As the first woman Archbishop of Uppsala is elected, Sister Gerd reports on the grave situation facing the Church in Sweden

On 15th October the Church of Sweden elected its first woman archbishop: Antje Jackelen, currently the second woman Bishop of Lund, received 55.9% of the votes. She will be ‘received’ on 15th June 2014, Archbishop Anders Wejryd having ‘laid down his staff’ and retired at Vespers the previous day.

Inevitable consequence

Anjte Jackelen, 58, born and bred in Germany, was ordained to the priesthood in 1980. In 2007 she succeeded Christina Odenberg, who in 1997 became the first woman bishop in Sweden. Currently, three of the thirteen dioceses in the Church of Sweden have women bishops. With a number of retirements expected in the next few years, that figure is likely to rise.

Ever since the trial election in early September, designed to tease out five candidates, it was pretty clear that Antje Jackelen would win. Some say it was obvious long before, and only the inevitable consequence of the decision by the then Church Assembly jointly with Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament, back in 1958 to permit the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Apostolic succession

For traditionalists, who have all along been increasingly side-tracked and silenced, this is certainly the most serious effect of that decision: The archbishop of Uppsala consecrates all new bishops, who in turn ordain priests and deacons. From June 2014 onwards, there can no longer be any proper and trustworthy ordinations, since they will all be derived from her. At the 16th century Reformation, the Church of Sweden managed to preserve its apostolic succession in the same way as the Church of England. That will now come to an end, and once the current generation of priests and deacons ordained within that succession, understood in its historical and biological reality, has passed away, apostolic ministry will no longer be available. We are grateful indeed to have a number of young priests in ministry at the moment, but the future is bleak.

Mythological language

Since in the Church of Sweden, priests are not licensed by the bishop, and confirmation is administered by priests, it is fairly easy for traditionalists to avoid liturgical contact with a diocesan bishop, but a woman archbishop is something different. Predictably, with the demise of apostolic ministry, the floodgates to the slippery slope of heterodox teaching and sacramental uncertainty are opened wide: Theology is a matter of mythology and metaphor, and truth is relative and private. At the public hearing prior to the election Mrs Jackelen explained: ‘If you take the Virgin birth as a biological issue, you have actually missed the whole point. Virgin birth is mythological language.’

Resignation and protest

Besides traditionalists, a number of people, including quite a few women priests, have raised rather more than their eyebrows. A leading Professor Emerita of Sociology of Religion has laid down her orders and left the Church of Sweden in protest. A leading politician, who describes himself as a non-believer but interested in religion and life issues, concludes that: A‘ God who holds up a finger to see from where the wind is blowing is not much of a God. A church that does the same is not much of a church. If the views of a church have been through the grinder that only turns out what is politically correct and ‘modern,’ it feels just like any other association. That might have some value, but it has probably nothing to do with God.’

Given the opportunity to explain herself in the Church Weekly, Mrs Jackelen assures us: ‘I willingly profess my faith in the words of the Apostolic and the Nicene Creeds. But as a theologian and bishop, it is my task to take people’s questions seriously.

For me, that means to bring out as much as possible of the treasure of theological knowledge that is available in the Christian tradition. […] It is not the Virgin birth that lets us understand that Jesus Christ is the Second Person in the Trinity. The theological pedagogy is the opposite: the experience of Jesus Christ as the Risen One gives meaning to faith in the Virgin birth.’

As for the (possible?) equality between Jesus and Mohammed as witnesses to the truth, Mrs Jackelen suggests there is no distinction between ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, and Christianity might not have any greater claim to truth than any other religion. We should engage in ‘good conversations’, a remarkable comment from a bishop!

Guarding against error

Is there then an inevitable structural connection between the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate on the one hand, and such heterodoxy on the other, or is it simply fortuitous? This is of course very hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt.

There are certainly some women priests, not least in Sweden, who profess rather more orthodox views, and who are just as upset by these shenanigans as their traditionalist colleagues. But, whilst we should be cautious of any hasty conclusions about other people’s faith, it is nevertheless the duty of bishops and archbishops to guard the teaching of the church against error. That’s the sticking point: within catholic, apostolic tradition, bishops and archbishops in particular are charged with the duty to expound the truth and to guard against error, thus ensuring sacramental assurance among the faithful and, we believe, graced with the ability to do so. Sacramental assurance is rooted in the historical and biological reality of the church within this world as we know it, and have known it for just over two millennia.


If sacramental assurance cannot be found in the bishop or priest, how can (s)he possibly guard against error or provide any sacraments that we can trust? If the sacramental structure has been altered at the very core of the institution designed to uphold and guarantee apostolic ministry, does that not suggest that heterodoxy and disunity, the other thing incumbent on bishops to guard against, will indeed be the inevitable consequences? Is this not the very source of what is sometimes called ‘interior secularization’ i.e. a process initiated from within the church itself, which is gaining more and more ground?

Structural change and consequence

It seems clear that a structural change at the heart of the ordained ministry will inevitably lead to structural consequences far beyond our comprehension and ability to repair. Our gender is part of that humanity which God wants to save, and which God has chosen to use sacramentally in order to do so.

Sacramental reality is a God-given gift and not something that we can or should change; if we do, we undermine ourselves at our peril, since we will no longer have any secure foundation for our faith and trust, but only the fanciful abstractions of mythology, metaphor, political expediency and the current whims of whoever attracts the majority vote.

Then of course the priest can be a woman, the bread a rice-cracker and the wine blackcurrant juice, and how about some bubbly in the font. The Church of Sweden is, sadly, a prime example.

Pressures for equality

How did it come to this? During the 1950s the pressures for the equality and right of women to be ordained to the priesthood were increasing as a matter of justice. The Church of Sweden was still the established national church, and church legislation was shared between the then Church Assembly and Riksdagen (Parliament).

The Social Democrat Party, which was in government, had made sure that Riksdagen had passed legislation to enable the ordination of women to the priesthood when, to their dismay, the Church Assembly turned it down at its 1957 session.

The election of a new Church Assembly was arranged and a new session was called the following year. Conveniently, the then Archbishop Yngve Brilioth was seriously ill and died. That enabled the election of an archbishop in favour, Gunnar Hultgren. Thus the 1958 Church Assembly voted in favour and the ordination of the first women priests could go ahead in 1960. A so-called conscience clause for objectors was in place for about 25 years but was then removed.

Securing the future

Various attempts have been made at securing the future for traditionalists, including suggestions that something like the PEVs might be put in place but, since there are no suffragans or assistant bishops in Sweden, this has constantly been denied as an alien institution.

Following a successful motion to the Church Assembly, the Governing Board arranged for talks to be held in small groups with participants from both sides of the argument in all dioceses during the 1990s, and some suggestions were put forward which might have improved matters. However, in the face of very vocal opposition, the then Archbishop did not have the courage of his convictions to allow any improvements for traditionalists.

As a result, any candidate for ordination, and any priest seeking preferment, is required to sign a declaration of his willingness to serve in all capacities, including at the altar, with all other priests, i.e. including women, and be seen to do so. At one stage it was even said that a priest can of course believe anything he likes, as long as he is seen to tow the line, i.e. to follow ‘the faith of the church.’ An employee must carry out his employer’s instructions, and no priest opposed to the ordination of women should become the vicar of a parish, since he is not ‘fit’ to manage female staff.

Various ways around these instructions, which are still in place, have been sought and some men have been ordained or appointed in spite of them, usually depending on the bishop’s discretion in these matters.

Formal separation

Up until 1 January 2000, when Church and State were formally separated, all senior appointments, including bishops, were made by the government. Of the three names presented, the first was not always chosen, especially if he was known not to favour the ordination of women. With the separation of Church and State, the intention was to ‘set the church free from political influence’, but alas, the opposite has been the case.

According to the current Church Order, all elections are ‘direct’ at all levels of church government, i.e. to what is now called the General Synod, the Diocesan Chapters and the PCCs. That way, a ‘nomination group’, which can be anything from a political party to a church group who can afford the cost, can put forward a candidate to any of these bodies and no candidate can be linked ‘backwards’ to any worshipping congregation. Episcopal appointments are made by election. Priests and deacons are employed by the PCC.

The latest idea is to amalgamate all parishes within any town or city or suitable rural districts into mega-parishes to be managed by a vicar and a PCC that will control the money. In Malmo, for example, the 3rd largest city in Sweden with a population of about 80 000, the two deaneries and about 25 parishes will become one parish and one PCC on 1st January 2014. Pastoral relationships between priests and their people will inevitably be broken. Structural changes have organisational consequences as well. ND