Icelandic church commits to promoting leadership of women and young people

By agency reporter
March 2, 2019

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland takes gender justice seriously and prides itself on offering equal opportunities for women in the workplace. During the most recent elections for its highest legislative authority, the General Synod or Kirkjuþing which includes 12 clergy and 17 lay people, a majority of women were elected for the first time ever from both groups.

That may not sound so surprising in a country which had the world’s first female president and has been topping the World Economic Forum’s report on gender equality for the past nine years. But the Nordic church has been working hard within its own ranks over the last three and a half decades to make sure that opportunities for women in ministry keep pace with those in wider society.

Bishop Solveig Lára Guðmundsdóttir heads the diocese of Hólar in the far north of the country. She says her church has been “encouraging congregations to have quotas of 40 per cent women and 40 per cent men” in leadership since the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) formulated its gender justice policy at its Seventh Assembly in Budapest back in 1984.

“But when we attended the (LWF Twelfth) Assembly in Windhoek in 2017”, she continues, “we were reminded we have to implement it at all levels in our churches.”

When the General Synod met in the autumn of 2017, she emphasised the need to take that message to heart, formulating a proposal to implement the policy at all levels of church governance. It was accepted, alongside a second proposal to include at least 20 per cent of young people in leadership positions, which is also in line with the LWF quota principles.

During elections for the Synod in the spring of 2018, voters were reminded of these policies and for the first time a majority of women were elected. The Synod also elects the church’s highest executive authority, the Church Council or Kirkjuráð, which also has two female and two male delegates now, alongside the Bishop of Iceland, who is currently a woman, serving as the Council president.

Guðmundsdóttir, who was one of the first women to be ordained in her church, notes that attitudes have changed significantly since the 1980s when people were not convinced of the need to introduce gender quotas. “Now everyone agrees it is [necessary],” she says.

At the time of her ordination in 1983, she recalls that there were only five other women priests, “so it was quite unusual at that time, but now women make up almost 40 per cent of the clergy in Iceland so it has changed dramatically.” She adds that “in congregations and on boards all over the country we have equal quotas of men and women.”

Regarding the proposal to put more young people in positions of leadership, Guðmundsdóttir notes that these targets have not yet been reached, with only one young woman under the age of thirty elected to the General Synod. Once again, she notes, there is a need to change mentalities as “people don’t see it as a necessary thing” and raise objections that young people have “no experience.”

But Bishop Guðmundsdóttir insists: “I think the church needs the opinions of young people so that we can really relate to what’s happening in society.” The youth of today are the “future leaders of the church”, she says, “so we really need to have their points of view in all stages of the church.”

The leadership of the LWF on these issues has been “very valuable” for the Church of Iceland, she says, since people have been able to understand how we try to follow its direction and implement its policies. “So it’s good for us now, [in] promoting young people”, she concludes, “to be able to say it’s the policy of LWF.”

The Rev Judith VanOsdol, programme executive for Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment at the LWF adds, “Church leadership needs to deeply listen and reflect the amazing diversity of a growing, mission-minded church. How exciting to witness that vision for inclusive leadership lived out in the Church of Iceland.”

* Lutheran World Federation


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