The next few weeks are going to be a defining time for the Church of Sweden. In its annual meeting on 22 October, the church synod – the Swedish Lutheran church’s highest decision-making body – will decide whether or not to permit same-sex marriages and, consequently, whether or not to retain its right to marry people at all.
Since May, same-sex marriage has been legal in Sweden. But the church, long troubled by the debate around homosexuality, was granted a temporary right to follow the old marriage laws and only marry heterosexual couples. But time is running out. The transition period ends in May 2010. As this will be the synod’s final meeting before that deadline, a decision will have to be reached this month about what to do.
A majority of the synod is expected to vote for gay marriages. The church board has recommended abiding by the new law and even the church’s theological commission stated recently that it sees no obstacles for same-sex marriages in the Bible. The law allows for individual priests in any religion to refuse to marry couples if it is against their religious views but if the synod says yes, all of the church’s congregations will be obliged to offer gay marriages in their churches.
Meanwhile, critics are becoming more vociferous. Many priests feel that gay marriages have no place in the church and are campaigning for the church to turn its back on the marriage business altogether. And this month the opponents of same-sex marriages gained several new seats in the synod.
But the real question is whether the church really can afford to say no.
However the Bible is interpreted, the Swedish church needs its licence to marry people. After the church was separated from the state in 2000, Swedes no longer automatically become church members when they are born, nor do they automatically pay the membership fee – previously called the church tax – which amounts to 0.98 per cent of a member’s income. Everyone is free to choose whether or not to join the church. As a result, the church is currently losing around 50,000 followers a year, and several attempts to modernise the institution – ad campaigns, blogs and Twitter prayers to mention a few – have not managed to change that trend. The Swedish church calls itself “the largest members’ club in the country”, but its seven million followers are a disengaged bunch. Only 11.8 per cent voted in the last church elections. Most do not attend services on Sundays and quite a few are only church members so that they can have a church wedding or get their children baptised. Giving up the right to marry could be the last straw for a church that is already battling against declining interest.
The other option for the church is to listen to its conservative wing, give up the marriage licence and stop trying to please everyone. It would probably lead to a new decline in membership; a majority of Swedes supported same-sex marriages before the new law was decided on, and many might leave the church in protest. But is that, in the end, such a catastrophe? A small, passionate membership base might be easier to tend to than a large one that doesn’t really care. There are, after all, many people looking for religion in Sweden (just not in the Church of Sweden). Look at the success of the Catholic church, to which about 100 Swedes convert every year in search of strict moral guidance and deeply religious ceremonies.
Maybe the Church of Sweden has a future not as “the biggest members’ club in the country”, but a small one, not very much in touch with the rest of the society but at least loved by its members.