The weeks leading up to Christmas should be a joyous time for the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In Finland though, the past month has turned out to be quite the opposite: in a mass exodus following a gay rights debate on national television, over 40,000 people have given up their membership of the church.
Church membership in Finland is optional and 78.5 per cent of the population are members. Since 2003, resignation has been made easy by an organisation called Vakaumusten Tasa-arvo (rough translation: “the equality of convictions”). VATA runs a website which allows people to resign online, simply by filling out a form and sending an email. Last year, more than 40,000 people left the church. For 2010, the figure is already almost 70,000. This is sure to be a sad record year for the church.
What prompted this latest burst of resentment was a live television debate on national channel YLE TV2, titled “Gay Evening”, where conservative representatives from the church called homosexuality a sin and questioned gay couples’ ability to raise a family.
“The position of gay people in the church has been a stone in the shoe for many people, and it seems that the Gay Evening unleashed these repressed feelings,” says Petri Karisma, one of the founders of eroakirkosta.fi, the resignation website.
For the church, the Gay Evening has been a huge PR disaster. The discussion was aired on a Tuesday, but it wasn’t until the following Sunday that the archbishop distanced the official church from the conservative views, in a television interview. When the scale of the problem became apparent, the church sprang into action. Five out of Finland’s nine bishops announced that they support blessing gay couples’ registered partnerships in the church (Finland allows gay couples to register their partnership but not to get married).
The crisis culminated in last week’s General Synod, where the church, after an intensive discussion, decided that praying for and with gay couples will be possible from now on. A small step, but an important signal. As Stefan Wallin, Finland’s Minister for Culture said at the Synod opening, “This meeting will show where the church is headed. Is it for everybody, or just for those who think alike?”
At the same time, the gay issue alone does not explain the resignations. In VATA’s survey, many people simply gave lack of faith as their reason for leaving. The FAQs on VATA’s website also say a lot about people’s motivations for being a member of the church: Can I become a godmother even if I’m not a member? Can I still get married in the church? Where are non-members buried?
While church membership is a ticket to the luxuries of church life – weddings, Christenings and funerals – it seems Finland is losing the faith.