I've been fascinated reading about the recent kerfuffle in Finland over the unfortunately-titled current affairs program Homoilta, or Gay Evening, on Finland's public broadcaster on Tuesday. The program included discussion about homosexual couples' rights to marriage and adoption. I haven't seen the program, but from all accounts the very right-of-centre views of Päivi Räsänen, the leader of the Christian Democratic party, in particular have caused an unexpected reaction against the Finnish Lutheran church. From what I've read Räsänen is of the 'hate the sin, love the sinner'-view: that it's ok to 'feel' gay as long as you don't do anything about it. Good luck with that, gays.
Now, a wee bit of background: the majority of Finns are members of the national Evangelical Lutheran Church, but a very small minority attend church services with any regularity. Lutheranism has since the Reformation been closely tied with Finnish self-expression and identity*, the church and state remain closely linked, and formal church ceremonies are an important part of Finnish society (I talk about this in a little bit more detail here). Indeed, in Harri Heino's 2002 study Mihin Suomi tänään uskoo (What Finland believes in today) results showed that more people considered themselves "Lutheran" than "Christian", which to me suggests that Lutheranism has, to some degree, become conflated with Finnishenss and decoupled from a straightforward religious identification.
Given the social importance of the Lutheran church, it is relatively common for people to remain members of the church regardless of their personal faith in order to still be eligible for certain formal functions, church weddings being a prime example. As someone who briefly looked into the possibility of arranging a civil wedding service in Finland a few years back I can certainly testify that having a big 'proper' wedding is much, much easier in a church, as civil ceremonies are still largely thought to be shotgun-style weddings: many magistrates will not book civil ceremonies any longer than three months in advance, which makes coordinating venue bookings and overseas guests, both of which would generally require much longer notice, somewhat difficult. Some will also only (or certainly did then, I'm not sure whether things have changed at all) only marry couples at the council offices, and only during business hours: not exactly the most romantic of settings. In short, there are certain very worldly benefits to being a church member in Finland.
So it's a pretty big deal for the Homoilta program participants' homophobia to have elicited thousands of people to formally renounce their church membership through the eroakirkosta.fi website. Normally the site registers a couple of hundred renouncements a day, but since Tuesday there have been a couple of thousand each day: yesterday the site hit its second daily record since Wednesday with 3473. You can see the current day's tally here. The loss of lambs is not insignificant: as the church is entitled to collect taxes, the fallout of the past couple of days looks to have cost the church a good couple of million euros (presumably in long-term earnings: the source is not very clear).
What I find hilarious in an odd sort of way is how priests have also reacted against Räsänen, being frustrated that her, and by extension her party's, views have been assumed to apply to the church at large. I'm about as far removed from Finnish political debate as you can be, but I'd be fascinated to see how her political career plays out from here.
I'm also interested in how long the momentum will last, and how this whole episode might influence Finnish society more broadly. "Being Lutheran", no matter how passively or on paper only, has been such an important and unchallenged part of Finnish culture for so long this very dynamic, public stand on behalf of a more secular humanist Finland must have an impact, right?
I can't quite say I believe it will: but I certainly hope so.
*in the sense that the Reformation spurred on the development of Finnish as a literary language: I'm not suggesting a Finnish 'national identity' as such would have existed at this time.
P.S. in the time it's taken me to write this, another hundred people have left the church.