Female priests

The first female parish priest – 1948

Three women in long, black dresses and white pipe collars stand in the yard next to St. Knud's Church in Odense. They squint against the bright spring sky and look towards the press present. It's a special day. Not only because the three women have today gained full access to the profession they have always wanted to work in. But also because Danish history has been written today. The three women have just been ordained as priests, and for the first time it is now possible for women to be employed as priests in the Danish folk church. One of the three women is Johanne Andersen from Falster. Only a month and a half earlier, she had been called to be a priest at the congregation in Nørre Ørslev, and with the ordination she has now received the church's formal approval of her work. This makes her the very first female folk church priest in Denmark - and in the world.

The ordination of the first female priests, Johanne Andersen, Ruth Vermehren and Edith Brenneche Petersen, on 28 April 1948 was a festive event. Around 2000 people turned up to witness the ceremony, and the Danish media took care to document the historic milestone that had now been reached. The three aspiring priests entered the jam-packed church in procession, led by the bishop of the Diocese of Funen, Hans Øllgaard, and followed by almost 70 male priests. From the pulpit, the bishop spoke about the women who on Easter morning found Jesus' tomb empty and met the angel who told them to go out and tell his disciples that he had risen. With this, Øllgaard presented one of the biblical passages which had been used in previous years to argue that it was theologically justifiable to give women access to become priests in the national church. For that very matter, there had been no agreement on the previous decades.

Female priests

In 1904, women were allowed to take the theological official exam. However, this did not mean that the female cand.theol.'s could be employed as priests in the folk church. According to the law, only men had access to work as priests, and the female theologians had to content themselves with employment as religious teachers and missionaries. In 1921, steps were taken to ensure a higher degree of equality between the sexes in the labor market. Here a new law was passed which gave women access to the same public offices as men. However, equality came with certain limitations; the law did not apply to clerical positions and positions within the military, where men still had the exclusive right to employment.

Not everyone was happy with the law. The Danish Women's Association repeatedly called on the government to change the law so that women and men had equal access to all professions, as stipulated in Section 83 of the Constitution. In the press, the Riksdag and internally in the national church, arguments were put forward both for and against the suitability of women as priests, and the discussion revolved around, among other things, whether there could be authority in the Bible to either exclude women from or give them access to the priesthood. At the same time, in the late 1930s and early 1940s there were several examples of theologically educated women in several cases acting as assistant priests without ordination.

Both the church and the population were divided on the issue, but gradually more and more Danes voted to give women access to the priesthood. In 1944, Gallup conducted a survey which showed that 38% of respondents were in favor of allowing women to become priests, while 34% were against. Remarkably, there were most men among those who believed that women should be equal to men in the priesthood.
In the autumn of 1946, there was a breakthrough in the matter of the female priests. Lolland-Falster constituency in Nr. Ørslev needed a priest, and they wanted to employ the 33-year-old cand.theol. Johanne Andersen. She herself had intervened several times in the debate about female priests, where her basic position was that the folk church would greatly benefit from having women employed, as women's psyches were different from men's, and they could thus contribute something else. At the same time, she believed that the issue of female priests had to be seen as a church issue and not a women's issue, as the topic was otherwise just one among many others on the Danish Women's Association's agenda and was thus overshadowed.
The parish council sent the nomination of Johanne Andersen to the church ministry, but here the choice was rejected, and the minister asked the congregation to choose someone else. However, the Lolland-Falster electorate did not have that in mind, but held fast to the desire to have Johanne Andersen as a spiritual leader. The parish council hired her as an assistant priest so that she could function as a preacher, but not administer either baptism or communion, which required ordination. In the meantime, the electorate put pressure on the church minister and the politicians to get a change in the law through.
The inquiry from No. Ørslev became the concrete occasion that gave impetus to the work of spreading equality all the way into the folk church. Gradually, a political majority had formed to open up the employment of female priests, and now, when there was a desire from the church itself to employ a female priest, the minister of the church had to see himself forced to put forward a bill to give men and women equal access to clerical positions. The proposal went through first, second and third reading in the Riksdag and was finally adopted in the Landstinget. The law entered into force on 21 May 1947 and definitively gave women the opportunity to wear the black clerical dress on an equal footing with men.
However, there was still some way to go before Johanne Andersen could occupy the pulpit in No. Ørslev's red electoral church. The prerequisite for her to be able to work as a priest was that she was ordained by the bishop. And there was a problem: the bishop of the Diocese of Lolland-Falster, Niels Munk Plum, was against women priests and refused to ordain Johanne Andersen. The electorate therefore approached the bishop of Roskilde, who, however, would not ordain without Bishop Plum's consent. Finally, the congregation set their sights on Odense, where Bishop Hans Øllgaard agreed to ordain Johanne Andersen if, through new legislation, it was possible for the congregations to loosen the diocesan ties that bound them to the local bishop.
The so-called "Bishop Freedom Act" was finally adopted on 3 March 1948, and Johanne Andersen could therefore be formally employed on 10 March as pastor of the congregation in Nr. Earslev. Two other women, Ruth Vermehren and Edith Brenneche Petersen, had also been appointed to priestly offices by Copenhagen Women's Prison and No. Aaby-Indslev Parish on Funen. It was therefore a total of three women who were to be ordained by Bishop Øllgaard, who as the only bishop in the country had agreed to ordain the world's first female priests in the Protestant church.

The discussion about the women priests continued right up to, and also after, the festive ordination on April 28, 1948. The day, however, passed in good order, even though the historic event attracted attention from all over the world. With the priesthood marriage of the three women, Johanne, Ruth and Edith, equality had won another victory, and Danish women were one step closer to formal equality with men in the labor market. Now it was up to the individual parish councils whether they wanted to hire a woman or a man as shepherd for their flock.
From the 1960s onwards, the number of female priests increased steadily throughout the country. Johanne Andersen left her calling in No. Ørslev in 1957 in favor of a priest's position at Vigerslev Church, but after her retirement in 1975 moved back to Falster, where she lived until her death in 1999. Four years before, in 1995, she was able to witness the installation of the first female bishop, and had she lived to 2023, she would have experienced that as many as 58% of all the pastors of the national church were women. The constituency in No. Ørslev did not fight in vain, as they stood firm on the choice of Johanne Andersen from Falster.


Note: Danish only