In what is being seen as a landmark decision, the Church of Sweden has formally agreed to recognise same-sex marriages and conduct gay weddings and blessings, becoming the first major church to do so.
The Lutheran denomination said that it would begin marrying same-sex couples on 1 November 2009. Some anti-gay elements within the Church are horrified, but Sweden's Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights said the move was "a big step in the right direction".
"For my part, the right decision was taken, but I can empathise with the many who believe this has gone too fast," the Archbishop of Sweden, Anders Wejryd told a news conference on 22 October. But he affirmed it as an important and necessary decision.
The resolution comes after the Swedish parliament legalised same-sex weddings earlier this year, changing a law permitting legal unions but not formal marriage. The church board voted 176-62 in favour of the change.
Sweden's Lutheran Church split from the state in 2000 but remains the country's largest religious community. It had previously said that it was open to registering same-sex unions but wanted to reserve the term matrimony for heterosexual marriages.
The new legislation has eliminated legal distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual spouses, but does not force clergy to wed gay couples. A church official said individual priests would still not be required to perform gay marriages.
However, churches must ensure they can marry same-sex couples, if necessary,by bringing in a minster from outside the parish to perform the ceremony.
"It is a question of being human. One of the Bible quotations central to the Lutheran tradition is, 'Love your neighbour as yourself'," Archbishop Anders Wejryd said in September 2009 on Swedish public service television's Rapport news programme. "This means that as Christians, we have a responsibility to think independently on the basis of what we believe is good for love, fidelity and equality, at all times."
The church said back then that the General Synod's doctrinal commission, which includes the church's 14 bishops, had agreed by 12 votes to eight that it is possible to accept marriage for same-sex couples. The commission has said that a proposed marriage service that would cover same-sex couples is in accordance with the faith, creed and doctrine of the Church of Sweden.
Still, there have been dissenting voices on the doctrinal commission.
"It’s fine to put together a service for same-sex couples now, but what exactly we should do with marriage is something we need to think about more closely," said Bishop Sven Thidevall of Sweden's Växjö diocese.
Earlier in 2009, two bishops of the (Anglican) Church of England warned the Church of Sweden that agreeing to expand the concept of marriage to include same-sex couples risked creating "immediate and negative" consequences for ecumenical relations.
The Church of Sweden and the Church of England are both part of the Porvoo Communion, an agreement between British and Irish Anglican churches and Lutheran churches in the Nordic and Baltic countries.
The English bishops had responded to a letter by Wejryd to leaders of Porvoo churches in which he noted that the Swedish church has since 1995 offered blessings for same-sex unions in registered partnerships. From 2007, the church has had a liturgical order for this.
However, the revision of the Swedish marriage law, which came into force on 1 May 2009, abolished the concept of registered partnerships in favour of marriage.
"The church would then only have a rite for heterosexual couples," if it maintained the status quo, wrote Wejryd. In 2008, the central board of the Swedish church had agreed to accept that a new law would cover both heterosexual and homosexual unions. The archbishop further noted that his church, "has a strict policy not to discriminate against homosexuals and the church has already taken the most important decision, that of accepting and blessing same-sex couples".
The Porvoo agreement allows for full communion between the churches, including the acceptance of the other's bishops, priests and deacons without re-ordination.
A 12-13 October meeting of leaders of Porvoo churches noted that their churches are being challenged by, "issues in human sexuality and the question of the responsibilities and privileges of being in communion".
A statement issued after the meeting of Porvoo churches said that Wejryd had spoken about the Lutheran World Federation and how it is working through potentially divisive issues.
Lutheran churches throughout the world hold different views about matters such as the acceptance of homosexuals in church life, and blessings for same-sex relationships in some Northern countries.
In 2005, leaders of the LWF removed Kenyan Bishop Walter E. Obare Omwanza as an advisor to its main governing body, the LWF Council, after he consecrated a bishop from a breakaway Lutheran grouping in Sweden, opposed to women priests and same-sex marriage.
Additional reporting: ENI www.eni.ch