Defining moments # 10

The journey for equal rights within the Church of Sweden

4:42 min

It took almost four decades of discussion before the Lutheran Church of Sweden started allowing women to become priests and bishops in 1958. 

It's now been over half a century since the Church of Sweden broke its all-male tradition and started allowing women to become both priests and bishops. The formal decision was taken by the Church Assembly, the church's decision-making body, in 1958, but the discussions had started decades earlier, says Eva Brunne, a bishop with the Church of Sweden in Stockholm.

"The discussions date back until 1919, that was the first time that the Church of Sweden started discussing whether women should be allowed to become priests or bishops. I think it started back then because it was around the same time as women fought for the right to vote, and then of course the Church is conservative and that's why the decision didn't come until 1958", says Brunne.

Eva Brunne has been the Bishop of Stockholm since 2009 and was ordained 20 years after women were first allowed to wear the white collar. She says that the question whether to allow the ordination of women or not arose ever so often during the almost four decades that it took before the decision was made, but many were opposed to the idea of female priests and bishops and tried to stifle the discussion by looking up passages in the bible that could be used against it or by giving women other tasks and responsibilities within the church instead.

"One part of the debate was picking words from the bible like 'A woman should be quiet in the parish, if she wants to know something she should ask her husband at home', that's a quote from St. Paul, that was one part of it. Another argument was that women were not strong enough, it's tough work and you need to have a good voice and so on. But, as we were a state church by then, the government and the parliament helped us and pushed the Church Assembly to allow both male and female priests", Brunne says.

The decision was controversial at the time, even though Sweden's neighbouring countries Denmark and Norway had had female priests since the Second World War, but today, a growing number of women are training to become priests in Sweden, and in Stockholm, women priests are already in majority. This change, however, has taken decades, says Brunne, adding that it's still a slow process in other parts of the country.

"It was never a problem in Stockholm. One of the women who was ordained in 1960 died last year and she always said that she was very well welcomed in her parish in Stockholm. Then, of course, people got used to the thought of meeting female priests because of how the debate was progressing, and many even waited for the change to come. But then it's different in other parts of Sweden", says Brunne.

Two years ago, the Church of Sweden elected the country's first female archbishop, Antje Jackelén. The decision made headlines all over Sweden, but some people within the church were afraid that having a female archbishop would have a negative effect on the church's relationship with the Vatican. Their concerns, however, were allayed earlier this year when Jackelén became the first female archbishop to be welcomed at the Vatican, says Brunne.

"When she was elected, some of the conservatives said that 'now is not a good time to have ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church because we have a woman as an archbishop', but Pope Francis and Jackelén showed them that there is no problem at all", says Brunne.