect on 1 January 2000. It was clear to them that ‘dogmatists’ would have to be kept away from positions of authority if the disestablishment were to proceed smoothly. This was the more pressing, as the issue of homosexual unions had also now arisen.

Thus, the disestablished church devised means to exclude the opponents of women’s ordination not only from ordination, but also from selection as bishops or promotion of any sort within the ranks of the clergy. Candidates for ordination are now obliged to sign a document affirming the validity of the ordinations of all clergy in the Church of Sweden and signifying the candidate’s willingness to co-operate with any other ordained person in all clerical functions – which, of course, includes worship and sacraments.

To deny the validity of some Swedish Church ordinations (that is, those of women), or even to express doubts about them, suffices to bar a candidate from ordination. As the official line goes, such people must be excluded from ordination because their denials ‘exclude’ those women who have been ordained. A senior clergyman seeking to move to another equivalent pastoral position must likewise sign such a statement.

For the episcopate there is a more elaborate procedure. For starters, only a member of the clergy is eligible for the episcopate. This may seem unobjectionable, but in 1942, when the Diocese of Stockholm was created, its first bishop was Manfred Bjorkvist, a layman active in church affairs, who proved to be a great success and an inspired choice. So the new rule looks like a case of ‘closed shop’.

Further, those candidates who survive the initial selection process are sent a questionnaire requiring them to disclose such information as whether they would be prepared to work equally with all persons in the ordained ministry, and whether they would be willing to ordain women. Refusal either to provide all the information requested or to reply in the affirmative to such questions will cause a candidate to be disqualified from further consideration for the episcopate.

Same-sex unions

The issue of homosexuality came to the fore with the publication in 1994 of the report, The Church and Homosexuality. This report took the liberal line that while same-sex unions were not marriages in the Christian sense, the Church could and should find a way to bless them.

While the assembly never formally discussed the report, the Bishops’ Conference acted on its own initiative to provide guidelines, allowing pastors to hold ‘private ceremonies’ to bless the unions of same-sex couples who had already registered ‘partnership’ in accordance with Swedish law.

In December 2001 a very public such ‘private ceremony’ was held in Uppsala Cathedral, ‘celebrating’ the lesbian partnership of Archbishop Hammar’s sister, Anna-Karin Hammar, herself a priestess, with the divorced laywoman and feminist theologian Ninna Edgardh Beckman. (Hammar was present but played no role in the service.)

So it came as a surprise to many when a Church Assembly committee assigned the task of reflecting on the issue concluded that ‘the time is not ripe’ for the Church of Sweden to institute formal blessings of same-sex unions, although eight of the committee’s twelve members saw no problem in theory with such blessings.

Emergence of Koinonias

Nevertheless, since August 2000 there has been a slow unravelling of the Church Order provided for the now-disestablished Church of Sweden, and a number of traditionalist members of the Church Assembly, including the Revd Dr Dag Sandahl, refused to seek or accept re-election to that body in September 2001. Their refusal is based on the grounds that, as there is no longer a direct link between the parochial congregations and the selection of delegates to the Church Assembly, there is no longer any synodical principle of church government. This in turn means that the new Church Order has, they contend, no legitimacy.

There have also been instances of parochial revolt against the new Church Order, one of which succeeded and another ended in an ambiguous compromise. In late 2000 a parish in the Gothenburg Diocese, Solberga, called as its pastor a priest opposed to the ordination of women, Anders Hjalmarsson. This was of course illegal under the new regulations, and the diocesan authorities demanded that the parish council reconsider its choice. The council, however, refused to do so, and since the only other option open to the diocesan authorities was to attempt to dissolve the parish, they gave up and recognized the congregation’s choice.

In the northern city of Harnosand an uproar erupted over the choice of a new cathedral dean when the diocesan governing board turned down without explanation the candidate who had been proposed by both the bishop and the cathedral congregation’s parish council, naming instead a woman pastor. The parish council countered by appointing its original choice and resolving to pay him wages for the deanship, for which it, and not the diocese, was responsible. The dispute ended only after the diocesan board’s appointee, Lisa Tegby, withdrew her claim, and the parish council’s original choice, Benny Helgesson, accepted the position of Swedish chaplain in Nice, France. The diocesan board then advertised the position for the third time, and agreed to include representatives of the parish council in the selection process. This finally produced a candidate acceptable to all parties, but the conflict exemplified the sort of difficulties likely to arise in the future.

The orthodox opposition has also asserted itself in recent years through the formation of underground churches, or koinonias. These remain within the Church of Sweden, yet are in defiance of its bishops and their authority. The extent of this defiance and their public profile varies among the four organized koinonias. The most defiant is St Stephen’s Koinonia in Stockholm, where Goeran Beijer became pastor after his dismissal from St Jakob’s Church in 1998. Bishop Gaertner accepted St Stephen’s invitation to be its bishop, which puts him formally at odds for the first time with the other Swedish bishops.

Gaertner also accepted an invitation to become bishop of the Lund koinonia, which meets at the Laurentiistiftelsen (St Laurence Foundation), an independent hostel for theology students at Lund University. Its emergence as a koinonia was a consequence of the appointment of Sweden’s first female bishop, Christina Odenberg, to the see of Lund in 1997. Its warden, Bo Brander, said that there are upwards of forty fully qualified candidates who have been refused ordination solely on account of their stance on the ordination of women. He hoped that Bishop Gaertner would soon agree to ordain those whom the two koinonias would formally present to him for that purpose.

The other two koinonias have not yet publicly constituted themselves as such, nor have they besought Bertil Gaertner to serve as their bishop. The first is ‘the Catacombs’ in Gothenburg, so called because it met in rooms in the basement of the City Hall until Bishop Eckerdal was able to put a stop to its further use of the premises. Its growth has apparently been slowed by the presence in Gothenburg of ‘four good orthodox churches’ within the Swedish Church. The other koinonia is at the Ansgarstiftelsen (the St Ansgar Foundation) in Uppsala, the institutional equivalent at Uppsala of the Laurentiistiftelsen at Lund, but more cautious in its stance and activities.

The Porvoo Agreement of 1997, which inaugurated a relationship of communion with the Anglican Churches of the British Isles, has fostered international contacts between conservative Anglicans and the orthodox opposition in all the Scandinavian churches, and has offered the prospect, for those who would desire it, of close links with the assertive and well-entrenched orthodox opposition within the Church of England.

Orthodox Opposition in Turmoil

The single greatest difficulty under which the Swedish orthodox opposition labours is the divergent strands of theological thinking of which it is composed. These include strong confessionalist Lutherans of the ‘Old Church’ school, Lutheran pietists, charismatic Evangelicals, and high-church ‘Evangelical Catholics.’ While there is some overlap between these groups, their differences are equally clear.

It is the high-church, or Evangelical Catholic group that has taken the widest perspective on the predicament of the Church of Sweden. It has also most actively opposed the ongoing erosion of Christian orthodoxy within the church, as witness the activities of the Free Synod of the Church of Sweden since its foundation in 1983. Here, too, however, there is little agreement about future directions.

The Free Synod has experienced a period of internal turmoil over its direction and even its very existence. At its November 2000 meeting, a proposal that the synod dissolve itself in consequence of its failure to achieve any of its goals and be replaced by a loose support structure centering on Bishop Gaertner was voted down. Following the vote, the Reverend Dr Dag Sandahl, after years of prominent and active membership in the Free Synod left the group.

At and after its March 2001 meeting at Uppsala, there was strong disagreement between a younger, more assertively Lutheran cadre of Free Synod members, who wished the synod to take an explicit stand in favour of the ‘classical’ Lutheran understanding of justification by faith alone, and those espousing a ‘catholicizing’ or ‘catholic-minded’ view of the Swedish Reformation.

These latter also wished to retain opposition to the ordination of women and, more generally, to theological liberalism and a political model of church government as their raison d’être. By the end of 2001 this disagreement had not been resolved. Both the Reverend Dr Folke T Olofsson and the Revd Goeran Beijer stated that they had come to the conclusion that the Synod would remain paralyzed until the ‘Confessionalists’ and the ‘Catholics’ had amicably agreed to disengage and go their separate ways.

Free Synod stalled

The Free Synod likewise appeared to be treading water, if not floundering, over the best way to secure outside assistance, should it come to breaking with the institutional Church of Sweden. There seems to be a general perception among the synod leadership that if it came to a break, few lay members would associate themselves with it, unless it occurred in dramatic circumstances or unless Bishop Gaertner were to head such a secession, neither of which seems likely in the immediate future.

The more ‘catholic-minded’ members of the Free Synod appear to be of the mind that the breakaway ‘Nordic Catholics’ are far too explicitly Catholic to attract significant numbers of their colleagues and co-religionists, and that a much-discussed possible link with one of the more coherent Continuing Anglican bodies would be handicapped in much the same way.

In late 2001 there was talk of an ‘Eastern Alliance’, by which one of the strongly conservative Lutheran bishops of former parts of the Soviet Union, such as Bishop Zwicki of Belarus, Kaakauppi of Ingria (a region near St Petersburg), or Kalvanas of Lithuania, would consecrate several leading figures of the Free Synod to the episcopate. It was hoped that such an action would enable the ‘Lutherans’ and the ‘Catholics’ to hold together.

Whether all this talk will lead to action remains uncertain, but the tension was clearly increasing in early 2003. With the selection of a new Bishop of Gothenburg scheduled for 3rd March, one candidate has already been excluded for opposing the ordination of women, and another called into question for his declared intention to ordain opponents of women’s ordination, though he himself favours it. Even a few liberal columnists commented on the absurdity of making support for women’s ordination the only required belief for candidates for ordination or promotion within the church.

Trouble for Gaertner

Bishop Gaertner himself at the end of 2001 faced the loss of his remaining official function as episcopal visitor to the religious communities of the Church of Sweden, and perhaps even deposition from the Church’s ministry, after he dedicated a church building in the hamlet of Stigen against the will of the Bishop of Karlstad, Bengt Wadensjo, in whose diocese the church allegedly belonged. Bishop Gaertner insisted that he had acted on behalf of people who had been ignored and neglected by the church structure of which they were a part. Bishop Wadensjo accused Gaertner of violating the Church Order by performing an episcopal function in the Karlstad diocese without his permission, a permission that he had refused to give when the congregation at Stigen had requested it of him.

Wadensjo and the Karlstad diocesan chapter initiated a process of formal complaint against Gaertner to the Ansvarnaemnden foer biskopar (the ‘inquiry board for bishops’) later in December. The board delivered its judgement at the end of May 2002, exonerating the bishop of all the charges brought against him, but criticizing him for not having ‘consulted’ with Bishop Wadensjo before dedicating the chapel at Stigen.

Shortly after Gaertner’s exoneration, a consultation of about fifty leading figures in the orthodox opposition movement, meeting on 3rd and 4th June, revealed increasing rifts among the various strands of that constituency. Their purpose was to discuss a proposal for the creation of a ‘Mission Province’ ostensibly within, but in practice independent of, the Swedish Church. The meeting deadlocked, however, over the proposal that three clergymen ought to be consecrated to the episcopate by sympathetic foreign Lutheran bishops to act as ‘free bishops’ within the Church. The ‘conservative Lutheran confessionalists’ supported the proposal with enthusiasm, but ‘the high-church people’ opposed it – on the basis that ‘such ordinations would mean a new church’ – and Bishop Gaertner made clear his refusal to undertake any such consecrations. So the proposal was voted down, but the proponents indicated that they might decide to undertake such action on their own.

Thus, while there has not yet been a schism within the Church of Sweden, it may eventually come to that. The choice is a hard one for orthodox Church of Sweden Christians: to stay and fight in a church body that is structured so as to marginalize them and that, barring a miracle, is past saving; or to depart and go their separate ways, enduring the sadness of what Cardinal John Henry Newman, referring to his own situation, termed ‘the parting of friends’.

William Tighe teaches history at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This essay first appeared in the March 2003 edition of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity,, and is reprinted here with permission.