Hanna Hart on the consequences of the decision to ordain and consecrate women in the Church of Sweden

As a Swede now living in Barnsley I offer here some reflections on my experience of the consequences of the decision to ordain and consecrate women in the Church of Sweden. Of course there are many differences between the two churches that makes a true comparison difficult, but on a couple of points we can see some interesting similarities.

A simple solution?

An argument we often hear for the introduction of women bishops (as well as priests) is that they are needed for the credibility of the Church in a modern society. In order to make mission more effective and to stop the decline in church attendance and reverse the anti-Christian tendencies in society we need to show that women have an equal place within the church. This is a very appealing thought – a simple answer to this prevailing problem. And many people, especially young intellectuals, state the Church’s gender inequality as a major reason why they do not attend.

Sadly, with Swedish hindsight, it is not as easy as that. The same hopeful arguments were made in the debate leading up to the first female bishop in the Church of Sweden being consecrated in 1997. However, the subsequent discord and disunity within the church became an even larger obstacle and, of course, people who want to stay away will always find a good excuse. Unfortunately the decline in credibility within society and of attendance and membership of the Church of Sweden has steadily continued despite its increasingly ‘equal’ and ‘liberal’ theology and practices.

Real mission

Experience tells us that real mission is only possible through love and God has showed us once and for all that love means sacrifice. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that a great capacity for sacrifice, for the sake of the family, so often has been a special female charism. However, not only as women, but as Christians, seeking our own right to power and authority is always contrary to that missionary love. All authority comes from God and so its true meaning is an authority of love in sacrifice – not of political or administrative power over others. Therefore, in the face of the increasing disunity and division in the Church of England, it seems that the only fruitful way forward is to continue a life of humility and sacrifice, when possible, also together with people from across the divides. This way we can make mission possible and the Church credible in the true sense.

Code of practice

Getting to know the Church of England, after arriving from Sweden a decade ago, its astonishing breadth of traditions and opinions was a surprising discovery. It was especially impressive to find that the differences were not only tolerated but encouraged to flourish side by side in legally sanctioned security. This wonderful diversity seems to be the church’s greatest strength and fundamental to its identity. Of course, it goes without saying that the proposed code of practice for the CofE legislation about women bishops is not sufficient to protect that unity in diversity within the church.

The Church of Sweden took the decision to ordain women in 1958. In order to preserve unity within the church, the legislation included the equivalent to a code of practice – the ‘clause of conscience’. This was to ensure that those ordinands, priests and bishops who in conscience could not accept this move, were not to be forced in any way to do or say anything contrary to their belief. However, for political reasons this clause was over time disregarded, disputed and eventually dropped. Only two traditionalist bishops have been consecrated in the Church of Sweden since 1958 and the last one died of old age in 2009. During the last few decades ordinands and priests taking a new post have been forced to sign a document stating their intentions to work ‘fully’ with priests of both sexes.

Very much alive

The Catholic movement in the Church of Sweden is now small, publicly persecuted and marginalized by the establishment. However, it is still very much alive and has new young and enthusiastic members as well as old trusty warriors who show scars of many battles. Within the Church of Sweden they are fighting to save something of its wonderful spiritual history and traditions – a mix of the best of Lutheranism and Catholicism interpreted in an uniquely Swedish way which, sadly, at the moment, is not allowed to shine through the fog of liberal intolerance and ignorance.

The determination of the Catholics of the Church of Sweden is of course foolishness to the world, but their sacrifices and their humble perseverance in working and praying for their sick mother church is a true sign of faith and hope and love.

Faithfulness in suffering will always be the true sign of our following Christ and manifesting his body in the world. If he suffered, alone and unjustly, should we expect anything else? We need that humility to be able to follow our vocation and sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the people of our church and country and through them for the sake of Christ.

Hopefully we can find that humility with the help of renewed contrition and confidence in God’s providence. And with our eyes on the prize, the Easter at the end of our Lent, we can keep persevering in hope of eternal joy and peace. ND