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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The four ordinands in their new cassocks

The newly formed Consistory of Luther Foundation Finland

It’s odd …

A) How someone is still, 20 years …
B) How someone is still, 2000 years …

A) … after the General Synod’s democratic decision …
B) … after the common history of the Church arising from the Bible …

A) … knowing that the nation may abandon the church …
B) … knowing that the Lord Himself may abandon the church …

A) … and the church may lose the blessing of the governing authorities …
B) … and the church may lose the blessing of God …

A) … and what will then happen to the church’s finances and future …
B) … and what will then happen to the church’s finances and future …

A) … when all this opposing is based only on an interpretation of the Bible …
B) … when all this opposing is based only on an interpretation of the Bible …

A) … which is supported by a small minority in the church …
B) … which is supported by a small minority in Christendom and its history …

A) … can still think like that and then obstinately make life difficult for others …
B) … can still think like that and then obstinately make life difficult for others …

A) … when it would be easier and more honest to leave the church and start another …
B) … when it would be easier and more honest to leave the church and start another …

A) … so it’s really odd why they don’t draw the right conclusions.
B) … so it’s really odd why they don’t draw the right conclusions.

Translated from http://www.luthersaatio.fi/uutiset/kummallista-perspektiiveja-kirkolliseen-debattiin.html

Irja AskolaLWF General Secretary Congratulates Helsinki Bishop-Elect

GENEVA, 3 June 2010 (LWI) – The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) General Secretary Rev. Dr Ishmael Noko today congratulated Rev. Irja Askola and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF) on the election of pastor Askola as the bishop of Helsinki. She becomes the first female bishop in the Finnish Lutheran church.

“I congratulate bishop-elect Askola and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland for taking this milestone step forward,” said Noko in a statement issued here on 3 June. “It is an important sign that a woman has been elected to the office of bishop in yet another LWF member church,” he added.

The LWF general secretary pointed out that bishop-elect Askola “is well known in the ecumenical world and brings enormous ecumenical experience to her new post.”

Askola, 57, is an assistant to the bishop in the diocese of Espoo. She worked at the Geneva-based Conference of European Churches from 1991 to 1999. Noko said, “We know her to be committed to the inclusive ministry of men and women throughout the church.”

Askola was elected in the second round of balloting today, winning 591 votes, with Rev. Matti Poutiainen getting 567.

Current Helsinki bishop Dr Eero Huovinen, who is also LWF vice president for the Nordic region, is expected to retire this autumn. Askola will take up her new position in September.

Women have been ordained in Finland since 1986, but while some, including Askola, have been nominated for the episcopate, none made it to the final balloting.

The ELCF has some 4.5 million members, representing over 80 percent of Finland’s population. It joined the LWF in 1947. (284 words)

Source: Lutheran World Federation