As the Church of Sweden considers its response to the recently changed Swedish legislation on same-sex marriage, Sr Gerd Swensson reports on a group which is campaigning against the proposed innovation
A young, prospective (male) candidate for ordination recently wrote to the Church of Sweden website, where people are encouraged to ask questions about faith and life, asking whether he could be ordained, given his doubts about same-sex marriage. ‘I am not sure that we have the mandate of Jesus to bless same-sex relationships or to marry homosexuals. However, I would like to point out that I have every respect for homosexual people. Can I, in spite of my views about marriage, be ordained for the Church of Sweden?’
The way things are
Here is the answer from the Central Church Office at Uppsala: ‘It is important to reflect on which church one enters. I think it is important to be able to stand for the order that the Church of Sweden, through her learned theologians and her democratically elected General Synod, has arrived at. The inner calling that you feel must be met by that outward calling and order for which the Church of Sweden stands.
‘Of course you can work in the Church of Sweden without sharing all the orders or opinions that exist, but it is about your own conscience. The Church of Sweden has an order for blessing homosexual marriages and will most probably soon have an order for marriage of homosexuals, which I personally greet with great joy.
‘If you want to be a priest in that church, you probably have to like it the way things are. To be a priest in the Church of Sweden is, of course, not a human right. And in your case, it is the bishop of the diocese in which you would serve who decides. Talk to her about it! All good wishes! Anders.’
That’s the gentle way to dissuade dissidents these days: ‘If you want to be a priest…you probably have to like it the way things are.’
Next big issue
In 1958, the Church of Sweden decided to ordain women to the priesthood, with a so-called conscience clause to take care of those who objected. This was soon abandoned (a code of practice will most certainly not do!). Women bishops came about as a matter of course without further discussion, although it took almost
forty years before any woman was elected. Now there are three serving women bishops (in the dioceses of Lund, Stockholm and Harnosand) out of the total of fourteen (there are no suffragans in this church, only diocesans) as well as two retired ones. The Diocese of Stockholm has just elected its second woman bishop: a lesbian, whose partner is a priest – like a lot of couples, they met at work.
Now, fifty years later, the big issue is marriage, and same-sex marriage in particular. Sweden is known to be a modern country where equality reigns and no ‘prejudice’ can be permitted to stifle ‘developments’, so on 1 May 2009, the law of the land was changed to give equal status to hetero- and homosexual couples who want to marry. What is the Church of Sweden going to do?
From the Reformation onwards, church and state have been almost unanimous: it was not until 1951 that a Swede was allowed to withdraw from membership of the Church of Sweden without becoming a member of another denomination. Roman Catholics were not officially allowed to practice before that date, and it was only on 1 January 2000 that church and state were officially separated, and the church was formally disestablished, so it is not surprising that the general demeanour among church politicians betrays an inclination to follow party politics in general.
One possible way ahead that has been promoted, by no less than nine of the fourteen bishops, would be for the Church of Sweden to relinquish altogether its right to conduct marriages, i.e. for its priests to act as registrars. Then every couple, whatever their sexes, would have to have a civil marriage, and then come to church for a blessing. The church would then enjoy greater freedom with regard to who can receive its blessings.
But this is not the recommendations by the Governing Body to the Church of Sweden General Synod, which is about to consider the matter at its meeting in September, in order to make its decision in October.
The proposed changes to the Church Order are significant. Rather than stating that a woman and a man are united in marriage, it should now say that two persons are united in marriage. It goes on to say that ‘the purpose of marriage is to support mutual love and faithfulness between two spouses and to be a place where children can be received and fostered. The love that is realised in marriage is a sign of the love of God. Constitutive of marriage is the mutual promises and the publicly expressed consent.’
The appended notes explains that, since same-sex couples can now adopt children, and in a lesbian relationship one of the women may indeed consider giving birth, this must all be covered by the definition of marriage. And so it goes on. In the paragraph on ecumenical contacts, the letter simply states that the Archbishop has written to the Porvoo churches to ‘inform them’ – hardly what most people would assume mutual consultation to imply.
Not so long ago the Archbishop of Uppsala was asked by a secular journalist if these proposals do not actually change the traditional teaching of the Bible and of the Church, and how he, as Archbishop, would square that. ‘Well,’ he explained, ‘we’re not really changing things; we’re just extending the teaching of the Bible a little bit’
Statement of opposition
It has been assumed that priests who do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages would be able to decline – but for how long? The Swedish Church Union has recently published a statement opposing these innovations and Fr Yngve Kalin, the Chairman of Kyrklig Samling, known in English as the Coalition for the Bible and the Confession, the umbrella organization for traditionalists formed fifty years ago when the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood was raging at its worst, recently made this statement, which has received wide international attention:
‘The Governing Body of the Church of Sweden proposes that the Church of Sweden General Synod should adopt an order of marriage that allows two people of the same sex to contract a marriage in the church. In this way the Church of Sweden will adapt its teaching to the values that constitute the majority view in the Swedish parliament (Riksdagen).
This is actually not surprising. The Church of Sweden is permeated by the same political parties that constitute the parliament. The majority of the members of the Church of Sweden Governing Body have party labels, as have those who are members of the Church of Sweden General Synod, and they usually follow their party lines on decisive issues. Theology has been transformed into an ideology and the church’s own institutions happily provide theological post-constructions to the latest opinions and whims of the world.
For the church, this is devastating. The faith, confession and teaching of the Church of Sweden can never rest on political majorities or on the currently fancy views of the world, but only on the revealed Word of God and on the confessional foundation that over the centuries have been formulated in the confessional documents of the church.
The decision now taken by the Church of Sweden Governing Body shows that those who have power in the Church of Sweden are effectively cutting off the church from its roots. The Church of Sweden will now be transformed into a congregational denomination, whose teaching is formulated by simple majority decisions, and where the Bible is being used arbitrarily or even entirely removed in order to legitimize the decisions taken.
A small denomination in the North now chooses its own way and redefines the teaching about marriage that the universal Church has given up until now, supported by Gods good order in creation and which is revealed through the word of the Bible and confirmed by the confession of the Church. Those who have power in the Church of Sweden have chosen a dangerous road and they now run the risk of leading her out into complete ecumenical isolation.
The issue has however yet another dimension. For each and every one who wants to stand firm on the foundation of the traditional teaching, the matter is not brought to a head, whether or not the Church of Sweden is still a useful tool for God when his word is reinterpreted and, as the Archbishop of Uppsala recently put it, ‘extended’ and given an entirely new meaning.
The next few weeks and months will be crucial in many ways. There are many signs that the current church system is being eroded and is falling apart through a rapid loss of substance. Do we really appreciate that all that we possess and still have, we only have by the grace of God? It is in the power of God to break down and to build up whatever he has planted. God’s possibilities are not exhausted. He will show us what we should do if the situation becomes untenable.’
Yngve Kalin, Chairman, The Coalition for the Bible and the Confession
Taking their stand
In spite of it all, the Catholic constituency is alive and well in the Church of Sweden, although it is often hard pressed and under great pressure. The small group of priests who are members of SSC continues to flourish and, believe it or not, there are these days people who were not even born fifty years ago who courageously and joyously take their stand for the faith and order received from the Apostles, and who gladly profess that ‘The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord’ – it will never be otherwise, and the gates of hell will not prevail… Please remember them in your prayers.