Do female priests represent a true religious reform?

Do female priests represent a true religious reform?

In the last couple of years, the number of female priests has grown all across Scandinavia, especially in Sweden and Denmark. But what is the situation like outside of Christian institutions, for instance in Scandinavian mosques? And is this feminist tendency a sign of how Christianity has become more of a cultural phenomenon in Scandinavia, rather than a sign of true religious reform?

For the first time ever, it has been reported that Sweden has more female than male pastors – out of 3060 ministers, 1533 are now women and 1527 are men. This happens only 60 years after the first woman was ordained as a pastor in the country – much faster than expected according to the Swedish Church, which had predicted that there would not be a female majority of priests until 2090. Despite the shift, female priests generally earn 215 euros less per month than their male counterparts. There has been quite some pushback from the Swedish right wing in regards to the growing number of female priests.[1] Clearly, even though the current shift in society seems like a win for gender equality, there is still a long way to go before men and women are equal in Swedish churches.[2] [3]

Female priests – a Scandinavian phenomenon
Just four years ago, Denmark was the only country in Scandinavia that reported more female than male priests. Even though Denmark had more female priests as the only country in Scandinavia back in 2014 (55.9% in 2014, compared to Sweden’s 50.1% in 2020), Sweden has taken a remarkable step forward in educating female priests.[4] The general tendency could have to do with the two countries’ strong focuses on gender equality as a part of society and a generally more moderate relationship to Christianity – i.e., most Scandinavians would identify as cultural Christians. Many observers also see the shift to more female priests as a demand for a more unified and maternal church, amongst churchgoers. In the past couple of years, Norway has also experienced a huge increase in female priests, so the trend seems to be cross-Scandinavian. But is it cross-religious?

Female leaders and Islam
Some critics in Denmark have compared the Danish churches’ inclusion of female priests to Danish mosques., where there are currently very few female imams in the whole country. A well-known frontrunner, female imam Sherin Khankan and founder of Scandinavia’s first female mosque, is a strong voice in fighting to get more female imams in Denmark.[5] Though female imams are not uncommon worldwide, they generally have less power in Islam, and for instance cannot marry two people or lead prayers for a male audience. This is something that women like Sherin Khankan are fighting to change,[6] as it is still very controversial for women to take on the role as an imam – even in Scandinavia. This poses questions about the theological nature of different religions, as it seems easier for a woman to become a Christian priest than to become an imam.

Cultural or religious reformation?
In conclusion, the question of female religious heads in Scandinavia is fascinating. However, it seems not to be a trend across religions, and seems to be very constricted to Christian institutions in Scandinavia. This poses two questions. First, is this trend caused by the idea that Christianity has experienced more gender-based reformation in the past hundred years than most other religions, or is it rather caused by Scandinavian Christianity generally being more cultural than religious? Second, will other religions in Scandinavia perhaps follow the same trend in the next couple of years, as it is a part of the world that is renowned for its ambitious strives for gender equality? With Scandinavian public figures like Sherin Khankan, there is perhaps hope that it is a societal shift to a less male-dominated religious sphere, and not just a Christian phenomenon. However, only time will tell.

Hannah Macaulay

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[1] Opgør i Sverige om kvindelige præster

[2] In Sweden, female priests now outnumber male ones

[3] Zweden heeft meer vrouwen dan mannen als predikant

[4] Danmark har flest kvindelige præster

[5] Kvindelige præster i Danmark | Religion

[6] Kvindelige imamer er ikke ualmindelige – heller ikke i Mellemøsten


[1] Opgør i Sverige om kvindelige præster

[2] In Sweden, female priests now outnumber male ones

[3] Zweden heeft meer vrouwen dan mannen als predikant