Last year, the Swedish government and the state church, the Swedish Lutheran church, between them approved legal recognition for same sex marriage including church weddings – the first country in the world where this has happened. At the time and since, I have noted that other Scandinavian countries were likely to follow suit: I know that the subject has been discussed (out of the public eye) by church authorities in all of them. Now the Finnish Lutherans have taken a public step in that direction.
Finland lags the rest of the region in respect of legislation for same-sex unions or civil unions, offering only “registered partnerships”. There are legislative plans in place to replace these with full marriage equality, but the process is slow, and the required legislation is unlikely to be ready for another year or two. Meanwhile, the national church is not simply sitting back and waiting for the enabling legislation before considering a response. Instead, they have already done their thinking, and come up with a cautious proposal that moves the church a step closer in the right direction: they have approved not gay marriage, or even church blessings for same sex couples, but a formula for a “prayer moment” for couples in registered partnerships.
“The proposal offers a positive opportunity to minister to church members who are sexual minorities,” the General Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s highest administrative body, said in a statement.
The General Synod must now draw up a formula for a prayer that walks a fine doctrinal line, observers said.
Lutheran ministers will have the choice of performing the prayer with gay couples in a church, but it will not actually constitute a church’s blessing of the union itself, synod spokesman Marko Kailasmaa told AFP.
The decision was approved, not without conflict, by the synod’s representatives of ministers and bishops in a vote of 78 for and 30 against.
The vote can be seen as a concession of sorts to a groundswell of popular support within the church community for Christian gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
This may seem a very small step, but note that “groundswell of support”. A recent television programme in which church spokesman expressed strong disapproval of same sex relationships immediately resulted in a record number of formal resignations from the church.
A record number of Finns seceded from the Evangelical Lutheran Church on Wednesday. People carried out their mass exodus from the state church via an online service, the standard procedure used these days.
By late yesterday afternoon, 1,200 people had resigned from the church. According to the eroakirkosta.fi website, which facilitates the seceding from the church, yesterday’s total number of people to make their exit was 2,633. This was not merely around 1,500 more than the previous daily high, but greater than the total number in the entire month of July.
The previous record of 1,049 individuals parting ways with the state church in the space of one day was from the last day of 2008.
As elsewhere in Scandinavia, church authorities have been debating the prospect of same sex marriage in church for years: the television broadcast that so offended the Finns included some discussion on precisely this point. What is important here is not that the current decision is a tiny step, but that it has happened at all. Discussion will continue, and the Lutheran bishops will have taken note of the response. When the question of same sex marriage finally comes before the Finnish parliament, as it is due to do in two years, both civil and religious authorities will most certainly debate seriously the possibility of including provision for church weddings for all. There is an excellent chance that they will follow the Swedish example, and approve them.
For people in the English language world, where the news is of people leaving or threatening to leave the some churches (the Anglican communion, for instance, or the ECLA) because they have gone too far in accommodating gay and lesbian members and pastors, it may come as a shock to realise that in Scandinavia, the pressure is in the other direction. Now consider that the Lutherans of Scandinavia and the US are in full communion with the Anglicans and Episcopalians, and it becomes that this small step in Finland has much greater significance. Even before the Swedish Lutherans took their decision last year, a group of UK Anglican bishops wrote to them arguing against the move, noting that such a decision would place increased pressure on them to do the same.
“Prayer moments” in church for registered partnerships in themselves are a small matter. But seen as straws in the wind indicating the direction of change, they clearly indicate the mounting pressure for full inclusion in the Scandinavian churches – and hence in the broader Christian community as well.
- Finland’s State Church to Sanction Prayer for Gay Marriages (towleroad.com)
- Blessing Same Sex Unions in Toronto (queertheology.blogspot.com)
- Gay Marriage: Coming (Soon?) to a Church Near You. (queering-the-church.com)