SWEDEN: Lutheran decision on same-sex marriage draws flak from Africa, England

October 26, 2009

A decision by the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden to allow same-sex marriages to be celebrated in churches has been criticized by Lutheran churches in Africa and also by the (Anglican) Church of England.

A majority of the Church of Sweden's general synod meeting in Uppsala decided on October 22 to allow same-sex weddings in church from November 1, six months after the state changed the law on marriage to encompass homosexual people.

Before the marriage law was changed, homosexual couples in Sweden could enter into registered partnerships, a possibility that has now been replaced by marriage. The Church of Sweden will now apply to the state to conduct legally recognized marriages under the new regulations.

Speaking to Swedish Radio, Bishop Martin Lind from Linköping who supported the general synod's decision noted that discussions that led to the vote had begun much earlier and led to the blessing of homosexual partnerships in Sweden some years ago.

"When we said yes to life-long homosexual love we said yes to the decisive part of it all. What is happening now is primarily a question of terminology: Can this also be called marriage?" he said.

However, Bishop Hans Stiglund from Luleå in the north of Sweden, who voted against the decision, said the decision had been hasty.

"In my way of looking at it marriage is defined as a relation between man and woman with no room for a relation between partners of the same sex," said Stiglund.

In Kenya, Bishop Zachariah Kahuthu, the leader of the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church, said his denomination's general assembly would "consider cutting off any links" with the Church of Sweden.

"The whole idea of homosexuality is against God's purpose of creation," Kahuthu told Ecumenical News International on October 23. "What we are all forgetting is that there is transformation. Homosexuals can find divine transformation. That's what I am advocating." Kahuthu said he feared that in some places, "the church is leading the world in the wrong direction."

Brighton Kilewa, general secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, said the denomination stands by a statement it issued in 2004, in which it said that homosexuality "is not a natural constitution of a human person anywhere."

In this statement the church said that, "legalizing, authorizing or accepting same-sex relationships are to undermine the institution of marriage and its sanctity. This institution is the foundation of community welfare. To sabotage it is to sabotage God's command that establishes this important institution."

In London, a spokesperson for the Church of England described the decision as being, "clearly at variance with the theology and practice of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as a whole."

The Church of Sweden and the Church of England are both part of the Porvoo Communion, an agreement between British and Irish Anglican churches and Lutheran churches in the Nordic and Baltic countries.

The Church of England spokesperson, Ben Wilson, said the definitive statement of its position is a letter sent in June to the archbishop of Sweden, Anders Wejryd, by the chairpersons of the denomination's Council for Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Advisory Group.

That letter warned the Church of Sweden that agreeing to expand the concept of marriage to include same-sex couples risked creating "immediate and negative" consequences for ecumenical relations.

A statement issued after an October 12-13 meeting of leaders of Porvoo churches said Wejryd had spoken about the Lutheran World Federation and how it is working through potentially divisive issues.

Wejryd belongs to the main governing body of the LWF, its council, which opened a six-day meeting near Geneva on October 22.

The LWF's president, Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told journalists on October 23 that he did not wish to comment on the Church of Sweden decision until Wejryd had arrived at the meeting and reported to the LWF council.

Hanson is the presiding bishop of the ELCA, which in August voted to allow men and women living in monogamous relationships with persons of the same sex to be ordained as clergy.

He said that that his own church tolerated four different positions on homosexuality held with biblical theological conviction.

"We have created a way for local congregations to make decisions about their pastoral leadership that honors that diversity within our church. But we have also reflected and embraced the diversity ... bound with scripture that binds our church," he stated.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if as Lutherans we could witness that those respected differences are honored and held with respect within the communion of the LWF," Hanson said. "That could be wonderful testimony of how to live in unity and in diversity."