Geoffrey Kirk on the conclusions of some recent research into the impact of female clergy in Finland

By their fruits shall ye know them’. Precisely: much store was set by the proponents

of the ordination of women to the priesthood of the dramatic beneficial results that would ensue. For example, it was confidently predicted that a better balanced, more attractive Church would enable us to evangelize the nation and teach the faith more effectively. Nearly twenty years on it is probably time to be asking if those promises have been realized. Illumination comes from a recent paper produced in Finland by Kati Niemelä of the Church Research Institute in Tampere.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (to which, at least nominally, just over 70% of the population belongs) came late to women’s ordination by Nordic standards. The first female ministers were ordained in 1988. But Finland has made up for lost time both in the numbers of women clergy and in the fact that nowadays about 70% of theology students are female. Niemelä’s paper is based on surveys undertaken among members of the Clergy Union in 2002, 2006 and 2010 and among applicants for university studies in theology in 2010.

The paper seeks to provide answers to three principal questions: (l) How do female clergy change the theological orientation and the perception and content of faith in the Church? (2) How do female clergy change the official policies of the Church? (3) How do female clergy change the daily practices and the vision of clergy work?

Some interesting conclusions

emerge. In the first instance Niemelä asked respondents to place themselves on a sliding scale of orthodoxy from theologically conservative to theologically liberal. Anyone who has talked to groups of clergy on such issues will realize that the exercise was fraught with difficulties from the start; but the results are surprisingly clear cut. The younger the male clergy the more conservative; the younger the

female clergy the more liberal (48% of male clergy under 35 described themselves as conservative, whilst 76% of female clergy under 35 described themselves as liberal).

Two areas were highlighted in the survey: regular Bible reading (here defined as ‘several times a week or daily for personal devotion’) and attitudes to the blessing of same-sex unions. The results were similarly conclusive. Whilst the percentages of those clergy over 55 who claimed to be regular Bible readers was about the same (70%, give or take) the results for those under 35 showed the same gender differentiation (45% of men and 23% of women). Though the overall numbers of those opposed to the blessing of same-sex unions has declined since the first survey in 2002, the decrease has been most precipitate among female clergy and dramatic among students in theological training. Whilst around 50% of male students are opposed that is true of only 19% of women.

In response to the admittedly wide-ranging question ‘Do you regard faith as very important in your life?’ the statistics were more even (83% of males under 35 and 73% female). But in all age groups the women prayed more (66% of men under 35 prayed daily as against 71% of women).

Niemelä concludes: ‘In general, clergywomen are clearly changing the Church in a more liberal direction. They do it in various ways: they change the perception of faith and dogma, the policies of the church as well as daily practices in parishes. Female clergy are notably more open towards homosexual couples’ rights in the Church and have also been more active in acting in favour of them.

‘In general, the construction of faith among women is more individualized and not so dependent on traditional authorities than that of male clergy. Women are not so clearly attached to traditional dogma, they read the Bible less, but pray more than male clergy. Their attitude towards Church work is also more open to society. They consider it important that the Church is active in helping people and promoting equality, justice and rights of the minorities and not just proclaiming its message by talk.’

She goes on: ‘The change brought into the Church can also be seen as an indicator of organizational secularization. Organizational secularization refers to ‘internal secularization’ and religious change within religious institutions and can refer to any attempt to secularize or modernize the teachings of the Church in order to adapt to the secular values of society.

Some indicators of this process are a weaker attachment to traditional Church dogma, weaker role of the Bible and tolerant attitudes and common human values instead of dedication to the traditional religious teachings, values and practices. From the point of view of the results of this study it seems obvious that clergy women are modernizing the Church in various ways in the level of teaching, policies and practices.’

There is no doubt where Niemelä is coming from and what she regards as desirable. She is happy to be able to demonstrate that women clergy are having what to her mind is a beneficial effect on Church life. But it should not go unnoticed that this survey of attitudes in the Church of Finland closely parallels the work done by Christian Research in England in 2002 and published by Cost of Conscience in the same year (Believe it or not! Clergy replies to questions about their beliefs.) Nor should readers of either survey forget what is the context in which this undoubted process of ‘organizational secularization’ is taking place. Niemelä freely admits not only that women clergy in the Church of Finland are noticeably more radical than church-going lay women; but that the numbers of those attending church services is in precipitate decline. No change from the Church of England there, then. ND