In a local notice advertising a Christmas worship service, the church described Jesus using the pronoun 'hen', which in Sweden is used to refer to non-binary people or in cases where a person's gender is not known or not relevant.
“The word 'hen' is a way to give a new perspective,” said Susann Senter, dean at the church, in a statement after reports on the advert in Swedish media prompted both praise and criticism.
Senter acknowledged that the historical Jesus was a man, but argued that from a theological perspective, his gender was not a defining aspect of his identity. For that reason, 'hen' was used in the advert, which was set out in the style of a birth announcement with the aim of encouraging more people to attend the Christmas service.
The issue of gender identification and gender expression had been raised during a two-day discussion on equality issues at the church, Senter said. She stressed that people who felt comfortable referring to Jesus as 'han' or 'he' should continue to do so, but that “there are other expressions that give different perspectives”.
“The religious Christ is greater [than the historical person] and needs to be described and talked about in each era, with new words and new songs,” she continued. “The desire behind the use of new words is to find a language of our time which opens up to the holy.”
She apologized to anyone who felt offended, and said that had not been her intention.
The Bishop of Västerås, Mikael Mogren, has also defended the choice, saying he was “grateful” for the debate which the advert had started.
“The debate that is going on forces me to state the obvious: Jesus shares the life of every human being, not just men,” said Mogren.
He added that some of the critical comments aimed at the church had included insults towards trans people, and said: “Trans people are created by God, your bodies belong to the beautiful and extraordinary creation of God.”
Mogren went on to say that while debate over Jesus's gender might seem trivial, he found it significant because of the existence of patriarchal structures and the ways in which some rulers used Christian faith to justify oppression of women or to deny personal gender identities beyond male and female.
The Swedish Academy only included 'hen' in its official dictionary in 2014, though activists had first begun promoting the pronoun some decades earlier.
In late November this year, news reports around the world claimed the Swedish Church had decided to stop calling God 'he' in favour of gender neutral terms. A spokesperson from the church said this was “fake news” when contacted by The Local, explaining that the changes simply replaced the word 'he' with 'God' in one instance, while other variations had been introduced to bring the language more in line with the most recent Swedish translation of the Bible.
The word 'hen' does not appear at all in the Church's new handbook.