Gender equity in the Church of Sweden – and beyond?

Gender equity in the Church of Sweden – and beyond?

Female priests have recently outnumbered male priests in the Church of Sweden, the largest Lutheran denomination in Europe. Will other Christian groups, such as the Church of England and the Catholic Church, follow the Church of Sweden in pursuing greater gender equality?

Female priests have exceeded the number of male priests in the Church of Sweden as of late July, 60 years after it ordained its first female priests.[1] With 50.1% of the priesthood now women, the Church of Sweden, the largest Lutheran denomination in Europe, stands apart from other Christian groups on the continent with regard to gender equality, including the Church of England and the Catholic Church. With one of Europe’s major Christian denominations demonstrating major strides in gender equality, can we expect similar progress in other Christian bodies on the continent? 

Progress in the Church of England
The Church of England ordained its first female priests in 1994 – only first permitting women to become bishops in 2014.[2] Today, only one in three Anglican priests are female, and around 20% of bishops in the UK are women.[3] However, the Church has made some progress in gender equality. In December 2019, for instance, the Church announced its plan to employ “unconscious bias training” as part of an effort to guarantee that half of Church leaders are women by the year 2030.[4] Some major milestones in gender equality in leadership include the Church’s appointment of Rose Hudson-Wilkin as Britain’s first Black female Bishop in late 2019, and the appointment of Cherry Vann as the first female Bishop of Monmouth in early 2020.[5]

Will the Catholic Church follow suit?
The Catholic Church, on the contrary, has not permitted the ordination of female priests, and until very recently, has failed to include women in non-clergy leadership positions.[6] In October 2019, amidst talks to allow married men to enter clergy positions in the Amazon, where there is a shortage, activists called on the Church to ordain women as a way of filling the gap.[7] Many campaigners have complained that women, who already serve in non-clergy ministerial positions in some regions, lack adequate recognition for their roles. Further, the Church refuses women voting power at Vatican synods, because they are not ordained priests.[8] However, the Vatican has made some progress in gender equality in non-clergy leadership roles. In January, Pope Francis appointed the first-ever woman to a senior Vatican position, making Francesca Di Giovanni, an Italian lawyer, the undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State.[9] More recently, in August, the Pope appointed six women to leadership positions in the Vatican, in what has been called a “progressive step.”[10]

More progress to come?
The future of gender equality in the Church of England and the Catholic Church look remarkably different. Given recent social progress in the Church of England, such as the rise in female bishops – including women of color and LGBTQ+ women -, the acceptance of same-sex marriage, and the dismantling of some institutionally racist institutions, such as undiverse church choirs, it is likely that the Church of England will continue to pursue progress in its clergy’s gender makeup, perhaps sooner than expected.[11] The Catholic Church will likely continue to make strides in the inclusion of women in non-clergy positions, at least under Pope Francis’ leadership. However, it is unlikely that the Church will make any changes to its position on the ordination of women, as illustrated by the pope’s recent failure to ordain married men in the Amazon region, which would have been a significantly less progressive move.[12]

Furthermore, despite better gender representation in the Church of Sweden, Church of England, and the Catholic Church, to varying degrees, true gender equality is still far off. In the Church of Sweden, for instance, female priests are paid less than male ones, with the wage gap averaging 2,200 Swedish kronor (£196) per month.[13] The same is likely true in the Church of England and the Catholic Church, given the male majority in leadership positions, which pay more.

Olivia Desilva

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[1] Church of Sweden’s female priests outnumber men – but are paid less; Zweden heeft meer vrouwen dan mannen als predikant; In Sweden, female priests now outnumber male ones
[2] Church of England formally approves plans for women bishops
[3] Church of Sweden’s female priests outnumber men – but are paid less; Church of England give staff ‘unconscious bias training’ to ensure half are female by 2030
[4] Church of England give staff ‘unconscious bias training’ to ensure half are female by 2030
[5] ‘I’m Britain’s first black woman bishop and I long for the day when that’s not unusual’; A lesbian priest has made history as the first-ever woman to be appointed Bishop of Monmouth
[6] Pope appoints six women to top roles on Vatican council in progressive step
[7] ‘Save Catholic church’ by lifting ban on female priests, activists say
[8]  ‘Save Catholic church’ by lifting ban on female priests, activists say
[9] Vatican appoints first woman to senior role in Church
[10] Pope appoints six women to top roles on Vatican council in progressive step
[11] Sheffield cathedral to disband choir to take account of diversity
[12] Pope Francis decides against allowing married men to become priests
[13] Church of Sweden’s female priests outnumber men – but are paid less