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Women Priests Becoming Predominant In Swedish Church

June 17, 1988

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) _ Three decades after breaking the all-male tradition in the Church of Sweden, more and more women are becoming priests, and some think the clergy could become a female profession.

The Lutheran state church was one of the last bastions of conservatism to yield to feminism in this open-minded country, where sexual equality has long been a watchword.

Krister Stendahl, the bishop of Stockholm and former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, calls it a blessing that a growing number of women are wearing the white collar.

″One of the exciting things in our times and in theology is that women are beginning to think not just equal to men, but are trying to find whether they have insights″ which men do not have, the bishop told Swedish radio.

Annicka Kronberg, a former actress ordained in January, said she found ″most men in my group (at divinity school) understood the value of having more women and how we can enrich the language, the forms and behavior″ in church.

Ms. Kronberg’s decision to leave a successful stage career for the pulpit has drawn attention to the dramatic change since 1960 when the first woman was ordained.

In the Stockholm Diocese, which sponsors special ″feminist services,″ nearly half of the 481 priests are women. Women comprise about 20 percent of the 4,913 priests throughout the country.

Last year, 43 women were among the 96 graduates of the Theological Institute of Uppsala University. The female enrolment was 53 percent, up from 38 percent 10 years ago, and the school has introduced a course on ″feminine theology.″

″The question is now whether women priests are not actually becoming the majority,″ said Eva Brunne, 34, a church official whose work includes promoting feminist views in the church service.

A predominance of women has pitfalls, said Ms. Brunne. ″It would mean that the priesthood would become more and more of a nursing profession,″ and the authoritative ″father″ image of the priest might be lost, she said.

Both men and women are needed, she said, and a 50-50 division would be best.

The 400-year-old Lutheran Evangelical Church of Sweden is administered by Parliament and its bishops are appointed by the government. Parish priests are chosen by local church councils and are approved by the government. In Swedish, the word priest is used for Catholic and Protestant clergymen.

The church is financed by an ecclesiastical tax totalling about $800 million included in the income tax bill. Non-church members are exempt from 70 percent of the church tax.

Most Christians in Sweden belong to the state church except those who sign a declaration leaving it. The church counts as members 92 percent of the population of 8.4 million, though only about 10 percent are regular churchgoers.

Thirty-six other religious groups are recognized in Sweden, including Catholics, Moslems, Jews and various Protestant denominations, some of which broke away from the established church over the last century.

A few churchmen still resist the female influx. In the Diocese of Goteborg, Bishop Bertil Gartner’s refusal to ordain women has blown up into a national issue over the church’s ecclesiastic independence.

Civil Minister Bo Holmberg, who oversees church affairs for the government, has urged the bishop to reverse his policy, but the churchman said he would follow his conscience. The Central Committee of Women’s Organizations has demanded his resignation.

Birgitta Vidman of the Theological Institute believes one reason for the rising number of women priests is the diminishing status of the priesthood as a profession and the low salaries.

″It seems that men, to a higher degree than women, look for the money and prestige that goes with a job,″ she said.

Real power also is being stripped from the clergy, as other state institutions take over secular responsibilities traditionally administered by the church, such as registering births and deaths.

″I don’t think women, deep down, are so power hungry and sensitive to prestige,″ said Ms. Kronberg.

Ms. Kronberg is still listed as an employee of one of Stockholm’s leading theaters, and says she may consider an occasional role in the future.

The gap between acting and preaching is not necessarily wide, she said, recalling that her first Mass was ″much worse than a premier.″ Both professions probe questions like ″the relationship between people, how we live and should live, how we make our choices.″

She said her decison 10 years ago to study for the priesthood dismayed some of her family, and may have contributed toward her divorce. She said, ″My son told me, ‘Don’t become a priest, Mum. It’s so boring in church’.″

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