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In Sweden, Presiding Bishop joins 50th anniversary celebrations of women's ordination

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[Episcopal News Service, Uppsala] An image gallery accompanying this article is available here.


The [Lutheran] Church of Sweden welcomed Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church to Stockholm and Uppsala September 22-23 to join the anniversary celebrations of its historic decision 50 years ago to ordain women to the priesthood.

Members of the Swedish royal family -- His Majesty King Carl XIV Gustaf, Her Majesty Queen Silvia, and Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Victoria -- were among guests attending a September 23 celebratory Eucharist and jubilee service at Uppsala Cathedral, a 13th century Gothic building in the center of Sweden's main university city. The Presiding Bishop delivered the invitation to confession and Bishop Antje Jackelén of Lund, one of two women bishops currently serving in the Church of Sweden, preached.

Following the service, Jefferts Schori delivered a greeting during the formal opening of the Church of Sweden's General Synod. [Full text available here.]

"I join you in giving thanks for your intrepid example of welcoming women into pastoral leadership in this church," said Jefferts Schori, whose great grandparents emigrated from Sweden to the United States in the late 19th century. "Fifty years of women's example, witness and ministry have brought abundant, productive and transformative change in this place, all of which define the church's ministry of leadership."

Jefferts Schori commended the leadership of Sweden in working toward fulfilling the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals. "You are one of the few developed nations who have met or exceeded the promises that were made in the year 2000 to fund this work in the poorest countries," she said, noting that the United States "still falls woefully short" of this commitment.

"The Millennium Development Goals are intimately related to what you gather to celebrate in 50 years of women's ordained leadership in this church, for the empowerment of women is foundational to resolving poverty," Jefferts Schori told members attending the General Synod, the main decision-making body of the Church of Sweden.

"When girls have access to education at all levels, when women are fully employed and equally compensated for their labor, when women and their children have access to adequate healthcare, all of the members of their communities begin to flourish," she added.

Earlier in the day, Church of Sweden Archbishop Anders Wejryd hosted a formal lunch for distinguished guests that included key figures in the church's journey towards women's ordination. Describing Jefferts Schori as the "most prominent woman in the global church today," Wejryd presented the Presiding Bishop with a specially made stole bearing the Church of Sweden's coat of arms.

"We're about building a larger church with more traditions and more gifts," Wejryd told Jefferts Schori.

With 6.9 million members in 13 dioceses, the Church of Sweden -- known locally as Svenska kyran -- is the world's largest Evangelical Lutheran Church and a member of the Lutheran World Federation.

Special services will be held throughout the Church of Sweden's 13 dioceses on September 27, the date in 1958 when the decision was made to open the priesthood to women.

An anniversary book has been published in which writer Lina Sjöberg and photographer Sanna Sjöswärd depict in 20 portraits the 50 years of women's ordained ministry. A multimedia exhibition highlighting the book was officially opened following the General Synod's first day of business.

The church ordained its first three women on April 10, 1960. Today, around 35% of priests in the Church of Sweden are women. Christina Odenberg, now retired, became the first woman bishop appointed in the Church of Sweden in 1997.

While the vast majority of the church's members are enjoying the anniversary celebrations this week, the Rev. Fredrik Sidenvall, a priest from the Diocese of Göteborg (Gothenburg), is not convinced by the theological arguments for women's ordained ministry.

"We have seen a rather radical change of doctrine and practice," he said, opining that women's ordination has damaged the church. "The Church of Sweden has ended up on the slippery slope of giving up the claim of teaching and proclaiming the truth."

Saying that he is in "deep solidarity" with the church and still in fellowship with ordained women, Sidenvall told ENS that the role of the pastor "is to enact Christ in the context of the liturgy. I'm in favor of equality, but women should find their role in the church in the context of scripture."

At Uppsala Mission Covenant Church on the morning of September 23, Inger Lise Olsen, the Church of Sweden's advisor on gender issues, told a gathering of international guests: "When a woman is denied [ordination], it is not only a personal problem it is a problem that questions the authority of the church, it questions theology and gender structures in the context in which she is living … It is a problem for the whole community."

Other speakers at the seminar included female leaders from the Evangelical Lutheran churches in Ethiopia, Slovakia, South Africa, the United States, Zimbabwe, as well as a representative of the World Council of Churches and a female priest from the Church of England.

The Church of Sweden is a member of the Porvoo Communion, which groups the British and Irish Anglican churches and the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran churches that entered into a full communion agreement in 1992 to "share a common life in mission and service."

The churches that signed the agreement are the Evangelical Lutheran churches of Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and the Anglican churches of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The Lusitanian Church in Portugal and the Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain -- both extra-provincial dioceses under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury -- also signed onto the agreement. The Evangelical Lutheran churches of Denmark and Latvia have observer status.

The name Porvoo comes from the town in Finland where a joint celebration of Holy Communion was held after the formal signing of the agreement in Järvenpää.

On September 22, the Presiding Bishop joined a lunchtime seminar at Stockholm's Storkyrkan (The Great Church), a 13th-century brick Gothic cathedral in the city's Gamla Stan (Old City).

Moderated by the Rev. Dr. Anne-Louise Eriksson, head of research for the Church of Sweden, the seminar on church leadership in a changing world included panelists Bishop Antje Jackelén of Lund, one of two women bishops currently serving in the Church of Sweden; Dr. Mary Mikhael, president of the Near East School of Theology in Lebanon; and Professor Elaine Neuenfeldt, a Latin-American woman from Brazil who serves as the World Council of Churches' secretary of women in church and society.

Bishop Caroline Krook of Stockholm introduced the seminar by telling a story about her grandmother who fell victim to the Spanish Flu in 1918. "By the time she died she had not been granted the right to vote, but today her granddaughter is a bishop," she said.

When Krook was ordained to the priesthood 24 years ago, "for most Swedes of the day it was entirely unusual to see a woman dressed in clerical robes," she said, noting that there were no female role models in the church.

"Every sermon I had ever heard had been given by a man," she added, describing the church's decision to open the priesthood to women as "an awakening … Since that historical choice established 50 years ago many changes have occurred [and] the place of female bishops and theologians is no longer questioned."

Neuenfeldt upheld dialogue as a crucial mandate for the church and underscored the importance of asking women about their own needs and desires in their ministry. "Dialogue means you need to listen for the answer," she said.

Church leadership, Jackelén said, needs to be marked by "äkthet," a Swedish word meaning authenticity and sincerity. "[Leadership] requires the best of our emotions and knowledge," she said. "It needs to be intellectually, spiritually and emotionally rooted."

"Leadership is about effecting change; it's about leading people into a new vision of the future," said Jefferts Schori. "What is perhaps distinctive about leadership in the church in our own day is deconstructing or dismantling a control model that is so often characteristic of a patriarchal tradition."

Mikhael said the church needs to provide "light, freedom and hope…in a civilization of inequality…How can it be a voice of the voiceless? How can the church provide the world with a more humane kind of leadership? It must lead in a way that provides better alternatives for the world."

With its decision 50 years ago, the Church of Sweden "was able to catch the spirit of Christ," added Mikhael, who comes from a region where women's ordination is not accepted. "Whenever we ask for equal opportunities, we are accused of importing ideas from the West."

"If we're serious about incarnation, then the church needs both women and men in leadership," Jefferts Schori said. "If we only have one [gender], then we are missing aspects of the divine."

-- Matthew Davies is editor of Episcopal Life Online and Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the Anglican Communion.

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