Northern rites: the impact of women bishops

28 January 2009

As the General Synod considers the next step in accepting women in the episcopate, Edward Dutton looks at the experience of the Nordic Churches

It has been 15 years since the ordination of the first women priests in the Church of England. Last week it was suggested that it is likely to be at least another five until women can be considered for a bishopric.

It took the Lutheran Church of Norway 30 years from the ordination of the first woman priest to the appointment of its first bishop. Now, though, Norway has the highest per­centage of women bishops of any of the Nordic Churches: four of its 11 bishops. The fourth was consecrated last September.

“The Church of England will accept women bishops,” predicts the Presiding Bishop in Norway, Dr Olav Skjevesland. “They will be accepted eventually.”

As in all Nordic countries, Lutheran bishops are elected by a combination of priests and lay representatives — “though the Norwegian government can overrule an appointment”, says Dr Skjevesland.

For the Presiding Bishop, ensuring that there was no serious division over the appointment of a female bishop meant taking things slowly.

“There was controversy, it’s fair to say,” Dr Skjevesland says. The first women priests were ordained in 1963; the first woman bishop was consecrated in 1993. Even so, in that year, ten priests split to form the independent Nordic Catholic Church. “But, in the Lutheran view, a bishop is a pastor who has expanded responsibility. So once there were women pastors, there had to be women bishops.”

He says, however: “People had to be psychologically prepared for it. The Church had to get used to it. It was deliberately delayed.”

Churches in Norway tend to be grouped in teams; so pastors who are opposed to female ordination must nevertheless work with female colleagues. “The only area where this hasn’t really been enforced is in Finnmark, in the far north,” the Presiding Bishop says. “People there are very conservative, and I think there aren’t any women priests. They wouldn’t be accepted, and nor would a woman bishop.


“In other areas of the country, some conservatives have withdrawn from congregational life because they are opposed to women priests and bishops.”

In all Nordic Churches, members elect to join; most pay a specific church tax. Eighty-three per cent of Norwegians are church members, including those in awakening groups. In Sweden, it is 75 per cent, Denmark 82 per cent, Iceland 85 per cent, and Finland 81 per cent. In all cases, membership is declining.

Church attendance is lower than in England: about four per cent at­tend church at least fortnightly. A large majority, however, are baptised, con­firmed, and married in the churches.

“I think the Church of England idea of a bishop is a bit a different,” Dr Skjevesland says. “I know it’s a very broad Church with a Catholic wing. For us, every priest has full ministry, but I think for Anglicans it’s as if a bishop has a fuller ministry than a priest.”

IN SWEDEN, the Archbishop of Uppsala’s assistant, Canon Ann-Catherin Jarl, says that women bishops are now almost universally accepted.

Women had started campaigning to become ministers in 1919. In 1957, the state government decided to introduce women priests. The move was narrowly defeated, but an Act of Parliament was passed the following year. A conscience clause in the Act was abolished in 1982.

“In 1958 it was decided to ordain women and then bishops at the same time, because priests always become bishops,” says Canon Jarl. In 1991, the last bishop who refused to ordain women, the Rt Revd Bertil Gaertner, retired. The first female bishop was consecrated in 1997.

“Not many people broke away,” Canon Jarl recalls. Now, “if you want to be a priest you have to sign a document saying that you will work with anybody, regardless of sex.”

The Rt Revd Christina Odenberg, the former Bishop of Lund, and Sweden’s first female bishop, made concessions to priests opposed to her. In a speech in 2007, she stated that opponents had to attend meetings with her, but went on: “I have never forced them to participate in the mass which I celebrated. This has meant that we have not had any conflicts. I have even noted that several of those who previously were opponents now receive communion when I celebrate.”

At present, two of the Church’s 12 bishops are women. Canon Jarl spoke of the numerical “insignificance” of those opposed to them. “We have a renewal movement that is opposed — that’s about a thousand people. And there’s a ‘Mission Province’, which is even smaller.”


The Mission Province was found­ed in 2003 for traditionalists in the Nordic Churches who were thus barred from ordination. The Pres­iding Bishop of the Kenyan Lutheran Church, the Most Revd Walter Obare Omwanza, consecrated a retired Swedish priest, the Revd Arne Olsson, as the Mission Province’s first bishop. Bishop Obare’s tenure as ad­viser to the Lutheran World Federa­tion (LWF) was subsequently terminated.

In addition, Dr Gaertner has been accused of acting as a flying bishop in Sweden. He rejected the idea: “We keep the Church together. There is no conflict with other bishops. We are an apostolic Church.

“I have always said no to women priests and bishops all the time. It is a secular idea, not a church idea.”

“The Church is the biggest women’s movement in the world,” Canon Jarl counters. “Just look at the congregations. . . The parishes have always been very female.” While Ewa Röllgårdh, a Church of Sweden press officer, says: “Women clergy — it’s not really an issue in Sweden.”

Conservatives disagree firmly. “Of course the people who are in power will try to say it is not really an issue,” says Ylva Willborg of the Society of

St Bridget, a High Church organisation within the Swedish Lutheran Church which was formerly headed by Dr Gaertner.

“Now, in the Swedish Church, if you want to become a priest, the only thing they are interested in is your views on women priests. The state keeps files on what you have said, and if you run to be a bishop they will suddenly say: ‘Ah, but six years ago you said this about female ordination. You weren’t clear that you were in favour of it.’ And they will do all they can so you’re not chosen.

“My husband was ordained, but by a retired bishop. We are persecuted. There is no room in the Church for committed Christians.”

IN neighbouring Finland, the issue of female clergy is less settled. There has never been a female bishop in Finland, although it has been possible since the mid-1990s, and women have been standing routinely.

The Revd Dr Irja Askola, who stood unsuccessfully for an episcopal post in 2008, says: “Women were first or­dained in 1988, but until 2007 male priests could refuse to work and celeb­­rate mass with women priests, and refuse to be ordained with them.” Despite the change, some priests still refuse to work with women.


The Revd Dr Irja Askola, who stood unsuccessfully for an episcopal post in 2008, says: “Women were first or­dained in 1988, but until 2007 male priests could refuse to work and celeb­­rate mass with women priests, and refuse to be ordained with them.” Despite the change, some priests still refuse to work with women.

“The percentage of priests who are opposed to women is quite small, but they are very noisy and they get a lot of publicity.”

Finland has often been described as more conservative than its neigh­bours and is culturally distinctive. The historian David Kirby has referred to it as “not quite Eastern Europe, but not quite Scandinavia”.

“It has not been seen as very im­port­ant to get women as bishops,” Dr Askola says. “People aren’t really interested.”

Dr Askola felt that she did not get through to the final round, “probably because of a combination of being a woman — I would have been the first female bishop — and my opin­ions. Newspapers labelled me as ‘lib­eral’, which is simplistic. I spoke out for the rights of sexual minorities, for example, because I base my theology on the Bible. But I don’t regret it for a minute. I got very good feedback.”

The Revd Dr Jari Julkunen, secre­t­ary of the Finnish Bishops’ Confer­ence, observes: “There have been some people leaving for the Mission Province, which is growing in Fin­land. There are also various lay-run groups. Members include priests, and most are opposed to female clergy, but stay in the Church because it’s a big part of their identity.”

The Revd Janne Koskela runs a Luther Foundation (Mission Pro­vince) church in Oulu. His salary is paid by tithing rather than through church tax.

“The Bishop of Oulu told me that if I wanted to be ordained by him I had to agree to work with women priests. I cannot work with women pastors because my reading of the Bible is that priesthood is for men.”

Aimo Hautamäki, the leader of the Conservative Laestadians, also argues that “women priests are not found in the Bible.” But Laestadian priests are happy to work alongside women and stay within the national Church because “the Church is not the same as God’s kingdom.”

For Dr Julkunen, the only reason a woman has not yet been elected is that “none of the candidates have been qualified enough. It won’t be a big problem when a woman is elected, because the big steps have already been made.”


SURPRISINGLY, the most liberal of the Nordic Churches is the one that is also the most accom­mo­dating to op­ponents of female clergy. The Danish Lutheran Church refused to sign the 1992 Porvoo Agreement between the Anglican, Nordic, and Baltic Lutheran Churches because of concerns that its female bishops would not be recognised by all signatories.

“A pastor ordained by a woman bishop has to be re-ordained before he or she can serve as a minister in the Church of England,” explained the Revd Jan Nilsson, the Church’s theological secretary. “This was not acceptable for the Danish Lutheran Church.”

According to Mr Nilsson, the Danish Lutheran Church has allowed female clergy since a Parliamentary Act in 1948 (the Church is effectively government-run), although it was a long time before Denmark’s one woman bishop was consecrated.

“Some conservative groups have been in opposition to female pastors and bishops, but no one has left the Church. Probably the reason is that special arrangements make it possible for a member of the Church to change their connection to a pastor in a parish, to one where they do not live. This arrangement has been possible since the end of the 19th century.

“Recently, the number of trans­ferred church members has been counted as 32,000 [out of 4,500,000 members of the Lutheran Church in Denmark]. Some have transferred to another parish because of theological reasons, others because of other personal or practical reasons.”

Mr Nilsson continued: “Conser­vative pastors have no obligation to celebrate mass together with a female pastor.” Also, “the consecration of the first female bishop, in 1995, did not lead to any specific reactions, not even from conservative male pastors in the diocese.”

A conservative, the Revd Flem­ming Batz Kristensen, agrees. “In Denmark, it is accepted that some people don’t accept women pastors, and we are not forced to do many things with them; but every year it becomes more difficult. I have a female bishop, but I want to be a pastor; so I have to accept it. We stay within the Danish Folk Church so that we can fight for what we believe in and better reach the Danish people with the gospel.”

Denmark’s leading con­serv­ative, the Revd Henrik Højlund, felt that there were problems for those opposed to female bishops. “Be­cause what should we do if we al­ready were pastors in that district which now is led by a female bishop? Or even worse: if one of us didn’t have any other way to this congrega­tion than being ordained by a female bishop?


“These problems haven’t got any satisfying solutions so far. And it seems that we slowly just get used to the situation and somehow fit in.” He also suggested that opponents were routinely not chosen for posts because of their views.

ICELAND, a Danish province until 1944, has one diocesan bishop. Female pastors have been relative­ly uncon­troversial there since their ordination in 1974. The country tends to look on the debate over women priests and bishops almost with amazement.

“We are seriously thinking about how to get more males working in the Church,” said the Rt Revd Sofie Petersen, Bishop of Greenland (a diocese of the Danish Lutheran Church), for the LWF consultation An Indigenous Communion.

Dr Karla Jessen Williamson notes that Greenlandic Lutheranism has been dominated by women since the island was fully converted in the 1930s.

“In my church, there are 25 pastors, but only three are males,” says Bishop Petersen, the first Inuit bishop of the Danish dependency. Two of the three congregation heads are also female. “I think we miss our male pastors.”

“In my church, there are 25 pastors, but only three are males,” says Bishop Petersen, the first Inuit bishop of the Danish dependency. Two of the three congregation heads are also female. “I think we miss our male pastors.”

“The first female priest was or­dained in 1987, and I haven’t heard about conflicts, either, about my consecration as bishop,” Bishop Peter­­sen said. “If anyone has prob­lems . . . they have been very silent.”

Dr Edward Dutton lives in Oulu in northern Finland and is married to a Finnish Lutheran priest. His book Meeting Jesus at University: Rites of passage and student Evangelicals is published by Ashgate (978-0-75466-5205 £50 (Church Times Bookshop £45).

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