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Same-sex marriage

There has been a rapid change towards more accepting views and attitudes to homosexuality in Finland in the 21st century, which has led to legislative changes on same-sex relationships. The registered same-sex partnerships came into force in 2002. Furthermore, the amendment to the Marriage Act was accepted in 2014 and it came into force on March 1, 2017, enabling same-sex couples to enter into marriage.

Church rites have a significant role in the lives of Finnish people of which 68.6% (2019) belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF). Churches and some other religious communities have the right to officiate at a wedding and all the religious communities can apply for that right. When priests officiate at a wedding, they do so as public authorities; the marriage becomes official without the involvement of other public authorities.

Church and the state have gradually seceded in Finland since the Freedom of Religion Act coming into force in 1923. The ELCF and the Finnish Orthodox Church are national churches and they operate under the public law. The ELCF has not approved the right for same-sex couples to marry in the church, whereas 51% of the Finnish population and 51% of the ELCF members are favourable to the idea of same-sex couples having that right (2019). The ELCF has been polarised around this issue from within.

The ELCF has internal autonomy to manage its own affairs, but the state holds legislative power; the Parliament has the responsibility of ratifying the Church Act by either accepting or rejecting it altogether. Issues such as marriage fall within the synod’s authority which is the highest decision-making organ in the ELCF. Changes require a three-fourths majority vote in the Synod. Legally, priests attend a public office which is bound by laws but also by the church order and confession. Bishops, then, have a duty to support and guide priests in their work.

Members of the ELCF can choose either a civil marriage or a marriage officiated by the church. Officially, for church members wanting to enter into a same-sex union, a civil marriage is the only alternative accepted by the church. Therefore, even though it is legally possible for priests to officiate at a marriage for same-sex couples, they may receive penalties from the church for doing so.

Following the discussion of the consequences of the Partnership Act, some bishops considered that the blessing of a same-sex union was possible while some opposed it. The conclusion was that praying with and for the couple falls within the realm of private life, not within the holy rites of the church. A pastoral directive based on the decision of the Church Synod was pronounced by the Bishops’ Council in 2010: praying with and for people of the same sex who have registered their partnership can be included in pastoral care; however, such a prayer does not mean blessing same-sex partnership, and, using parts of the marriage liturgy is not allowed.

Anticipating for the gender-neutral Marriage Act to come into force, the ELCF presented a legal report stating that pastors would have the right to officiate marriages, but they would not be obliged to marry same-sex couples. However, if pastors married a same-sex couple, acting against the praxis of the church and the Church Act, the marriage would become legally binding, but the pastor would receive penalties.

The gender-neutral Marriage Act triggered different kinds of responses inside the ELCF: Some congregations welcomed all couples to use all their premises for the marriage ceremony while some limited the use of the church to heterosexual couples, welcoming same-sex couples to use only other premises such as the parish hall. Other congregations allowed only heterosexual couples to use their premises to celebrate the marriage.

Furthermore, individual pastors have used their theological conviction as a basis to officiate same-sex marriages without permission from the church. They have justified their action by stating that the Church Act or Church Order does not clearly claim the marriage to be only between a man and a woman (Finnish has no gendered third-person pronouns). Altogether, at least 160 pastors (2021) from all dioceses have publicly pronounced their willingness to marry same-sex couples and at least 77 have been said to have done so (2020). However, only some have been penalised by their Dioceasan Chapters, receiving from an oral reproof to a written notice that places a pastor in the ELCF dioceses in a different legal position. Three of four pastors receiving a notice have appealed to their Dioceasan Chapter and, after receiving a negative response, to the court of law (2019). Over 100 same-sex couples have either been married in the ELCF or had their registered partnership blessed by a pastor by early 2019.

In 2017, a priest received a written caution from the cathedral chapter of Oulu for officiating a wedding for a same-sex couple. In summer 2019, the Administrative Court of Northern Finland repealed the given judgement, stating that there is no provision added in the Church Act or in the Church Order on the gender of the partners to be married. The cathedral chapter of Oulu took the case to the Supreme Administrative Court which repealed the court order of the Administrative Court of Northern Finland. The cathedral chapter thus has the right to give a penalty to a priest who officiated a wedding for a same-sex couple and will have the same right in the future as well. Bishops have, however, laid out that the penalties should be moderate. Every cathedral chapter makes their decisions independently.

While no congregation has left the ELCF due to the marriage controversy, some revival movements of the church have joined to strengthen their profile as defenders of the traditional moral values. This reflects the polarisation around socio-moral issues especially related to family and sexuality, which is evident between the conservative wing of the ELCF and the Finnish society (see also the discussion on media around these issues: Religion and freedom of speech). Conservative views are also backed with an ecumenical argument: marriage is still perceived as the union between a man and a woman by the Catholic Church in Finland, the Orthodox Church, Pentecostals and the Evangelical Free Church of Finland. However, it is likely that the polarisation will diminish over time and that more religious people will accept same-sex marriage.

Read more:
Ketola, Kimmo & Helander, Eila (2019) Same-sex marriage and the Lutheran Church in Finland: How rapid change in values and norms challenges the church and its decision-making. Z Religion Ges Polit (2020) 4:315–334.

D 25 June 2021    AAnita Sipilä

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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