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The importance of gender equality in religious societies

The importance of gender equality in religious societies

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Magnus Aronson /IKON

The really big symbolic changes sometimes happen without people noticing. The church in three of the five Nordic countries now has a woman as its highest leader. Compared to the rest of the world, this is where the Nordic region is now top when it comes to gender equality.

On 15 June 2014 Antje Jackelén became Arch Bishop of Uppsala diocese and therefore the top leader of the Church of Sweden. Since October 2011 Helga Haugland Byfuglien has held the same role in Norway, and in Iceland, where there is only one diocese, Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir was made Bishop on 24 June 2012.

That means 15 million out of the 26 million Nordic citizens live in countries where the highest authority in the largest religion is a woman. Regardless of your faith or whether you are religious at all, this is of great symbolic importance. 

The former Nordic national churches have more or less become independent from the state, and membership numbers have fallen. But religion plays a more important political role now than it has done for many decades.

Religious free schools

“Although Sweden has been spared the more extreme movements, we too see an increase in religious political influence. In 1991 the Christian Democrats entered parliament. A few years later there was a change to the national curriculum which said schools must also be based on ‘Christian traditions’. This still applies today,” writes Professor of social science Bo Rothstein in an op-ed in the daily Dagens Nyheter. 

“In addition we now have an education system where even fairly fundamentalist religious free schools receive full state support.” 

Religious societies represent the last place in our society where gender equality is not being observed. There is no authority which demands gender neutrality when religious societies appoint imams or rabbis. But the authorities can make state support conditional of these societies meeting certain demands.

Norwegian police recently carried out a raid on the Catholic church which stands accused of wrongfully claiming 50 million Norwegian kroner (€5.8m) in state support by finding “Catholic names” in the phone book and then list these as church members.


Antje Jackelén

Arch Bishop Antje Jackelén

Meanwhile value-based organisations are playing an increasingly important role in trying to heal the wounds in the wake of terror attacks, like 22 July 2011 in Norway. During a memorial ceremony that same summer an atheist participated next to a priest and an imam. 

Arch Bishop Antjé Jackelén was invited to meet the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas when he visited Sweden. Last year many were interested to see whether the far-right Sweden Democrats would remain seated in the church when she held a sermon as part of the official opening of parliament — the political party had left the ceremony in protest the year before. Shortly before a PR agency had called Antjé Jackelen the “Hottest name in Almedalen” (a week of political discourse on the island of Gotland).

Some of the most important initiatives come from outside of the established religious hierarchies, like when Norwegian Muslims formed a human chain outside Oslo’s synagogue after a terrorist shot two people dead in Copenhagen in February, including a guard at a synagogue there. 


Young Muslims

Fatima Dugan and Hibaq Farah, two out of more than 1,000 Muslims who formed a ‘Peace Ring’ outside the Oslo synagogue (Photo: Björn Lindahl)

Religious societies are organisations which literally have been around for thousands of years. When you talk about gender equality in religion there are different levels. The first, if we stick to Christianity, is whether women are able to practice the religion for themselves and to practice it with a degree of independence, for instance as nuns in a convent. 

The second level is whether women are allowed to preach, like priest do. The third level is who manages the priests and the fourth and top level is who manages the bishops. 

The Catholic church has nuns, but not female priests. The idea of a female cardinal or a female pope is still utopian. Both Islam and Judaism have female imams and rabbis, but for now these are mostly found in countries like the USA and Canada.

First Bishop in the Church of England

The Church of England has appointed its first female bishop for 500 years. That is the number of years since the Anglican, like the other Lutheran churches, separated from the Catholic church.

Libby Lane has been the Bishop of Stockport since 26 January this year. She is 49 and was ordained a priest in 1994. She is married to another priest and has two children. According to Prime Minister David Cameron it was “a historic decision and an important step forward for the Church towards greater equality in its senior positions”. Canada got its first female Anglican bishop as early as 2007.

It is not immediately obvious why gender equality has come the furthest within the Lutheran church.

Martin Luther himself did not think much of women, and blamed Eve for the cardinal sin.

He considered women to be “less rational than males in a scheme within which rational equated with better; they were more inclined toward emotion.”

“All women, in his view, were inclined toward gregariousness and chatter”, write Susan C Karant-Nunn and Merry E Wiesner-Hanks in the book ‘Luther on Women, A Sourcebook’.

Not altogether equal in Buddhism 

The fact that women are not allowed to participate in religion on an equal footing with men is more to do with tradition than with what the founders of religions themselves were thinking. Muhammed was enlightened for his time and gave women rights which they would have to wait hundreds of years to be given within Christianity.

Outside of the Abrahamic religions, it is mainly Buddhism which offers a certain degree of gender equality. Buddhist monks in India are called bhikkhu and a nun is called bhikkhuni.

In Buddha’s teachings there is no difference between woman and man. They have the same prerequisites for listening, learning and acquiring the Buddhist message. Buddha stressed that if a woman follows the noble eightfold path she can become enlightened and reach Nirvana, just like a man.

“Buddhism reached Sweden for real in the 1970s and 80s. But there were already a few Buddhists in the early 1900s. The first to declare herself a Buddhist was a Social Democrat called Kata Dalström. Half a century later, in 1955, Ingrid Wagner was ordained a Buddhist nun and was given the name Amita Nisatta together with her husband Karl-Henrik Wagner, who was given the name Anagarika Sugato,” writes Dietmar Dh. Kröhnert on

He points out that Sweden officially introduced freedom of religion only in January 1952. Before that it was illegal to leave the Church of Sweden.

In practical terms, however, there was no gender equality within Buddhism, since Buddhist nuns must follow 311 life rules and convent rules, while a male monk only needs to observe 227 rules. The 84 extra rules are linked to the gender. The first rule says a nun must always be subservient to a male monk, no matter how young he might be or how short a time he has been a monk for. A woman might have been a nun for a hundred years, while a man might have been a monk for one day, the religion states.

Women in the church

Women played central roles in the very first Christian organisation. In the year 352, however, the Council of Laodicea decided women should not be priests. The Roman Catholic church has kept this standpoint, but in the Protestant church you started seeing female priests/pastors in the mid 1700s in both European and American congregations.  

In the early 1900s Christian churches in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Scotland, England, Poland, France, Japan, Canada, Indonesia, Argentina, Africa and a range of other countries had female priest/provosts, according to Bibelfrågan, the largest Christian online information site in Swedish. 

Sweden has had female priests/pastors (e.g. within the Salvation Army) since the late 1800s. The Baptist church introduced female pastors in 1956 and the Church of Sweden did so in 1960.

Denmark has the largest number of female priests in the Nordic region, 56 percent. The Danish parliament removed the ban on female priests as early as 1947, and one year later the three first female priests were ordained — Johanne Andersen, Ruth Vermehren and Edith Brenneche Petersen.

In Norway Ingrid Bjerkås became the first female priest in 1960. Six out of nine bishops did not want to recognise her. But Norway was the first Nordic country to get a female bishop, Rosemarie Köhn, in 1993. At the time she became the world’s third female bishop in the Lutheran church, after German Maria Jepsen in April 1992 and American April Larsson in June 1992.

Finland is the one Nordic country where opposition to female priests has been biggest. Four different votes between 1963 and 1986 were needed to secure the three quarters majority needed at the synod. The change came into force in 1988 and in March that year the first female priests were ordained. In 1990 Finland allowed female bishops, but Irja Askola became the first female bishop only in 2010. 

Iceland got its first female priests in 1974.


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