When Pirkko Lehtiö was ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church (EVL) of Finland 30 years ago, she received phone calls issuing her death threats for weeks. The 85 year old says she is glad it all took place so long ago, before the advent of social media, because the hate speech she would have had to endure today would have been unbearable.
It was a hard-won battle that women were allowed to represent Finland’s largest religious body, as the establishment’s rules stated that a three-quarters vote of the Church Council was first necessary. Even as the public began to be more receptive to the idea – starting in the 1960s, stalwart members of the church administration kept it from happening for decades.
In 1984, a fifth vote on women pastors was taken and once again defeated. But this time, protesting church members started to leave the EVL in droves.
“I know people that resigned from the Church after the 1984 decision. Back in those days, the idea of gender equality was already quite advanced. People could not accept the thought that a woman couldn’t function in a certain position just because of her sex,” Lehtiö recalls.
The move finally passed in 1986, and after two more years of administrative bureaucracy, women were finally allowed to don the EVL cloth in 1988.
Death threats and police protection
The ceremony in which the first women pastors were to be ordained was planned in cooperation with the police, for safety reasons. A procession that normally takes place outside was moved indoors.
“All of my worries subsided when we went up the crypt’s steps into the church. It was a joyful event. It gave me a strange feeling, a tingling sensation the whole time,” Lehtiö says.
Now there are almost as many female pastors in Finland’s Lutheran Church as male. If ordination trends continue, they will soon be the majority. However, only one-fifth of the church’s higher-up positions are held by women. Over the last 30 years, the EVL has elected only one female bishop, Helsinki’s Irja Askola, who retired last year.
Church now faces new equality challenge
At the end of 2017, 71 percent of Finland’s population was registered as members in Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. It has a legal position as a national church in the country alongside the Finnish Orthodox Church.
Lehtiö says the EVL confronts another equality issue today, in its refusal to carry out marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. She says it is founded on the same question that the ordination of women was based on: whether we recognize people as God created them or not.
“As a pastor, I cannot personally object to blessing anyone. I have no right,” she says.