What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Is God beyond gender? Swedish church challenges traditional perception

According to the Church of Sweden, it’s preferable not to refer to God as a "he." The official decision to use gender-neutral language will be a change in the way that many Swedish churchgoers worship -- and one that has divided the country. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on the debate and how it may echo in other countries.

Read the Full Transcript

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But first: As churchgoers in Sweden celebrate this Christmas season, they are also preparing for a major change in the way they worship.

    The Church of Sweden recently decided its clergy should stop describing God in masculine terms, such as he, and instead use more gender-neutral language.

    This change has divided the country.

    And as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, it’s an issue that will resonate beyond Scandinavia.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    The weight of history resonates deeply at Lund Cathedral. Its foundations were laid 900 years ago, making it almost half the age of Christianity itself.

    Now the God worshipped here and in thousands of other Lutheran churches is getting a 21st century Swedish upgrade.

  • Cathedral Chaplain Lena Sjostrand:

  • CHAPLAIN LENA SJOSTRAND:

    We have a consciousness about gender questions, which is stronger in our time than it has been before. And, of course, this has had an impact on theology and on church life and pastoral reflection. And I think that is — we should have that.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    In six months’ time, the words in the name of the father, son and Holy Spirit, used at the start of the service will disappear from churches which prefer to adopt the gender-neutral phrase of in God the trinity’s name.

  • CHAPLAIN LENA SJOSTRAND:

    I don’t think that God is a big mother or a father sitting up in the sky. I don’t think that makes sense. God is something much bigger than this.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    But here in Western Sweden, there’s a conviction that the new gender-neutral introduction undermines the entire service.

    This is a traditionally conservative region. Mikael Lowegren will resist pressure from the church hierarchy to replace masculine terms such as lord and he with less gender-specific language.

  • PASTOR MIKAEL LOWEGREN:

    You don’t play lightly with these things. You don’t play lightly with the creed. You don’t play lightly with the liturgy of the church.

    Being part of a tradition means that you come from somewhere. You have a history, and that forms you and makes you what you are. And if you lose contact with your roots, you run the risk of losing your own identity.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    This from where the winds of change are blowing, Uppsala, north of Stockholm, the seat of the Swedish church.

    Archbishop Antje Jackelen is the primate of the Swedish Church, and leader of more than six million registered Lutherans.

  • ARCHBISHOP ANTJE JACKELEN:

    We are not going to give up our tradition. But in the tradition, there are all these elements already present. Like Julian of Norwich in the 14th century said, as sure as God is our father, God is our mother. So, I mean, this is not something that’s newly invented. It’s part of our tradition.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Sweden prides itself on being at the cutting edge of social change. And the desire to use gender-neutral terminology is much stronger here than it is in many other countries. In the past years, Sweden has introduced a gender-neutral personal pronoun as an alternative to he or she in certain circumstances.

    The church insists it won’t go that far, but critics fear the new pronoun will be introduced in the future. The church has also said it won’t force priests to drop the traditional language, although the primate has made it clear that the changes are preferable.

  • CHRISTER PAHLMBLAD:

    I think it’s a mistake because you can’t fool anybody with this gender-neutral language. You can only fool yourself. You are your own enemy.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Christer Pahlmblad is an associate professor of practical theology at Lund University in Southern Sweden.

  • CHRISTER PAHLMBLAD:

    If the society in Sweden is so secularized, then the church instead should sharpen its instrument and be very clear about what the Christian faith is. Otherwise, nobody will know, in the end, know what the church is about.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Pahlmblad blames increased party political influence within the ruling body, the Synod, for what he believes is a potential disaster.

  • CHRISTER PAHLMBLAD:

    If the political party are nominating persons for the Synod, then of course they are nominating persons not because of their competence really in these matters.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Back in Uppsala, the church primate insists the changes are based on a genuine interpretation of religious history, not political correctness.

  • ARCHBISHOP ANTJE JACKELEN:

    God is beyond our human categories of gender. It’s actually already in the Prophet Isaiah in the 11 Chapter. God says, “I am God,” and not human or a man. God is beyond that, and we need help to remind us of that, because due to the restrictions of our brains, we tend to think of God in very human categories.

    We are not worshipping political correctness. We are worshipping God, the creator of the universe.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    So what do Swedes make of changes that challenge a perception of God that has existed for more than 2,000 years?

  • ALEXANDER LOVQVIST:

    I think that this community and the whole world has been very male-dominated for a long time, and I think it’s important that the female gender gets more space in all communities all throughout the country and throughout the world.

  • HANS ROCHESTER:

    I’m a very conservative person, so most of it, I don’t like. I’m used to the old way.

  • DANIEL WARNER:

    If you do make an image of God, which is typically a problematic thing to do, because it’s also supposed to be also something transcendent, talking about that which you cannot really know, but if you have to make symbols of God, then you should make them in such a way that they are accessible to as many people as possible.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    The chaplain of Lund Cathedral believes that the church’s patriarchal nature has had a negative effect on some women.

  • CHAPLAIN LENA SJOSTRAND:

    I have met women who have had this experience that my life is not included in what you are doing in the church. And that is, of course, very sad. And we have to — as we can find other stories in our tradition, we have to broaden it, make it wider, so both male and female could relate to faith.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    But these arguments fail to move Pastor Mikael Lowegren.

  • MIKAEL LOWEGREN:

    God being the father means he has a son.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    But that’s the way that we — that history teaches us, but there’s no guarantee that God is male. God could be female.

  • MIKAEL LOWEGREN:

    You could use female imagery referring to God. But the name of the God is what God has revealed. It’s the father, and the son and the Holy Spirit.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    In common with more liberal Protestant denominations, the Swedish Church promotes the ordination of women, a trend resisted by the powerful Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths.

    So will these changes spread beyond Sweden? Anders Ellebaek Madsen is the faith editor of Scandinavia’s main religious newspaper, The Christian Daily.

  • ANDERS ELLEBAEK MADSEN:

    Thirty years ago, if you would have asked me if homosexual weddings would have been possible in 30 years, I would have said absolutely not.

    So, I don’t know what will happen in one or two generations, but right now, it’s hard for me to see this spreading as fast.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Supporters of the changes claim they are not intended to resurrect declining church attendances. Nevertheless, Sweden has become a testing ground for whether a gender-neutral God attracts worshipers or drives them away.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Sweden.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest