MORE than 36,000 people have left the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland in the past two weeks, after comments made by the leader of the Christian Democratic Party, Päivi Räsänen.
Dr Räsänen defined homosexuality as a sin during a TV debate on Tuesday of last week, and argued that gay marriage was “unbiblical”. After her comments, a website set up by humanists to register the number of people leaving the Church, Eroa kirkosta (“Resign from the Church”), reported large numbers of people resigning.
In Finland, membership of the Church carries with it a commitment to pay a small sum of money in tax to the Church each year. On average, about 400 people resign from the Church every three days, with a surge at the end of December because resignation at that time allows people to avoid paying church tax for the year. During the week of the debate, 19,000 people left the Church, compared with just 995 the previous week.
A spokesperson for Eroa kirkosa, Heikki Orsila, said: “In this case, the gay-rights issue gave people an impression that the Church lacks empathy towards homosexual people. Also, the case was so widely reported that many left the Church.
“Usually, the number of church-quitters is proportional to its media coverage, especially when the media is dubious or critical about it. The gay-rights issue is still going, and people are still resigning at three times the rate than normal at this time of year. We don’t know how long this will continue.”
The high number of people leaving could have severe financial implications for the Church. It is estimated that it has so far lost more than ¤10 million in the exodus.
The Archbishop of Turku & Finland, Dr Kari Mäkinen, has issued a statement calling for debate on the issue of homosexuality: “I understand that many are expecting that
the Church would more clearly show that it accepts homosexuality. Now would be precisely the time to hold debate on homosexuality, respecting others and listening to them.”
Earlier this year, before his election as Archbishop, Dr Mäkinen said that he supported offering church blessings to same-sex couples.
A spokesperson for the Church, Juha Rajamaki, said: “The Bishops’ Conference has prepared a report for the church synod, recommending that it is possible to pray with and for those persons who have registered the same-sex relationship. . . Persons who are living in the same-sex relationship can work in the Church and this also deals with the clergy.”
New Presiding Bishop in Norway. The Church of Norway has elected a woman as its Presiding Bishop for the first time. The Rt Revd Helga Haugland Byfuglien, who succeeds the Rt Revd Olav Skjaevesland, will hold office until mid-2011, the Norwegian News Agency reported. Bishop Byfuglien, a vice-president of the Lutheran World Federation, said that she would “strive to play a unifying role”.