Swedish bishops say yes to gay church weddings

The Church of Sweden's leaders have said that they are willing to allow gay people to marry in church on the same basis as heterosexual couples, although bishops are unsure whether to call the unions marriage.

“We are prepared to carry out partnerships for homosexuals that have the force of law,” said Bishop Claes-Bertil Ytterberg of the church’s Västerås diocese.

Ytterberg said the decision will make the church the first major denomination in the world to allow full gay church marriage in practice. However, the United Church of Canada, the second largest Canadian denomination, already carries out gay marriages.

An official government report proposing changes to marriage laws is to be presented next week. The report is expected to call for all couples, gay or straight, to be given equal marriage rights.

Under the system proposed in the report, churches would retain the right to perform marriages but each individual priest would be forced to seek a marriage licence independently. Today’s move means that the church is accepting the proposals.

Gay couples can currently have civil partnerships blessed in church, but the partnerships’ legal force is provided by civil ceremonies.

The question of gay marriage is controversial in the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran church. But Claes-Bertil Ytterberg, speaking for the church’s governing body, said it was important that the church takes a clear line.

“It is important that the Church of Sweden can be ecumenically weighty by being one step ahead and showing potential pathways. We are first in this context,” he said.

Ytterberg said, however, that the church will not use the term ‘marriage’ (‘äktenskap’ in Swedish) to describe the unions, keeping it reserved for unions between a man and a woman.

“The word ‘marriage’ is so closely linked by tradition to the relationship between a man and a woman,” he said. He said he would ideally like the marriage laws to be renamed ‘cohabitation laws’.

“I admit that this is not a simple message to communicate,” he said.

The publication of the official report will be followed by a period of consultation with affected groups before a bill is drawn up and presented to parliament.