In Sweden Lesbian Bishop is Not a 'Hot Issue', in Africa, Church Fumes

Geneva, Switzerland - Church of Sweden Archbishop Anders Wejryd triggered outrage from a Lutheran church in Africa when he ordained an openly lesbian woman as bishop of Stockholm on 8 November.

The archbishop asserts, however, that neither his church nor his country supports promiscuity, but that Sweden is a "surprisingly moral society". He said the Swedish church encourages faithful and stable relationships between people whatever their sexual orientation may be.

The Church of Sweden issued a press statement when 55-year-old Eva Brunne was consecrated as the bishop of Stockholm in a ceremony at Uppsala cathedral, the mother church of the world's biggest Lutheran denomination with nearly 7 million members.

Under Swedish law, Brunne lives in a civil union partnership with another woman, Gunilla Lindén, who is a Church of Sweden pastor, and they are the guardians of a three-year-old child.

So far the Lutheran World Federation, which represents almost 69 million Christians in 79 countries, has managed to avoid the same level of acrimony and divisiveness as the 77-million-strong Anglican Communion on the issue of gay clergy.

The Church of Sweden and the (Anglican) Church of England have an agreement under which they can share ministries and sacraments, but the accord could face strains because of the latest ordination in Uppsala and the Anglican Communion's official opposition to gay clergy living in non-celibate relationships.

Some of the most strident criticism against the Church of Sweden came from Lutherans in Kenya, however.

"We condemn in the strongest terms possible this unfortunate and anti-scriptural development in a church body that bears the name of the great reformer, Dr Martin Luther," said Archbishop Walter Obare, the leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya.

Wejryd granted an interview with Ecumenical News International when the LWF held a meeting of its main governing body in Geneva between 22 and 27 October, in which he spoke about the Church of Sweden and same-sex relationships.

"This is an issue of conscience and therefore we have to be very open," Wejryd told ENI. "In Sweden it isn't so hot [an issue]. I mean we have had clergy living in [same-sex] partnerships for 30 years, in parts of the country.

"They have been looked upon as respectful Christians. Maybe that is hard to understand," he said.

"Our question is, is this theologically possible? I think it goes along with our biblical interpretation that has also led us to work against slavery - there is a lot of slavery in the Bible," the Swedish archbishop said.

"And it has also made us go against capital punishment which is also a natural thing in the Bible. The importance of the message of love has made it impossible to go along with that," Wejryd added. "We have also gone against a lot of the teachings about the subordination of women."

Archbishop Wejryd said that in Sweden there a large demand from the country's gay community to have marriages.

"Some priests refuse to go along with this," he said and noted that the Church of Sweden began working on how it deals with homosexuality in the church in 1972. Still, although homosexuality is generally tolerated in Sweden there is still homophobia in the country and gay people can be targets, he said.

The Church of Sweden, however, strongly believes it is important to show that homosexuals have equal rights. On 1 May Sweden's parliament approved of a law adopting same-sex marriages, whereas in the past it had instituted civil unions for gay people.

The general synod of the Church of Sweden on 22 October, with the approval of 70 percent of its bishops, also approved church weddings for same-sex couples.

Arguing that Sweden is a moral society against promiscuity, Archbishop Wejryd said, "It is one of the societies where prostitution is least accepted. It is illegal to buy sexual services in Sweden and that is a law that has enormous backing."

He said, however, the model that Sweden and its national Lutheran church espouses, is not one that should be exported and that it should not be imposed on churches in other countries.

"Everyone has to decide for themselves. It is so important to that all these issues are handled very seriously in your own cultural context," the archbishop stated. "I think things like this should not be pushed upon someone else."

Archbishop Wejryd noted that the Lutheran World Federation lives as a grouping of churches with different opinions on the ordination of women, divorce and other matters.

"We must leave a lot to responsibility of the respective churches," he said. "I don't think we will be very active missionaries on this."