Swedish church not so gay-friendly
Church of Sweden members have voted to allow gay weddings, but it’s not quite the liberal breakthrough it seems
o Andrew Brown
o guardian.co.uk, Sunday 25 October 2009 13.00 GMT
The Church of Sweden’s decision to make no distinction in its marriage service between straight and gay couples is not as straightforward a triumph for liberal attitudes as it may seem. For one thing, half the church’s bishops signed a letter condemning it; but the extraordinary decision-making structure of the Swedish church means they have no special voice in its decisions.
The church is run by an assembly that is elected directly – in theory by all its members. In practice, the turnout is about 10% and the great majority are elected on the tickets of secular political parties. This is great for the political parties, who thus get another way to reward their members with office and a chance to practise getting out the voters. Before the last church assembly elections, Mona Sahlin, the leader of the Social Democrats, announced that party members have as much of a duty to vote in these as in any other elections. Sahlin is not herself a member of the church, nor a Christian.
Although membership is now voluntary, about 73% of the Swedish population still count as members, and so pay church tax of around £400-£500 a year. The chief benefit they get from this is the right to marry in church, providing at least one of the couple is a member. This service, like the NHS, is free at the point of delivery.
The vote on whether this right should be extended to same-sex couples was decided almost entirely on party lines. So once the parties had decided in parliament that marriage should make no distinction between sexes in Swedish law, the church’s agreement was almost certain. Whether this actually reflects active Christian opinion in Sweden is much harder to know.
All of the other major Christian denominations in Sweden have criticised the decision. There is also a divide within society. It is ironic that the Social Democrats are strongest in the most socially conservative (and poorest) areas of the country. The liberal attitudes of Stockholm are not greatly shared out in the countryside, where the word “gay” has a similar abusive tone as it does in English school playgrounds, though it can also mean something like the English “nerd”. My half-Swedish son, for example, refers to people who take too great an interest in the stereo equipment as “kit gays”.
Outside the Swedish church, this decision is bound to lead to strain ecumenically. The Swedish Lutheran church shares its priesthood in theory with the Church of England, for instance. But no English priest would be permitted to marry a gay couple and few would want to. They are not even allowed to have services of blessing. And, as the details of the story emerge, it will come to seem an object lesson in how not to disestablish.