According to the Finnish constitution, the state is neutral in matters of religion. All citizens have the right to freedom of religion. Since the Freedom of Religion Act came into force in 1923, the ties between the church and the state have been gradually severed. The state still holds legislative but not executive power over the daily matters of the church. The two national churches, the ELCF and the Finnish Orthodox Church, operate under public law. Although the ELCF has internal autonomy to manage its own affairs, the national Parliament must ultimately ratify the Church Act in the form proposed by the church, either by accepting it or rejecting it altogether (Kääriäinen 2011). In the past 30 years, all Nordic majority Lutheran churches, with the exception of Denmark, have become more autonomous in relation to the state. Nevertheless, in 2019, all Nordic Lutheran churches still enjoy constitutional preference, though the state’s legislative authority over the church has been restricted and the state executive authority over the church has either been annulled or restricted. Among its Nordic neighbours, the ELCF is the most independent from the state (Kühle et al. 2018).
The general administrative bodies of the ELCF are the Church Synod, the Church Council and the Bishops’ Conference. The highest decision-making organ is the Synod, which includes 64 lay representatives, 32 representatives of the clergy, all bishops, a Sámi representative and a representative of the Council of State. Members of the parish boards elect lay representatives and the pastors of the dioceses elect representatives of the clergy to the Synod. Their term is for four years and the Synod gathers twice a year. It is a task of the Synod to decide upon the changes in the Church Act and the Church Order, and therefore the issues concerning marriage fall within the Synod’s authority. These kinds of changes require a three-fourths majority vote in the Synod (Kääriäinen et al. 2009, pp. 141–142).
The ELCF is the largest religious denomination in Finland. Even though its membership rate is declining, in 2017 70.8% of the population still belonged to it. Those members of the ELCF eligible to get married in the church can choose either a civil marriage or have their marriage officiated by the church. Church rites play an important role in the lives of Finnish people. In 2017 about 56% of those church members who entered into marriage had their marriage officiated by the church and 8% of church members’ civil marriages were blessed by the church (Kirkkohallitus 2019). The amendment to the Marriage Act that entered into force on 1 March 2017 enabled same-sex couples to enter into marriage. For those church members who want to enter into a same-sex union a civil marriage is thus far the only alternative accepted by the church. Out of all marriages contracted in 2018 about 1.6% were same-sex unions (Official Statistics of Finland 2019). It is not possible to find out how many of these couples were members of the ELCF.
Attitudes toward homosexuality in Finland first started to change during the latter part of the 20th century (Juvonen 2015, pp. 71–78). Homosexuality was criminalised until 1971 and it took a further ten years for the Board of Health to remove homosexuality from its list of illnesses (1981). Joining the European human rights agreement in 1990 and the European Union in 1995 influenced perceptions of homosexuality: it was now perceived more from the human rights point of view. Furthermore, several public individuals started to speak openly about their homosexuality. In 1995 the Parliament passed the bill forbidding discrimination including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The 21st century has witnessed a rapid change towards more accepting views and attitudes to homosexuality leading to legislative changes on same-sex relationships (Juvonen 2015, pp. 79–99). In 2002 the law on registered same-sex partnership came to power followed by the Acts on Transsexuality (2002), Fertility treatment (2006) and Adoption within the family (2009). Since 2002 several members of the Parliament have proposed that the marriage law should be made available to couples of the same sex, but without result. However, in 2013 a civil initiative led to the change of the marriage law. The bill was passed in 2015 and came to power on March 1, 2017, allowing couples of the same sex to get married (OS 2016).
The consequences of the Partnership Act for the church started the discussion in the ELCF. The conservative groupings opposed any legal acceptance of homosexual relations and the Bishops’ Council was divided over the issue (Juvonen 2015, pp. 124–131). In 2002 two motions were made to the Church Synod. The first one proposed that there should be a clause in the Church Order denying employment in the church to any person who has registered a same-sex partnership. The motion abated in the Synod. The second motion suggested that the Church Synod should work towards preparing an alternative formula for the blessing of the same-sex partnerships. The following year the Synod asked the Bishops’ Council to look into the consequences of the 2002 Partnership Act for the church (PK 2010, pp. 3–6).
The process moved on slowly. In 2005 the Bishops’ Council appointed a committee to look into the matter and after four years’ work the report was handed over to the bishops (KRP 2009). In 2010 the Bishops’ Council presented its report to the Church Synod. Some bishops saw that the blessing of a same-sex union was possible, some opposed it. Both groups based their views on the Bible and the Lutheran Confession but came to different interpretations. The bishops came to the conclusion that praying with and for the couple falls within the realm of private life and not within the holy rites of the church (PK 2010). This was met favourably by the Church Synod. In February 2011, on the basis of the decision of the Church Synod, the Bishops’ Council pronounced a pastoral directive: pastoral care can include praying with and for people of the same sex who have registered their partnership. However, it was emphasised that such a prayer does not mean blessing the same-sex partnership. It was not allowed to use parts of the marriage liturgy, such as questions, promises, exchanging of rings, declaration of partnership, and the blessing of the union (PO 2011). Public opinion about the directive was divided. Some people found it difficult to understand why the church wished to deny God’s blessing on the basis of sexual orientation. Others who perceived homosexuality as a sin saw even praying for and with a same-sex couple as diverting from God’s word.
The changes in the legislation on discrimination in 2014 (Non-discrimination Act 1325/2014) forced the ELCF to specify their consequences for the church in employment situations, including the question of an employee’s sexual orientation. The Church Act and the Church Order of the ELCF do not state anything on sex or sexual orientation of persons employed in the church. Therefore, the 2014 legislation on discrimination apply regardless of the type of work, including employment for ordained ministry. In practice this meant that sexual orientation could not be a reason for not employing a person or for terminating his/her employment (KHyk 2015). This is the case also with those officially registered religious communities who have not stated specific restrictions for employment in their Community Order or Confession of Faith. On issues of employment the Orthodox Church in Finland follows the statutes stipulated by the Orthodox Canonic Law (Helander 2017).
Anticipating the gender-neutral Marriage Act to come into power, the ELCF presented a legal report on its implications to the church. Even though pastors had the right to officiate marriages, they were not obliged to marry same-sex couples. Furthermore, if pastors married a same-sex couple, the marriage became legally binding even though the pastor had acted against the praxis of the church and consequently, according to the Church Act, would face penalties (OS 2016). The legal report did not calm the situation. Several pastors expressed their theological views on same-sex couples’ right to be married in the church and their willingness to marry them.
In 2016 a motion was made to the Church Synod asking the Church Council to investigate whether the church should withdraw from its right to officiate marriages. The Synod discussed the motion and, since matters related to doctrine and rites belong within the authority of the Bishops’ Council, decided to send it for further preparation to the Bishops’ Council in cooperation with the Church Council (PK 2017). The investigation ordered by the Bishops’ Council was delivered in September 2017 (Helander 2017). While the investigation was going on, a motion was made to the Church Synod proposing that same-sex couples who fulfil the other criteria for their marriage to be officiated by the church should also have the right to marry in church (Edustaja-aloite 1/2017).
The gender-neutral Marriage Act caused individual congregations to take a stand on whether same-sex couples could use churches and other congregation premises to celebrate a marriage solemnised by the civil authorities. Some congregations welcomed all couples to all their premises regardless of gender, some limited the use of the church to heterosexual couples while same-sex couples were welcome only to use other premises like the parish hall. There were also congregations who limited the use of their premises to celebrate the marriage of a man and a woman only. No single congregation has left the ELCF due to the marriage controversy. However, some of the revival movements operating within the church have, in spite of doctrinal differences, joint together and thus strengthened their profile as defenders of the traditional moral values. Such polarization between the conservative wing of the ELCF and Finnish society is evident primarily around socio-moral issues related to family and sexuality (e.g. Kanckos 2012). The conservatives in the ELCF also back their views with an ecumenical argument since the Catholic Church in Finland, the Orthodox Church, Pentecostals and the Evangelical Free Church of Finland perceive marriage as a union between a man and a woman (Helander 2017).
The question of whether the ELCF should also officiate same-sex marriages became more acute when some of its pastors started, on the basis of their theological convictions, to officiate such marriages without waiting for permission from the church. They also justified their action by the fact that the Church Act or Church Order do not state clearly that the marriage is only between a man and a woman; Finnish has no third-person pronouns specific to the gender of the person. Pastors who have performed same-sex marriages followed the ritual form of the Church Handbook. Furthermore, the majority of church members supported same-sex marriage (Helander 2017). Over 80 pastors from all dioceses have publicly stated that they are willing to marry same-sex couples. About 61 pastors have been said to have done so, but only six pastors have been penalised by their Diocesan Chapters. The penalties have varied from an oral reproof to a written notice placing pastors in the ELCF dioceses in a legally different position. Three of the four pastors receiving this notice have appealed, first to their Diocesan Chapter and, after receiving a negative reply, to the court of law. By early 2019 over 100 same-sex couples have either been married in the ELCF or had their registered partnership blessed by a pastor (Seppälä 2019).
The reasons for the discrepancy between legislation, church members and the views of the church leaders and decision makers need to be investigated further. The election of the members of the Church Synod, the church’s highest decision-making body, is done by an electorate chosen in the church elections. Generally in these elections the conservative members seem to be more active than the liberal ones. Second, matters of doctrine and changes in the liturgical handbooks require a three-fourth majority vote. Therefore, changes in issues which deal with values and norms face hard opposition from the conservatives who tend to uphold the traditional status quo and its related values.