The Church of Sweden, the largest religious institution in the country, has advised its clergy to avoid terms like “Lord” and “He” in worship services, to avoid implying that God is male. The gender-neutral wording is intended to make the Church more inclusive.
The recommendation is part of the Church’s new handbook on how to conduct services, which covers language, liturgy, music and other aspects of worship. The new version was approved by an annual autumn convention of the Church leadership in Uppsala on Thursday, and replaces the previous version from 1968. Work on the update began in 1997.
The national Evangelical Lutheran Church was the state religion of Sweden until 2000 and currently has over 6 million baptized members in a country of 10 million. Its head, Antje Jackelén, is one of a handful of female archbishops in Christian churches. She was elected in 2013 on a progressive platform.
Jackelén is well known for interpreting Christian dogma from a spiritual rather than literal standpoint. For instance, she said that those who see the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus, as “a biological issue have completely missed the point.” Likewise, she dismisses the idea that human gender is applicable to God. “Theologically, for instance, we know that God is beyond our gender determinations, God is not human,” the archbishop was quoted as saying by the Swedish national news agency TT.
Critics of the change say it undermines the concept of the Holy Trinity, which is referred to as “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” by Christians. They see the gender neutrality rules as politicizing matters of faith and a potential hurdle in spiritual communion between the Church of Sweden and other denominations. “You cannot replace 2,000 years of theology,” Christer Pahlmblad, an associate theology professor with Sweden’s Lund University, told Denmark’s Lutheran newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad. He said the move was “not smart” and amounted to disrespect for the theological heritage of Christianity.
The approval of the handbook came in a surprise compromise vote of the Church’s highest decision-making body, the General Synod, which brought together four major groups in the Church leadership, Swedish Radio reported. They agreed to set aside more disputed issues like the rules on music during services and resolve them through a subsequent separate process.
Sweden was ranked the EU’s leading nation in terms of gender equality last month by the European Institute for Gender Equality. Based on a number of criteria such as pay grades, education opportunities and violence against women, the country was assigned a score of 82.6 by the report, compared to the average of 66.2.
The Swedish government notes the work of the Church of Sweden, including the election of Archbishop Jackelén, on the gender equality section of its website. Women have been ordained as priests since 1960 and currently comprise 45 percent of the ordained clergy and an even greater share among the leadership.