Swedish Church uses neutral pronoun for Jesus

A heated debate continues in Sweden after a church chose to use a gender neutral pronoun when describing Jesus in an advertisement for a Christmas worship service.

The Church of Sweden in Västerås made the decision to refer to Jesus as "hen" in the local press. The text in the advertisement read: “ Welcome Jesus! On Christmas Day, the 25th December, Jesus was born. A long-awaited child. (Hen) was born while the happy parents Maria and Josef were traveling.”

“For many years, I have been dreaming about and praying for a debate in Sweden that puts Jesus in the center of the debate. My experience is that God always answers your prayers, but you often don´t get the answers you expected. This is the case now.” 
— Bishop Mikael Mogren

The reactions to the posting were immediately polarizing. “Hen” is a relatively new word in the Swedish language, it has been in common use only for a couple of years (it was included in the dictionary of The Swedish Academy in 2014). It was invented to refer to non-binary people or in cases where a person´s gender is not known or irrelevant. As such, it has been appreciated and frequently used since the introduction, but the use of the word has also sparked protests within groups of the population.

“A Church that wishes to become popular can get the idea of calling Jesus ´hen´”, said Stefan Gustafsson, one of the critics to the local Church´s decision to use the name. 

In an opinion piece in the Christian newspaper Världen idag (5.1), Gustafsson went on to say that the roots of the theological tradition that ends up in statements like these are to be found in the Age of Enlightenment. He believes that by using popular phrases like this one, the Church of Sweden is trying to adjust itself to a modern culture - instead of remaining true to the Bible.

“Jesus was not born without a gender, he was a man. To say something different is historical revisionism,: said Gustafsson, who argued that the Bible is unique in how it look at gender. “The biblical view of human beings entails equality between genders but without diminishing differences."

On the other hand, the Bishop in Västerås, Mikael Mogren, defended the church's decision to use the gender neutral pronoun to refer to the Savior.

Bishop Mikael Mogren Photo: Åke Paulsson

Bishop Mikael Mogren Photo: Åke Paulsson

“Jesus was a man, something that the dean of Västerås clearly has expressed. There is no doubt about this," said the Bishop in a statement from the Church of Sweden.

But the Bishop points to the fact that the reconciliation that Jesus brought to this world applies to humanity as a whole.

“The current debate forces me to point to the obvious fact that Jesus is sharing the life of every human, not only men," said the Bishop.

Bishop Mogren said that he welcomed the debate but that he regrets that formulations used by some debaters have been pejorative to others, including transsexuals.  He also stressed the fact that gender is not irrelevant in today´s society.

“Sometimes men in power use Christian faith to legitimize their superiority and by this they mean that they have the right to oppress women.  This does not need to continue.” he said.

Further, the Bishop said that the debate became twisted.

“For many years, I have been dreaming about and praying for a debate in Sweden that puts Jesus in the center of the debate. Christian faith is a blind spot in Swedish media.  My experience is that God always answers your prayers, but you often don´t get the answers you expected. This is the case now." he said.

He stressed the fact that the Church of Sweden´s teachings always have been, and always will be, that Jesus was a Jewish boy.

“He was circumcised, because he was a man. It would have been better if the debaters had listened to what I say. But, unfortunately, all this seemed too complicated in a black-and-white debate with no nuances.”

Susann Senter, dean of Västerås who chose the word, said she does not regret it. Although it is historical fact that Jesus was a man, she says his gender wasn´t a defining aspect of his identity.

“I think the debate lost all proportions. As for me, my faith is not shaken by somebody giving an alternative opinion," said Senter in an interview in Kyrkans Tidning.

Senter went on to say that she sees both sides of the issue. By using the modern word “hen” the Church wanted to be open to new perspectives and people.

“When a child is born, you don´t focus on gender first thing. When you specify the gender it comes with a lot of other ideas," she said.

“I, and many others, want to recognize the Savior when we look at Jesus. We also want to recognize ourselves and others. This is how a role model works," she stated in a press release from the Church of Sweden.

Like Mogren, Senter acknowledges in the press release that Jesus was a man. However, when the apostle John talks about the birth of Jesus, the Greek word used is “anthropous”, which means “human”.

Senter said she wanted to seek a new language for the Church, and apologized to anyone who felt offended.

“It is odd, that we don´t seem to be capable to have a respectful theological debate," she said in Kyrkans tidning.

Agneta Lejdhamre, a priest in Västerås, said that the use of the gender neutral pronoun does not exclude the fact that Jesus was a man.

“You also have to ask the question: are the acts, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus less important if they are ascribed a human, than a man?" she asked in an article in Kyrkans tidning.

Lejdhamre stressed that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are one. “ If it is so, if all persons in the Trinity are equal and dependent on each other, then it should be possible to use any pronoun about God as well as about any of the three”, she said.

So, will the use of the word ´hen´ become a part of the language used by the Church of Sweden?  Probably not, said Mikael Mogren.

“I have never used the word myself and I have never seen it in a text from the Church of Sweden anywhere in Sweden. But when I talk to young people, they use it all the time. So it seems to be a question about which generation you belong to," he said.