THE ROAD TOWARDS SAME SEX MARRIAGES

WITHIN THE CHURCH OF SWEDEN

Some notes of Martin Lind’s lecture in Järvenpää Saturday the 15th of October, 2011

 

A short story from a visit to the Coptic Church in Egypt. I was there as bishop with my rural deans for a study week. One evening we met the Coptic Bishop Thomas and I said to the deans that they should avoid the word “homosexuality” because the Pope Schenouda of the Coptic Church had said such horrible, humiliating words on homosexual persons. But the Bishop Thomas himself took up the subject and said roughly: “I know that you in Church of Sweden have been working for a long time with the question of homosexuality in the church life. I am not sure that I can follow you or agree with you the whole way. But I know one thing: we have the same problem and we have not yet started our reflection on that issue.”

That is an honest position. The Coptic Church has not started their reflection and most churches have not. But in fact the Church of Sweden has quite a history in these matters.

A   The history

In 1951 the bishops wrote an official Episcopal letter on sexuality where it is said that the church should dissociate herself from criminalization of homosexual acts.

In 1972 the bishop’s conference decided to start an investigation. In 1974 the first official book came on The Homosexuals and the Church. The book (164 pages) recommended the church to support homosexual relations built on mutual love.

Noteworthy is that the state authorities in Sweden only in 1979 decided that homosexuality not any more should be seen as a disease.

In the synod, the highest deciding body of the Church of Sweden, the question of homosexuality was on the agenda almost every year in the 1990’s and nearly all the years from the year 2000 until the final decision in 2009 on same sex marriages.

As a result of this ongoing discussion in the synod, that meets every year, it came a rather comprehensive investigation in 1994: The Church and homosexuality (226 pages). Here for the first time a very clear exegetical work is done where biblical scholars of different opinions come to different solutions.

From 1 January 1995 the state of Sweden introduces the so called “registered partnership” for homosexual couples. The civil law opens up for the partnership to be as similar as possible to the law of marriage.

Last week of January 1995 the bishops decide to send a pastoral letter to all the priests in the church. Here the bishops unanimously recommend the priests to welcome the couples of registered partnership for a private intercession within the frames of the priest’s counseling work, pastoral cure. This work is combined with an absolute professional secrecy and is not ruled by the official books. Therefore this intercession and prayer could be done without changing anything in the church’s liturgy or doctrine.

In 1997 the blessing after the intercession was added by the bishops in another pastoral advice.

In 1999 family members and friends were allowed to be present during the intercession, prayer and blessing. When this was officially said by the bishops it was more or less to confirm the ongoing practice.

In 2003-2004 a working material was sent to all the parishes. The title was Homosexuals in the church – a document for discussion. A special manual for the discussion leaders was elaborated. The church national board wanted reactions but very few congregations answered anything at all.

In Sept 2004 the national Committee of Theology, a committee serving the bishops and the national board, arranged a four days Hearing in Uppsala concerning Love, living-together and marriage. 32 experts in different areas were invited. They were theologians of different confessions, historians, law people, academics, priests and pastors from a number of confessions (Roman Catholic, Serbian-orthodox, Church of Sweden, Pentecostals). All the invited gav a short introduction of their position and was afterwards questioned by to persons, a woman and a man. The result of the hearing was printed in a book (299 pages) and translated into English.

In 2006 the synod decided to introduce an order for blessing of registered partnership. The synod gave the board the task to decide how this order should look like. In this way the order as such was not a part of the official liturgy but the fact that such an order was accepted was examined and approved. 

In 2009 1st of May the state of Sweden initiated same sex marriages in the society.

In October 2009 the synod of the Church of Sweden accepted same sex marriages and decided to add an official order for same sex marriages in the liturgy

The state decided that the right to marry couples should not any more be part of the priesthood for priests of the Church of Sweden but that this church as all other churches had to apply for this right. An emotional debate if the church at all should carry on to perform marriages valid according to civil law started. The alternative was that all couples first should get a non-religious civil marriage and then if they so wanted could get a church blessing afterwards. This second alternative was often connected with a position where people wanted to avoid a Church approval of same sex marriages.

In the October 2009 synod the Church decided to carry on with marriages valid according to civil law. No priest is however forced to conduct a marriage, neither for separate nor for same sex couples.

 

B   The Bible

(Maybe you all know this, but for the Swedish development these insights have been crucial) It may be helpful if the participants have bibles to read in during this part of my lecture. I will of course read the texts in English but it might be easier with bibles in Finnish language.

 

Very few biblical texts underline the ordinary marriage. We have the Matthew 19 quoting Genesis about one flesh. But more important may be the emphasis on love as the fundamentals for Christian ethics – see Gal. 5,14. Jesus said: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” Mark 3,33

Negative wordings on homosexuality:

Old Testament     
Genesis 19, 1-13 (the Sodom story) A story rather about heterosexual promiscuity

Judges 19,16-30 (the Gibeah story) A story rather about heterosexual promiscuity

Leviticus 18,22 and 20,13 (the law of holiness including the capital punishment)

  The story about David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 18,1-4,  20,41 (kissing), 2 Samuel 1,26  is perhaps not a story about homosexual love but certainly about homoerotic love.

New Testament      
1 Cor 6,9-10 many different translations, often only “homosexuality”, but the Greek language has two words “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai”. Malakoi has a meaning of weak, soft, gentle, tender, boyish, lad – all with a slight falvour of “feminine” character. Asenokoitai means rather the opposite: violater, utilize, oldfashioned “masculine”. Seeing these facts the meaning could be that old men should not utilize boys. If so the meaning of forbidding promiscuity is clear. – It could be noted that also “drunkards” are condemned. With present knowledge of alcoholism as a disease it is an impossible position.

1 Timothy 1,9-10 “pervert” is often used as translation for “arsenokoitai”

Rom 1,26-27 “natural relations” – compare 1 Cor 11,14 where it is said that it is against nature when a man has long hair. The question is of course what “nature” means in the Pauline texts.

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A possible interpretation is that the bible condemns promiscuity but does not speak about life-long, lasting, faithful homosexual relations in mutual love and respect, because these relations were unknown in the antique time. There might have been such relations but then in secret.

So the bible could not speak about anything that was not known as an existing relation. But homosexual promiscuity was well known in the antique time – and that is obviously condemned.

However the commandment of love is more important than any other biblical rule. And how can love against two people who live together in love?

 

C   Tradition

1)      Lutheran perspective of marriage as a worldly order, belonging to the “worldly regiment”. Through history marriage has changed very much:

Polygamy in the Old Testament

The man is owning his wife, more or less as an object

The man and the woman are equals – not even today very common (!)

2)       The Lutheran reflection of “order of creation” (Schöpfungsordnungen)

A Lutheran doctrine in the early 20th century. Very soon connected to the so called brown theology, pro-nazi. The four orders were normally: people, race, marriage and work. These orders were seen as static, non-changeable, divine orders, especially in the German National Socialistic time. After the war this was criticized because this theology supported the Nazi-positions. Therefore it was said that the orders of creations – if we at all should speak of them in this way – are all dynamic orders as everything created by God. This was said without any reference or thought of same sex marriages!!

 

3)      Creation theology not only built on biology but also on personal experience. It is a fact that men love men and women women. This is a part of the ongoing creation. And we have to accept the “creatio continua” if it is in coherence with the main Christian ethics, to live in love.

4)      Complementarity is often used to underline heterosexuality. But the term must not only be understood biologically. It could also be understood as personalities complementing each other.

5)      Love is more important in Christian ethics than gender

 

 

D   Ecumenical perspectives

My own experiences from meetings with Cardinal Walter Kasper in the Vatican, Bishop Thomas in the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and some Anglican bishops in England. These meetings have been different from meeting with some of my Lutheran colleagues.

The accuses from people of different meaning have in Sweden often two: this question needs more investigation and this question should be better anchored to the ecumenical world. The first accuse was in this case rather impossible while this question has been investigated since the early 70’s. Few other questions have been discussed for such a long time within the Church of Sweden.

But the other accuse is of course a weak point. Everything could be better anchored. It is impossible to say that it could not be better informed, discussed among other churches. Therefore it is important to state that this question has been a matter for discussion among church leaders and church conferences during a substantial number of years.

During all the years from 2000 the Swedish archbishop informed his colleagues in the Nordic churches on this matter. In the Nordic Bishop’s meeting in 2007 this matter was informed and discussed.

In the deliberations and talks within the Porvoo communion during the years 2000-2009 the Swedish Church representatives informed of the ongoing process.

In December 2006 Church of Sweden invited the Porvoo-churches including the observers (the Danish church and the Latvian church) to an ecumenical consultation on this matter. I was myself present and talked and discussed with representatives from all the Porvoo churches. The reaction was very open minded from all present except from the Latvian friends.

Reports from the Committee of Theology on national level have been translated and sent to the Porvoo churches during the years 2000-2009.

In the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) General Assembley in Winnipeg July 2003 the Swedish delegation raised the question of same sex marriages.

LWF’s council (governing body) decided in 2004 to start an investigation regarding same sex love in biblical, historical, ethical perspectives and with reference to Church unity.

At LWF’s 50’th Jubilee in Lund, Sweden, in 2007 the report Marriage, Family and Human Sexuality (including homosexuality) was presented. Here it is said that the churches have to reflect on how church unity can be kept with a multiplicity in various questions such as women’s ordination, divorce and marriages understood in new ways, contraceptives and a marriage life together without formal wedding.

The final proposal in 2009 on same sex marriages from the governing body of the Church of Sweden, presented to the synod and accepted and decided by the Synod in October 2009 was translated to English, German and Spanish and sent to partnerchurches to the Church of Sweden.