Gunnar Stalsett
#RfPWomenFaithDiplomacy

Issue 1: trans­forming tomorrow

/ 5. Interview with Gunnar Stålsett

"Rights of women is a religious, moral, and political imperative in the 21st century"

Gunnar Stålsett

The ecumenical unity of the churches depends in particular on the question of the extent to which women and men are equal, explains former Bishop Gunnar Stålsett. Stålsett believes that for women in the Orthodox Church to have more rights, a religious leader is needed who is willing to risk his own future for the future of the Church.

An interview by Alexander Görlach 11/11/2020

Many European countries have been religiously super homogeneous until recently. The landscape now is changing. How does this effect the way Europeans think about religion?

Stålsett: The role of religion in post-modern Europe invites a discourse about religion for better and worse. How religious is religion? How secular is the secular? Europe is secular but not post-religious. Indeed, loyalty towards institutional religion is on the decline. And there is a headwind against religious rites and ceremonies. This is a combined effect of secularization, greater ecumenical awareness, and increased encounter with people of different faiths. Increasingly faith is merged with nationalistic and ethnic politics. Globally there is an even more dramatic development of an unholy alliance between religion, race and ethnonationalism.  These European and global expressions of exploitation, even perversion, of religion need to be addressed on all levels in society. At a time of violent extremism in all religions and all regions, regaining the real sense of faith and belief as the bonding of life-promoting relationships is urgent.

First and foremost, political leaders must (re) discover faith, belief, and spirituality as a moral, social, and cultural strength in society. This is about legislation and economy. It is about the values that should permeate even pluralistic societies, and which are supported by educational institutions from kindergarten through university. It is about the teaching and preaching in churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, and all institutions of faith and beliefs. Thus, respect for the inherent dignity of every person, tolerance, and cooperation between people of faith and beliefs should permeate all policies of the state and all teachings of the faith.

The rights of women albeit there have been achievements are still not en pair with those of men, also in Europe. How can the work of religious institutions help tackle this pressing issue.

Stålsett: The rights of women is a religious, moral, and political imperative in the 21st century. If religion is to be a source of positive change, religious leaders must begin at home, in their own faith communities. The leaders and guardians of institutions – whether religious, cultural, or societal – are often seen as opponents of change. Where strong hierarchical and paternalistic traditions prevail, it is usually about fear of losing power. Democratization understood as participation and shared responsibility, represents a challenge to religious practices and institutions. On the ecumenical and interfaith scene, the protestant tradition and ethos have advanced gender equality and women’s empowerment.  As this struggle continues, increased attention should be given towards systemic and structural oppression both in the realm of theology and politics. A perspective from “downside of history”, as taught in liberation theology, and the insights of feminist theology are relevant to all religions.

When we talk about inter-religious work there is often a different level of religiosity in the European-Christian communities and a higher degree in Muslim communities. At the same time the view on women and women’s rights might be different. How can one bridge this gap?

Stålsett: The double face of religion and spirituality, the good and the bad, is seen in all faiths.  While a prevailing media image of Islam today is dictated by the horrors of such terrorist organizations like Taliban and Isis, the great majority of Muslims practice peace and tolerance.  Muslim migrants in Europe are increasingly adapting to shared values of their new nation.   Their everyday faith practice in prayers, worship and other expressions of genuine spirituality may be a challenge to many Christians.  However, on the crucial issue of equality between men and women, Muslim leaders and faithful worshippers are challenged by their Christian and secular neighbours. In many respects, this is a divide with deep historical and cultural roots.  In protestant Europe, women’s rights have deep roots in renaissance, reformation, enlightenment, and is manifest in modernity. But equally important on the global level is the fact that women’s equal rights are supported by a worldwide recognition reflected in standard-setting norms of the United Nations, with an emphasis on equal human dignity and human rights. These charters and conventions are not only compelling politically but also consequential in the sphere of religion. A growing consensus on humanity issues such as peace, justice, development, disarmament, climate, and migration are bridging the gaps between and among adherents of different faiths. “Religions for Peace” is today the leading agency for interfaith action as expressed in its motto: Different faiths – common action.

„One of the great stumbling blocks for full Christian unity is the ordination of women for the priesthood which is not allowed by the teachings of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. Both churches are however accepting women pastors, bishops, and archbishops as legitimate representatives of other churches, but not of equal dignity with the ordained ministry in their own church.”

Gunnar Stålsett

The Lutheran World is a global one. How can you tackle different opinions regarding the involvement and the role of women in the church within that diverse community?

Stålsett: The Lutheran World Federation, which brings together the great majority of Lutheran churches around the world, has in many ways spearheaded women’s leadership in church and society. There has been resistance underway, based on theological arguments, as well as cultural and tradition-based values. LWF has moved towards becoming a communion where women on every level in church and society are accepted as equal to men.

The Lutheran Church has female pastors and bishops. The Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches choose not to. How will this effect the future of the inter-denominational dialogue?

Stålsett: The World Council of churches is the privileged instrument and arena for ecumenical dialogue. Significant steps have been taken towards unity among churches that profess the apostolic Christian faith. One of the great stumbling blocks for full Christian unity is the ordination of women for the priesthood which is not allowed by the teachings of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. Both churches are however accepting women pastors, bishops, and archbishops as legitimate representatives of other churches, but not of equal dignity with the ordained ministry in their own church. There is a “gentlemen’s” agreement to bypass this crucial issue and to move ahead on the negotiable areas. A change will only come when a prophetic leader listens to the cry of the women and is ready to risk his future for the future of the church.  By divine providence, that day will come.

One might wonder why religions died out over the course of human history. One might argue it is not because of dogma but of social norms and practices. Is it a crucial, existential question for the survival of any religion in the world of the 21. century to find ways to accept women and men as fully equal? 

Stålsett: At this time in history, I am afraid that the rights of women are not yet such an existential and crucial question that it spells the survival or the death of any religion.

As the conference deals with the role women have in faith and diplomacy: you have been involved with the Nobel Committee. How can institutions like this one make sure they do not overlook the work and the achievements of women?

Stålsett: Alfred Nobel’s testament is in part inspired by his long-time friend, the peace activist Bertha von Suttner, who in 1905 became the first women to receive the Peace Prize. Since the first prize in 1901, only 17 women have received the peace prize. The same disproportion between men and women is reflected in the other Nobel Prizes, literature, medicine, chemistry, and physics. Gradually the western, white male dominance among the laureates is mitigated. Still, there is a long way to go before the prizes together reflect the resources of women as trailblazers in what too long has been a man’s world. The Prize in 2011 to the three women, Ellen Johnsen Sirleaf, Leyman Gbowee and Tawakol Karman, honoured women’s rights of full participation in peacebuilding work. The Prize in 2014 to 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai underscored the importance of education for young girls. This year, four of the laureates of literature and sciences are women. I see the Peace Prize this year to the World Food Program is a recognition of the leading role of women in feeding the hungry of this world.

Short Biography

Dr Gunnar Stålsett, Bishop Emeritus of Oslo, Church of Norway, Honorary President Religions for Peace.

Dr Gunnar Stålsett (1935) studied theology in Norway, USA and Germany. He has held several national and international posts, such as Professor of Systematic Theology at the Norwegian Missionary School, Stavanger,( 1964-70) General Secreatyr Church of Norway Ecumenical Council, (1970 – 77) ,General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Geneva (1985-1994), Rector of the Practical Theological Seminary of the University of Oslo (1994-1998, Bishop of Oslo (1998-2005) Intermittently with his church career, he has served in the Norwegian Government and Parliament and on the City Council of Oslo.
He has served as Vice-chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Chairman of the Niwano Peace Prize Committee (Tokyo). Member of Central Committee of the World Council of Churches and United Bible Societies, Chairman of European Council of Religious Leaders. Ha has served UNAIDS, UNESCO and the World Economic Forum, International Religious Liberty Association and the Library of Alexandria ,Norwegian Government’s Special Envoy to East Timor and the Norway/Indonesia Human Rights Dialogue and as co-chair of the Religons for Peace Advisory Forum on Peace and Reonciliation in Myanmar. He continues his engagement with interfaith issues through i.a Religions for Peace and climate issues with UN Environment i.e Interfaith Rainforest Initiative
He has received international honorary doctor degrees in theology and laws, and awards such as Commander of the Royal Order of St. Olav (Norway), The Grand Order of Quetzal (Guatemala), the Order of Timor (Timor Leste), The Niwano Peace Prize (Tokyo).. He is the author of several books.

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1: Interview with Annette Schavan

The future of religions will be determined by how they integrate women, says Annette Schavan, former Federal Minister for Research and Education. The committed Catholic was also the Federal Republic’s ambassador to the Apostolic See.

2: Interview with Margot Käßmann

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3. Interview with Margrit Wettstein

Margrit Wettstein works for the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm. Only few people know better than her, which women ever received the Nobel Prize and which fates are behind these women. Alexander Görlach asked Margrit Wettstein to tell us, who she thinks are the most important award winners.

4. Interview with Azza Karam

Learn why Prof. Azza Karam thinks that it is inevitable for the UN to work with religious leaders and movements. And find out what challenges Azza Karam identifies for women, if they pursue religious leaderships.

5. Interview with Gunnar Stålsett

The ecumenical unity of the churches depends in particular on the question of the extent to which women and men are equal, explains former Bishop Gunnar Stålsett. Stålsett believes that for women in the Orthodox Church to have more rights, a religious leader is needed who is willing to risk his own future for the future of the Church.

6. Interview with Sima Samar

She was the first Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan after the Taliban lost power in 2002. Ever since, for many women in Afghanistan almost everything changed, as Sima Samar recapitulates in this interview.