Finland celebrates the election of its first woman bishop

By Stephen Brown
June 7, 2010

The Rev Irja Askola has become the first woman to be elected as a bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, a step described as a "milestone" by the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation.

"It is an important sign that a woman has been elected to the office of bishop in yet another LWF member church," said the Rev Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the Geneva-based Lutheran federation, after the 3 June vote.

Askola received 591 votes to 567 for her rival Matti Poutiainen, the Finnish church council communications centre said.

The Helsinki Times reported that one of the differences between the two candidates concerned marriage, with Askola being willing to bless same-sex couples, whereas Poutiainen holds that marriage is solely between a man and a woman.

The church said 57-year-old Askola will take office on 1 September, following the retirement of Eero Huovinen, Helsinki's bishop since 1991. Her ordination as a bishop has been set for 12 September.

The Lutheran church has about 4.5 million members, accounting for more than 80 per cent of Finland's population.

Askola is currently a special assistant in theological affairs to Bishop Mikko Heikka of Espoo. She graduated with a master's in theology in 1975, and was ordained in 1988. From 1991 to 1999, Askola worked in Geneva for the Conference of European Churches (CEC).

The Rev Viorel Ionita, acting General Secretary of CEC, said: "The contribution of CEC for promoting the witness of women in church and society after the political changes in Central and Eastern Europe is unthinkable without the contribution of our former colleague from Finland."

The LWF noted that women have been ordained in the Finnish Lutheran church since 1986. While some have been previously nominated as bishops, including Askola, none had made it to the final ballot.

Askola's election came in a second round of voting, following a first round in May 2010. A second round was necessary because neither Askola nor Poutiainen received more than 50 per cent of votes in the first round, when five candidates stood for the post.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


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