The Engulfed Cathedral by William J. Tighe

The Engulfed Cathedral

The Latest from Sweden’s Avant-Garde Church

by William J. Tighe

In 1998 I reported on a gay “art” exhibition entitled “Ecce Homo” that debuted in Uppsala Cathedral and caused an uproar (“Berserker in the Cathedral,” Touchstone, November/December 1998). Since January 1, 2000, the Church of Sweden has been disestablished as the national church, although in such as way as to keep its liberal elite firmly in charge and to exclude traditionalist orthodox clergy from all hope of preferment (not least by banning the ordination of opponents of the ordination of women). Despite formal disestablishment, however, Uppsala Cathedral and its dean have continued their trailblazing role as promoters of moral and religious “pluralism” in the Church of Sweden. Within the last year there have been three episodes, each attracting considerable public attention, which have signaled their trend-setting role.

The first occurred on Monday of Holy Week, April 9, 2001. A principal feature of the traditional Swedish Lutheran Lent is a series of informal or non-liturgical church services termed Passionsandakter. The service, which was included in the Swedish church’s “Psalmbook” until the 1980s, consisted of hymns; a reading from “Our Lord Jesus Christ’s Passion Story,” a harmony of the four Gospels divided into acts and scenes compiled by Johann Bugenhagen (1485–1558); a sermon; prayers; and additional hymns.

Last Holy Week, the Dean of Uppsala invited Jonas Gardell to conduct a Passionsandakt on the subject of the sufferings of homosexuals from social prejudice. Gardell is a Swedish author and witty stand-up ribald comedian whose satires are often directed against opponents of homosexuality and who himself lives openly with the Finnish singer and storyteller (and convert to Roman Catholicism) Mark Levengood (who refers to Gardell as his “husband”). The title Passionsandakt contained an obvious double entendre on passion, in the sense both of erotic passion and the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. The service attracted a good deal of media attention, but worse was to follow.

Lesbian Blessing

For some years Sweden has accorded civil recognition to same-sex “partnerships,” unions that amount in most respects to “homosexual marriages.” In the Church of Sweden, as in other European Lutheran, Old Catholic, and Anglican churches, proposals to recognize and to “bless” such partnerships have occasioned prolonged and heated debates. Ever since the publication in 1994 of a church-sponsored report, “The Church and Homosexuality,” which proposed that while such “unions” were not “marriages” in the Christian sense, the Swedish Church should and could find a way to “bless” them, the matter has been controversial.

Because the disestablishment of the state church has occupied the attention of the Church Assembly from 1995 onwards, the report has never been formally discussed or debated in that body. But the Bishops’ Conference acted some years ago to provide guidelines for pastors to deal with situations in which homosexual couples might seek a church “blessing” for their partnership. These guidelines effectively allowed pastors to hold private ceremonies to bless the unions of same-sex couples who had already registered civil partnerships in accordance with the provisions of Swedish law, and the bishops also devised a “liturgy” for that purpose, which they subsequently distributed to the clergy.

On December 27, 2001, Anna-Karin Hammar, a cleric of the Church of Sweden, an avowed lesbian, and the sister of the archbishop of Uppsala, Karl-Gustav Hammar, registered such a partnership in the office of the mayor of Uppsala. Her partner is Ninna Edgardh Beckman, a divorced lay theologian who obtained her doctorate from Uppsala University after submitting a thesis on the “Feminist Liturgical Movement,” that is, the struggle to banish “patriarchalist language and terminology” from the worship of the Church.

After the registration, the “bridal party” of about 80 persons, including the archbishop, proceeded to the cathedral, where Mass was celebrated. This has caused controversy ever since. For the service to take place, the dean had to give her permission—not a problem, as she has stated that the battle for “homosexual rights” in the church is the “same struggle” as the battle for the ordination of women. But the celebrant at the service was actually the bishop of Lund, Christina Odenberg. (The archbishop was part of the congregation and played no liturgical or ceremonial role.) The booklet given out at the service read, “The Gift of Love: a Mass with intercession for a Registered Partnership,” but care was taken to collect the booklets afterwards, so for a time it remained unclear what had actually transpired.

A few days later, a conservative secular newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, published a report to the effect that a lesbian couple had been “blessed” at a service in Uppsala Cathedral. Subsequently, a more detailed story appeared in another newspaper, in which the author emphasized the disappearance of the service booklets after the service, as well as its character as a “provocation” of conservative opinion in the church.


William J. Tighe is Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.

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