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Finnish church marks 25 years of women priests

This month marks a quarter of a century since the first women priests were inaugurated in Finland. Although there are now around a thousand women priests across the country, women remain under-represented among the higher ranks of the priesthood.

Irja Askola
Irja Askola, Finland's first female priest. Image: Yle

On 6 March 1988, 94 women from across the country were ordained. The anniversary was celebrated on Sunday at an event in Helsinki.

Among the first group to join the priesthood was Irja Askola, who is now Bishop of Helsinki.

"It was a very touching moment, as I had waited for it for so long," said Askola. "When I graduated in theology, classmates who matriculated at the same time went straight to parishes. I was forced to wait for 13 years."

The issue was first raised in 1963, then again in the 70s, but both times the proposal failed to win the support of three quarters of the church’s general assembly. The assembly finally accepted the proposal in 1986.

Hate mail and threats for would-be women priests

"Some Finnish women transferred to Sweden to become priests," remembers Askola. "Of course we received a lot of support from men too, but the hate mail, accusations and threats were real."

Oulu was the last diocese to ordain women priests when it began to do so in the early 2000s. Men cannot now refuse to co-operate with women priests, as had been the case before.

"Workplace discrimination is no longer acceptable," notes Askola. "In our parish there is not even talk of ’women priests’, they are simply priests."

Much progress has been made since 1988, but women are still not equally represented in the upper echelons of the church. Some forty percent of Finnish parish priests, around a thousand of the nation's clergy, are women, but they are under-represented at senior levels. For example in Helsinki, just four out of 33 rectors are women.

Although women bishops have been allowed in principle since 1991, Askola became the first only three years ago.

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