Will marriage theology break the Church of Finland?

Will marriage theology break the Church of Finland?

Scandinavian established churches have been among the first to accept same-sex marriage. The Church of Finland has not yet done so, but it is a topic of intense conversation in the Church. Will marriage theology divide the church for all, or is it possible to find unity amidst conflicting worldviews?

Scandinavian Lutheran churches have been among the first Christian denominations to accept same-sex marriage. Sweden allowed same-sex marriage in 2009[1], although half of the bishops opposed it.[2] The Church of Denmark allowed same-sex marriage in 2012[3], the Church of Iceland in 2015, and the Church of Norway in 2016[4][5]. The Church of Finland has not been following this trail, as it has not yet accepted same-sex marriage but has only approved special prayers for same-sex couples following a civil union or marriage.

Disagreeing bishops looking for unity
The bishops of the Church of Finland were asked to make a statement on where the Church stands on this issue. They spent two years trying to find agreement, but in the statement that was published in August 2020, they mainly concluded that they disagree on the subject. Instead of providing a unified view on marriage, they emphasised how important it is to find unity and respect in the Church despite all the differences. The bishops suggested different models for handling the issue in the Church in a way that could be accepted by people with different opinions on marriage. One of these models is to have two parallel theological understandings of marriage in the Church. One would be the traditional idea where marriage is seen as a union of a man and a woman. The other would allow same-sex marriage in the church. Behind these two theologies are very different views on the concept of family and Bible interpretation.[6]

The question, then, is if this scenario is possible. When asked, most pastors probably would not say that marriage theology is central to the Christian faith. Nonetheless, it has become one of the main dividers inside the Church, in which many find it hard to make concessions. At least it would require an atmosphere of respect and acceptance of differing theological views. Even if over half of pastors of the Church of Finland would like to marry same-sex couples, 30 percent still says they would not do that in any circumstances.[7]

Pastors’ freedom of conscience
In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, pastors were granted the freedom to choose whether they wanted to marry same-sex couples, which gave more conservative pastors a chance to stay and work in the Church. However, it is not granted that this freedom of conscience will last. In Iceland, the Church first started to bless same-sex relationships in 2008.[8] When same-sex marriage was accepted in the Church of Iceland, pastors were required to wed same-sex couples.[9] In Sweden, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has demanded that pastors should not have freedom of conscience on the matter of same-sex marriage.[10] In Finland, there have also been attempts to apply the law of gender-neutral marriage to force pastors to wed same-sex couples.[11] There is the possibility, thus, that after accepting same-sex marriages, there would be growing pressure to force all pastors to wed same-sex couples.

Respect or division?
Lutheran churches are the largest denominations in Scandinavia. In recent decades, they have been losing members at a growing speed and been pushed more to the margins of society.[12] Therefore, the churches are pressured to make a decision in this matter that will gain acceptance from the general public.

Conservative Christians are strongly committed to, and active in, the Church. Ignoring their views could have long-lasting effects on the Church’s future. It is easy to criticise the bishops on not making a clear stand. However, it is an attempt to solve an almost impossible situation. In this current sensitive situation, there are no easy ways out.

Pietari Hannikainen

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[1] Gays Win Marriage Rights – Radio Sweden
[2] Swedish church not so gay-friendly | Andrew Brown
[3] Gay Danish couples win right to marry in church
[4] Norway’s Lutheran Church embraces same-sex marriage
[5] Norway’s Lutheran church votes in favor of same-sex marriage
[6] Piispainkokouksen vastaus kirkolliskokouksen pyyntöön
[7] Survey: Most priests would marry gay couples if permitted by church
[8] First Lesbian Couple in Iceland “Marries” in Church
[9] From Iceland — Icelandic Priests Cannot Deny Gay Marriage
[10] Swedish Prime Minister: Priests Should Be Forced to Perform Same-Sex Weddings
[11] Oikeustieteen professori: Kirkolla on velvollisuus vihkiä samaa sukupuolta olevat
[12] Kuinka kauan kirkko kestää jäsenkatoa? “Vuoden 2025 jälkeen alkaa todella tuntua”