Finland’s much-vaunted commitment to equality took a step forward on March 1, when new legislation recognising gay marriage took effect. Finland was the last of the five Nordic countries to allow same-sex marriage, with Sweden and Norway leading the way in 2009.
However Finland’s dominant Lutheran Evangelical Church is threatening to cast a shadow over potential marriage plans for so-called rainbow couples because of its refusal to allow priests to marry same-sex couples.
In January, Lutheran Archbishop Kari Mäkinen told a synod of bishops that the church does not look kindly on priests who marry gay couples. Yle spoke with Kuopio Bishop Jari Jolkkonen, who said that priests who choose not to follow the church’s guidance on gay marriage will have to face the music.
"If an employee acts contrary to the employer’s directions, it is obvious that in any workplace there will be consequences, and that includes the church," he noted.
Kotka diocese: "God's will is clear"
In spite of the church ruling, a few dozen priests have said that they are prepared to administer marriage vows for same-sex couples once the new marriage laws take effect. Various newspaper reports have indicated that gay couples will find priests willing to perform marriage rites in Tampere, Helsinki and Vantaa, at least.
But in Kotka, southeast Finland, the local diocese has issued a ruling banning even prayers on church premises for same-sex couples who have exchanged wedding vows. The ban extends to prayer sessions held by priests for gay couples who have tied the knot in civil ceremonies.
Kotka clerics also decided to discontinue the practice of reading wedding announcements for same-sex couples during church services, and will no longer include such announcements in notices issued by the local church. This parish will only open church doors to heterosexual couples.
"God's will is clear and perfect. From the perspective of teachings on marriage, it is more coherent to separate customers of marriage ceremonies and blessings into their own spaces. Priests who offer prayers can do so with couples in other venues," said Ville Mielonen, a member of the Kotka-Kymi parish council that tabled the proposal, which was eventually accepted.
Rebellion to be treated case by case
In spite of the warnings of repercussions for priests who wed same-sex couples, bishops were unwilling to say exactly what fallout may be in store for priests who break with the church’s position.
"The media is exceptionally interested in the consequences, but it is not possible to speculate [since] circumstances are different," said Tampere Bishop Matti Repo.
Porvoo Bishop Björn Vikström said that he would react in his capacity as bishop or through a plenary session of the diocese. He added that any priest who breaks with the decree would first be heard before any consequences can be considered.
"If it appears there is reason for sanctions or repercussions, we will deal with cases separately. I won’t comment on them in advance," Helsinki Bishop Irja Askola wrote in a response.
The bishops' guidance on gay marriage is unequivocal: it is not possible for priests to officiate at marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. However a priest or any other parish worker may pray with a couple who has finalised a civil union at an agreed location.
Gay rights activists and supporters of same-sex marriage celebrated a decision by Finnish parliamentarians to legalise gender-neutral marriage laws back in November 2014. It was also a pivotal moment for participatory democracy in Finland, as the law was started as a citizens’ initiative to legally recognise marriage for same-sex couples.
Registered partnerships became legal in 2002
Membership in the state-supported Lutheran Church has dropped from around 88 percent in 1990 to less than 72 percent now.