A guest post from my friend, Samuli Siikavirta:

The biannual Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF) voted today for the approval of a prayer with and for registered same-sex civil partners (78 for – 30 against). This compromise view was said not to create a new rite or to signify an actual blessing for the partnership. However, it is considered to lie  somewhere between private pastoral care and public prayer: if the couple so wishes, guests can be invited and church buildings can be used for the prayer. The Congregation of Bishops will give more detailed instructions on how to conduct the prayer without elements that would falsely confuse it with the rite of the blessing of civil marriage (e.g. exchange of rings).

It has been stressed that the church’s doctrine and teaching on marriage solely between one man and one woman has not been changed. At the same time, however, same-sex partners may now be given the church’s “support” through private or public prayer, and the church shall put no stop to members of staff and clergy living in same-sex partnerships. Pastors and laymen shall remain their freedom of conscience, and no one ought to be forced to pray, the congregation of bishops have emphasised.

The decision is considered an intermediary compromise: conservatives think it has indeed changed the church’s view on Scripture, sin and sexual ethics by de facto approving of and supporting homosexual unions within the church. Liberals maintain that a vague prayer is not enough nor equal towards sexual minorities. Archbishop Kari Mäkinen has comforted the liberal majority with implicit statements according to which “it is good to advance on the basis of this [decision]”. It is highly possible that in the near future, the next synod may well have the required 3/4 majority to pass a rite of blessing that would officially change the church’s teaching and practice.

Approximately 78 % of Finns are members of the ELCF that is considered a “national church” with the right to collect church tax from its members and a portion of business tax from all businesses through state taxation. Its Church Law is also ratified by the Finnish Parliament. Political parties have the right to compile lists of candidates for church elections. Despite a considerable membership of 4.2 million, less than two per cent attend Sunday mass, and close to half do not believe in God. However, many Finns have strong sentiments towards their national church and wish to modernise its teachings.

In recent years, the ELCF has suffered from membership declining by approximately one percentage point per year. After a national TV debate on the same-sex issue last month alone, it was reported that some 40,000 left the church. The average leaver is a young adult to whom the church means little and who does not want to pay church tax.

In the first paragraph of the ELCF Church Law, the denomination defines its confession to be bound by the Holy Scriptures, the three ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran Confessions of the Book of Concord. The biggest disputes tearing the church apart consider this paragraph and its interpretation. For instance the Church of Sweden, a sister church of the ELCF, has no such statement in its church law, making liberal reforms much faster.

Numerous members and pastors who oppose women’s ordination and other reforms considered to violate against the church’s confessional basis have taken to their own measures. Some have founded their own congregations and ordained their own pastors and bishop in co-operation with the Mission Province of Sweden and Finland – an independent non-geographical Confessional Lutheran diocese with apostolic succession. The Mission Province has been strongly attacked by the national churches of Finland and Sweden, and their ordinations are not considered valid within the established churches. According to the Mission Province, taking independent steps to create an alternative diocesan structure by still remaining within the national churches is the only way to offer people a traditional Lutheran option that can help reform the church without having to leave the church. According to the established churches in Sweden and Finland, the Mssion province resembles an independent church body.

Despite promises to the contrary in 1986 when women’s ordination was accepted, the ELCF has more recently ceased to ordain and appoint pastors who cannot be in communion with ordained women. These traditionalists appeal to their freedom of conscience, whereas the bishops have pleaded to governmental anti-discrimination laws. Some traditionally-believing pastors have been defrocked, while others have even been sued and convicted of discrimination.

With the current intermediary decision to allow prayer for same-sex couples, more divisions are likely to arise. The conservative and liberal wings, that are already so far apart, will find even less common ground. Membership will continue to drop from both ends.

Samuli Siikavirta, MPhil, is a PhD student in theology at the University of Cambridge, UK.

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A translation from the FAQ page of Luther Foundation Finland.



Why do you not leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland if it is so bad?

It is the duty of Christians to abide in the vine by remaining in God’s word:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:1–7)

Christ Himself creates and sustains the Church with His word and sacraments. People can neither found nor sustain the Church with their own decisions or mutual contracts. That is why abiding in the vine becomes the central issue in Jesus’ parable — but not the only one. According to Jesus, abiding in the vine is remaining in His word. By His word, God prunes and cleanses His Church.

On this basis, the Lutheran Reformers did not imagine they could leave the Church and to start a new one, as if the Church was for them to found. Instead, by their teaching and practical actions they exhorted Christian to remain in God’s word and to work for the renewal of the Church of their time in order to remove unbiblical human inventions and abuses. The Catholic church reacted to this Reformatory programme with force, by driving out the shepherds and congregations who had adopted the Reformation, complete with excommunication and anathemas.

For a long time now, revival movements and organisations have been operating within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, which have worked for the renewal and building up our church on the Lutheran basis described above. In the midst of this church, God has given us a new birth in Holy Baptism, and it is there that He has been calling us again and again to repentance and renewal, both as individuals and as a community. Luther Foundation Finland and the people involved in it have never wanted anything other than to remain in God’s word and in the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord), which rightly interpret the Scriptures; and they have wanted to live out this their faith both as individuals and as a community. Luther Foundation wants to promote the creation of worshipping communities which aim to orient themselves and to strive according to the seven marks of the Church, which the Reformer, Martin Luther, sets out in his book, On the Councils and the Church (1539).

When we read the Reformer’s description of the seven marks of the Church, it is readily apparent that our church has not stepped off the road they mark only in the question of the Office of the Ministry. The question of the status of God’s word in its various dimensions has brought about a ??? conflict and wound into our church. The leadership of our church has cared for us, their sheep, by encouraging us to step aside if we have problems. We have done that. Now that the conflict has come to a head, it encourages us to leave the church. Is this the voice of a good shepherd or of a general manager?

In 1541, Luther justified the position of the evangelical congregations and their relationship with the Catholic church in these words:

Nobody can deny that we have in fullness and purity the preaching office and the word of God, that we teach and preach diligently, without adding any new, sectarian, or human doctrine, and in this we do just as Christ commanded and as the apostles and all of Christendom have done. We invent nothing new, but hold and remain true to the ancient word of God, as the ancient church had it. Therefore we are, together with the ancient church, the one true church, which teaches and believes the one word of God. So the papists once more slander Christ himself, the apostles, and all of Christendom when they call us innovators and heretics. For they find nothing in us but what belongs to the ancient church—that we are like it, and are one church with it.”