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The Experience of the Church of Sweden by Bertil E. Gärtner and Carl Strandberg from 'Man, Woman, and Priesthood'

The Experience of the Church of Sweden

by Bertil E. Gärtner and Carl Strandberg

from Man, Woman, and Priesthood, pp. 123-133, edited by Peter Moore, SPCK London, 1978.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

BERTIL E. GÄRTNER (b. 1924) read theology at Uppsala University, where he later served as a university chaplain and as assistant professor. From 1965 to 1970 he worked in the United States as Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, and became Bishop of Gothenberg shortly afterwards. He has been specially concerned with questions of mission and evangelism both at home and abroad, and is author of a number of books on the ministry of the Church as well as on New Testament subjects.

CARL STRANDBERG (b. 1926) was a student at Uppsala University. After a period as a parish minister he was from 1957 to 1970 a lecturer in ecclesiastical law at Uppsala. A member since 1963 of the Church of Sweden Assembly, he became dean of the Cathedral of Strängnäs in 1974, and is editor of the church weekly "Svensk Pastoraltidskrift. "

The Church of Sweden, which is Lutheran in its confessional theology, has maintained the historic episcopate in an unbroken apostolic succession and the ordering of priests by an episcopal laying-on of hands up to the present day. The separation of the Church of Sweden from the See of Rome has, therefore, many parallels in the history of the Church of England. Indeed, the C. of S. like the C. of E. has a very traditional ‘feel’ about it with its many medieval buildings, altars, works of sacred art, mass vestments, mitres, croziers, etc., and this traditionalism in the C. of S. is still obvious in the role of the parish priest even in a highly secularized, modern Sweden.

Sweden is divided into thirteen dioceses. There are at present about 3100 active priests on the clerical rolls of the C. of S. Between 250 and 300 of these are women.

It was in 1958 that the Church of Sweden made the decision to allow the ordination of women. As some readers may be aware, this decision was not made without considerable political pressure from the Swedish government and parliament at the national level, and from the various political parties on the local level as a result of the present system regulating the life of congregations, which makes possible direct political control by the political parties. This political pressure was brought to bear on the Church Assembly in such a way as to cause it to reverse the negative decision it had taken on the ordination of women to the priesthood only in 1957. A not insignificant number of Swedish church leaders and theologians changed their position virtually overnight.

There are now women priests in all dioceses of the C. of S., but they are not, of course, equally distributed among the dioceses. In one diocese the number of women priests is nearly a third. A full quarter of those now preparing for the priesthood are women.

At present only two of our bishops refuse to ordain women to the priesthood. Bishops in the C. of S. cannot prevent those ordained in other dioceses from seeking livings in their dioceses after an initial curacy in their home dioceses. Vicars and ‘coministers’ of the C. of S. parishes are either elected or appointed on the basis of a strictly regulated merit system. Only curates are assigned to parishes. Many of the women priests are engaged in special ministries. A growing number are now in charge of parishes as vicars. Few women priests have enough seniority to merit appointment to higher posts in the Church, but there has recently been considerable agitation by an organized pressure group seeking to secure a government pledge that all future appointments to the episcopate will be women until such time as the representation of the sexes is 50:50.

In order to understand the situation in Sweden it is necessary to be acquainted with a few statistics. Approximately 94 per cent of the Swedish population nominally belongs to the C. of S. It is possible to belong to the C. of S. without even being baptized, and it is even possible to be elected to the Parish Church Council or the Church Assembly without being baptized. The unbaptized membership of the C. of S. is not large, however, and even today about 80.2 per cent of all Swedish children are baptized. About 72. 6 per cent are being confirmed. 95 per cent of the population is buried from the Church.

In spite of its large membership, very few Swedes actively participate in the religious life of the C. of S. Only about two per cent go to the Sunday services, if the various kinds of children’s services including Sunday schools are not counted. If weekday services are included in the statistics, then it may be said that 4.8 per cent of Swedes visit our churches each week, although this figure also includes those attending organ recitals and other cultural events as well as those who buoy up the statistics by going to services several times each week. In any case it is important to recall that the population of Sweden is extremely secularized when evaluating the often-heard statement that the vast majority of Swedes are in favour of women priests.

To be sure, there are also many regular church-goers—no doubt the majority—who are in favour of women priests. The opposition to women priests is a small minority except among full-time church workers, male priests, and, surprisingly, among the active youth of the C. of S., where the opposition is very pronounced and vocal. Those who have championed the cause of women priests have recently noted with alarm that about one-third of the priests are still opposed to the ordination of women and that opposition seems to be increasing, especially among those preparing for the priesthood at the university. The ‘loyal opposition’ of the C. of S. must in all fairness be termed by its adversaries as unusually alert theologically. The typical dissenter has a well-examined position based upon his exegesis of the Holy Scriptures and his doubts about a radical break with the Apostolic Tradition.

It is unthinkable in the present situation that the government of Sweden could knowingly consider appointing a man to the episcopate who has doubts about the rightness of ordaining women to the priesthood. The same is true of other high posts in the Church. Only when the government has not had a choice because all of the candidates selected by the electors have been members of the opposition has the government been forced to depart from this policy of discrimination.

The decision to ordain women to the priesthood has deeply divided the C. of S. This year the situation has worsened considerably due to a grossly unjust ‘smear’ campaign launched in the mass media at political instigation. ‘Character assassination’ is the commonly used weapon against the opponents to the ordination of women to the priesthood.

When the decision was taken to ordain women in 1958, even those backing the change recognized that, in order to avoid a split, it would be necessary to accommodate the dissenting minority. In the official protocol of the Church Assembly an explanatory statement was adopted which guarantees the right of bishops to refuse to ordain women on the basis of religious conviction and of candidates for the priesthood to make their ordination vows who cannot regard women priests as possessing valid orders. This statement is called the ‘conscience clause’ in common parlance. It was ratified by the Ecclesiastical Minister acting on behalf of the government in 1958, although he has since maintained that he never intended his ratification to allow the ‘conscience clause’ to be used indefinitely.

The importance of this ‘conscience clause’ in the Swedish situation cannot be overestimated. It is this clause which legitimates the ‘loyal opposition’ of the C. of S. and allows it to remain within the C of S. Thus, it is with great apprehension that the ‘loyal Opposition’ has witnessed the erosion of this clause in its function as the cement holding the C. of S. together.

Quite soon after 1958 the government retreated from the policy of fair treatment for the ‘loyal opposition’ upon which the acceptance of the ‘conscience clause’ is based. The secular judicial authorities seem to incline towards the position that the ‘conscience clause’ should be considered a temporary measure now obsolete. They emphasize, with a certain degree of consciousness of their power over the C. of S., that a statement in the Church Assembly’s protocol is not the law of the land.

Church leaders know, of course, that the ‘conscience clause’ is indispensable if the C. of S. is not to suffer a grievous rupture Only in 1975 the Church Assembly reaffirmed the ‘conscience clause’, but it failed to give any real guidance as to its application. The Church Assembly said, none the less, that retention of the ‘conscience clause’ was the only way to allow both groups to serve the cause of the gospel and the Church.

At the same time that Church leaders have affirmed the ‘conscience clause’ in theory they have tried in many and various ways to subvert its intentions in practice. In large measure this is the result of political pressure and pressure from the mass media. The majority of bishops say that no active opposition can be countenanced and that the consciences of those opposed to women priests can only be taken into account when there are no other interests at stake.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the ‘conscience clause’ in its present form (due no doubt to its hasty formulation) is that its wording does not make any reference to the rights of laymen Thus, laymen of the ‘loyal opposition’ are generally considered to be without rights in this matter. Those who are in the full-time employment of the Church as organists, vergers, etc. find themselves in a very difficult position because they feel that they jeopardize their livelihood. The same is true for deacons and deaconesses. Division in the local congregation results in an intolerable situation for many volunteer workers as well.

It is to be hoped that the majority party will realize that through its handling of the ‘conscience clause’ it is exercising a power which can, if misused, create a permanent schism. Although it is understandable that many lack the courage to speak up for toleration of a small dissenting minority in the face of general public opinion, this is the only thing that can preserve what unity is left in the C. of S.

Other church bodies confronting the same problems as the Church of Sweden might well take a lesson from our plight. A ‘conscience clause’ in order to guarantee effectively the legitimate rights of dissenters must include some kind of ‘codex’ specifying its application. In particular it is vital that the right of ‘loyal Opponents’ to be consecrated as bishops be clearly stated.

A particularly thorny aspect of the new trouble in the C. of S. is the increasing role of secular women’s organizations and politicians in the controversy. The present Minister of Church Affairs concerned with local authorities has ventured to advise those theological students who cannot accept women priests that they ought to think about other professions. There is also a motion in Parliament to nullify the ‘conscience clause’ entirely.

The church leaders are under great pressure to restore order in the Church so that, as one of the politicians has said, ‘we will not be forced to intervene’. If the present efforts to nullify the ‘conscience clause’ succeed, bishops and priests of the ‘loyal opposition’ could be removed from their offlces by secular courts of law.

One of the most crucial issues at present is the practice used in many dioceses of ordaining separately opponents and proponents of the ordination of women whenever women are presented for ordination. The majority of the bishops have now united in a statement to the effect that this practice must cease. Furthermore, some opponents have already been denied the right to be ordained for their home dioceses by a bishop of another diocese who is a member of the opposition. This means that those who cannot in good conscience go through with an ordination together with women ordinands must wait until an occasion arises when there are no women ordinands if they wish to remain in their home dioceses.

In order to encourage the opponents of women priests to go through with their ordination together with women ordinands a new view of ordination is being propagated according to which the ordinand is to think of himself as if he stood alone with his ordainers. The heart of the problem for the ‘loyal opposition’ is, of course, that they cannot be part of a communicatio in sacris in any form. The new theory is not winning much ground among opponents as yet. From the look of things it may not have time to gain much currency before some of the ordainers are also women.

There is no sign that the proportion of those opposed to women priests among the clergy and among those engaged in preministerial studies is declining. There are some indications that opposition is increasing, but it is difficult to say whether or not this trend will continue, as the pressure on opponents is enormous The bishops’ declaration sets out new and stringent restrictions on the application of the ‘conscience clause’ which would disallow separate ordinations and give women priests the go-ahead to seek livings in any and all parishes.

The mass media at the local level in Sweden, in order to help them exercise their influence in parochial elections, have also intensified their efforts to compile a complete file on the attitudes of priests on the question of the ordination of women.

A point of special interest for outside observers of the situation in the C. of S. is whether or not the increasing number of women priests and the current campaign against the opposition has led to any pronounced alteration in the theological thinking about the nature of the Church, the Ministry, or the Scriptures. Without a doubt it must be admitted that a very decided influence is apparent in all three areas.

In Sweden the argument for women priests has depended heavily upon the present relationship of the Church to society in general. Among those who have been most eager to see women ordained and who have championed their cause are the people who view the Church primarily as one of many societal institutions and one which can and ought to be reformed in the same manner as any other. Many of these people would not be able to subscribe to the basic tenets of the Christian faith at all. Obviously there are also supporters of the ordination of women who base their convictions first and foremost on religious considerations, but among church-goers who support the cause of women priests the most common motivation is entirely pragmatic—the Church must adapt itself to the modern world in this matter if it is to be taken seriously.

Swedish society is very secularized. Inasmuch as the proponents of the ordination of women and the champions of their cause have relied so heavily upon arguments based on the relationship of the Church to society, this has resulted in a tendency to relegate all teaching about the divine institution of the Church to the realm of pious obscurantism. Swedes in general regard religious faith as a completely individual thing best kept entirely private. They respond readily to the notion that the Church is simply a part of the societal apparatus intended to let those individuals who happen to have some religious inclination express whatever they feel in whatever way they feel appropriate.

Those who oppose the ordination of women to the priesthood are unanimously against the notion that the priesthood is just one profession among many and that all the contemporary axioms about equality in the spheres of political, social, and economic rights are automatically applicable to the priesthood. Women priests and their supporters in Sweden are saying with increasing frequency that Christ did not institute the ministry as we know it, and that ministers of Word and Sacrament are foreign to the New Testament. They say that any views which the apostles or the early Church may have had about Christian leadership are in no way binding upon us. It is also being said rather openly now that the question about women priests is, in fact, only a prelude to the real question of whether we should ‘ordain’ priests at all. Nowadays instead of arguing that a married woman priest can be as available as any other priest, it is argued that a priest should not be more available than the members of any other profession and that the ordination of women has opened the way for the reform of the entire priestly role. Twenty years ago it was argued that a woman was equally capable of filling the priestly role; now some argue that the role is all wrong.

Many of the older women priests would reject this thinking as extremist, but the tendency in this direction is clearly discernible. What is most common among the advocates of the ordination of women is the notion that the feelings associated with a ‘call’ absolutely legitimize the individual’s ‘right’ to be ordained. Objective evaluation of the individual’s calling in the light of the Holy Scriptures and the Apostolic Tradition is considered a reactionary tactic. Hand in hand with this individualistic concept of the calling goes the reduction of the contents of the gospel to a sentimental message about love. The work of an apostle is, so they reason, open to anyone who has the urge to proclaim what the apostles proclaimed—’love’. Any restrictions which might have been placed on women in the New Testament are assumed to be accidents of history rather than matters of principle. It is the message that is important, not the messenger. Thus, the office of the priest cannot be a divine gift which entails the obligation to preserve the form of its original institution.

The Church of Sweden, as all Lutheran Churches, professes that the Scriptures are the highest norm for doctrine and practice. The Scriptures have heretofore been the objective standard against which the subjective religious feelings and ideas of individuals were tested. The ordination of women and the increasing use of non-biblical and even anti-biblical arguments to justify this practice have resulted in a significant loss of authority for the Scriptures as the reliable guide for the life of the Church. Even from fairly respectable quarters in the Church one hears the Scriptures called ‘a collection of antique writings’ and Paul derided as a ‘woman-hater’. Those who are more theologically schooled usually advocate what is called a dynamic understanding of the Scriptures. What this means in practice is that the biblical traditions must be sorted out on the basis of what seems to accord with current intellectual trends. Here, too, the judgement of the individual and his own response to the things said in the Bible are determinative. The Scriptures are not allowed any real; normative function.

The ordination of women and the increasing number of women priests in the Church of Sweden have demonstrably resulted in a change in the theological climate and have already had a marked effect on much thinking in the areas of Church, Ministry, and Scripture, putting into question their sacredness and divine origin. This secularization of the way in which many active churchpeople now regard foundation stones of their own faith is alarming enough in itself, but it seems that the decision to ordain women to the priesthood is destined in its ultimate doctrinal impact to affect even the central dogmas concerned with Christ’s person and the meaning of salvation in him. The first waves of feminist theology from America are now reaching the shores of Sweden just in time to intensify a worsening crisis. On the other hand, it is easier for opponents of the ordination to women to make clear how their theological concerns are directly related to the defence of those doctrines which serve as major girders in that structured framework of dogma which the ecumenical councils have erected for the undivided Church. Likewise, it is more and more obvious that the ‘logic’ being used to justify the ordination of women to the priesthood imperils the fundamental revelation of God’s saving activity in his Son Jesus Christ as this is faithfully preserved for us in those writings which the Church in every age has boldly and without reservation called the Word of God.

In the long run the only arguments against the ordinantion of women which have demonstrated a lasting quality on the Swedish scene have been those arguments which are clearly based on the Scriptures as these have been interpreted in the received traditon of the Church Catholic. No other arguments are capable of withstanding the psychological battering which the opponents of the ordination of women can expect in the all-too-often vulgar popular debate. They will be called everything from ‘male chauvinist pigs’ to ‘sexual neurotics’. Still, even these trials which God has permitted to be a part of the testing of our faith, and which have divided the Church more than any other issue since the Reformation, have brought with them certain unexpected joys and blessings. High churchmen and low churchmen, Evangelicals and Catholics, Christians revering the Eastern traditions and Christians revering the Western traditions have begun to discover that the seeds of a new unity lie buried in the ground of the new division which has been brought about by the ordination of women as priests.

When we of the Church of Sweden are asked by sincere inquirers whether we, on the basis of our experience, can recommend other communions to open the priesthood to women, we cannot possibly offer any united testimony. Nevertheless, what the members of other communions contemplating such a step should be aware of is that few proponents of the ordination of women in Sweden can allow themselves to voice much caution in this respect, precisely because the positive action of other church bodies in the direction of ordaining women to the priesthood gives added weight to their position at home in Sweden. In fact the more uncertain a proponent is of the rightness of his position, the more he will derive relief at the prospect of getting such foreign support.

Obviously the same could also be said of those of us who Oppose the ordination of women in the C. of S.—that we make use of the reluctance of other Churches to make this radical break with the universal Catholic Tradition as ‘grist for our mill’. What even our theological adversaries must admit, however, is that the Swedish experience offers some convincing evidence that the, controversy about the ordination of women seems to worsen with the passage of time. Perhaps this is partly the consequence of the Swedish Church’s particular relationship to the state, but it is surely also the consequence of our faithfulness to a tradition which is at once both Catholic and Evangelical as far as the doctrine of the Ministry is concerned.

We have never tended before now to view the priesthood merely as a function. The more women who are ordained, the more pressure on the opposition increases, but this does not show any signs of yielding the result which was expected twenty years ago— the disappearance of the opposition. Instead it makes the question of the inevitability of a permanent schism more and more acute. The atmosphere of mistrust and intrigue in many of our parishes is poisonous, and it handicaps the work of evangelization and all pastoral work as well as the social witness of the Church. People of both persuasions and of none are leaving the Church. Women engaged in the diaconate and living in communities are somehow considered to be second-class and not quite equal because they are not priests. Ironically, even as the authority of the priesthood is diminished, the Church becomes ever more clericalized. This picture of the Church of Sweden in its present condition is not ‘pretty’, and indeed the official representatives of the C. of S. do not often allow outsiders to see the ‘unbeautiful’ reality with which we now must live.

Still, do not let this picture which we have painted of the situation in Sweden—perhaps with very dark and frightening colours —lead to the conclusion that the ‘loyal opposition’ in the C. of S. is without hope. We can honestly say that we have now as never before discovered what real Christian hope is and what the real source of such hope is.

We would like to conclude this report on the situation in Sweden and our advice to those of other communions by adapting the words of Saint Paul:

We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities ... by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God . . . in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true: as unknown and yet well known, as dying, and behold we live . . .( 2 Cor. 6.3-9).

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