Date and Place of Birth: 18 December 1952, Lappeenranta.
Family: I live on my own, and
I have a younger sister.
Education: Theology.
I admire…people who are committed to justice.
I dislike…dishonesty.
God is…wonderful.

The Bishop of Helsinki sees the Church in 2011 as a part of an ongoing evolution.

ARRIVING to the top floor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland Diocese of Helsinki building, after being warmly greeted by Bishop Irja Askola it comes as a mild surprise to discover that her office appears to have embraced a stark, Scandinavian style. Furnished with an abundance of bare wooden surfaces, a small collection of books rests on the bookshelf, with a plant, a desk and a long meeting table struggling to fill the available space. Cultural differences aside, I had anticipated perhaps a little more iconography and decoration for a person of her position.

The reason for this sparse decoration becomes clear though, when Askola informs me with a smile that she has recently moved back into this office and her wall hangings and religious artefacts and books have not yet been fully unpacked.

Life has certainly been about movement and change in recent times for Askola. The first female bishop in Finland, she was elected to the position last year to a chorus of applause for the Church’s forward-thinking decision, coupled with the negative mumblings of some of the more traditional areas of the community, less comfortable with the changing role of women in the Church.

SixDegrees sat down with Askola to hear about the road to her current position, her views on promoting tolerance for members of society who are subject to hate speech and how gay families can also successfully raise children.

When did you first encounter God?

“When Jesus said ‘love
your neighbour’, that
neighbour might also
be a Muslim in your

I was eight years old when my father died very suddenly. He left to work in the morning and never came back, after suffering a heart attack. We then had to move. It was not too far away, but seven kilometres is a lot when you are that age.

I was very lost. I didn’t know anybody in the area. But I found my way to the parish hall, where I met many wonderful, caring people. Although they were adults, they had all sorts of activities for children. They really cared and were so creative. They were Christian people. We would pray and learn to sing religious songs and all sorts of fun things. The church was really a living room for me. It was very informative. While back then I was very naïve, through this naïveté I thought that if these people call themselves Christians, if God’s people are so wonderful and caring, then God must also be wonderful and caring.

That was my logic to become a Christian. Also my concept of the church now is very much the same as back then: the church should be like a living room, also for those who are a bit lost and who don’t know where to go. The doors should be open, hearts should be open and it should be an inclusive welcoming community in the midst of a hard life.

When did you learn of your higher calling?

It came gradually over the years. I started at eight years old and then I became an assistant Sunday school teacher. Then I became a Sunday school teacher and I went to the different youth camps where I received all kinds of responsibilities. Somehow, year-by-year, I grew up with these responsibilities and with that kind of commitment – and also enjoyment. It was a lot of fun. It was not a controlling community where you were told what to do. We were given space and somehow it became then a natural thing. I had received so much from The Church that I wanted to give back somehow.

Also during my study years I experienced some doubts and rather sharp criticism, but it was also good to have this kind of rebellion.

What brought you back to the Church after this?

Somehow I just felt that I belong there; that’s my home.

How do you feel about the status of women in the Church?

In many ways you can say that the role of women in the Lutheran Church is good. We have women in so many levels of our structure. In my diocese half of the priests and pastors are female. This is a different situation to that of many other countries, in Eastern Europe for example, in some parts of Africa and so on. On the other hand if I compare with other Nordic countries, we only introduced female ordination 23 years ago, and in other Nordic countries they initiated it much earlier.

Is God male or female?

Neither-nor. I think God is not like you or I – not in these gender terms, I think that when we describe, or have images of, God, it is always difficult because God is something else other than human beings. When Jesus tried to explain what kind of God we have, he tried to find images that could help people to understand. In the culture back then it was very understandable that he said that God is like a good father who takes care of you.

But there are also female images that you can find in the Old Testament, saying that God is like the mother hen who takes care of the small chickens.

So he is not only the guy with the big bushy beard?

No, no [laughs]. People also have their own way of dealing with the images.

Have you heard about that the feminist movement that went and changed all the references of God in the Bible from ‘He’ to ‘She’?

Oh, I have heard of that, of course, but I am very happy that in Finnish language we don’t have that problem and I don’t have to have this difficult theological dispute in our church! [laughs]

The Church is changing, generally adapting to society by turning a blind eye to gay issues and now there is a female Bishop of Helsinki. When does the evolution end?

I hope that it will never end. There have always been changes. As a faith community of Christians we have to live out the message of the Gospel in a given context. Each time we have to find what is the right expression now for our faith so that people will find God and find the churches here. It’s always about relationships and it is always about community. The church takes a different shape in different countries and in different contexts.

A lot of members of the Church in Finland have left in recent years. How can you stem the flow of people leaving?

First of all, it is almost funny because some people leave the Church because we are too liberal, and some people leave the Church because we are too conservative. Being a member of the Church has been part of the culture here. In another era it would be almost social suicide if you lived in a small village and you decided not to be a part of the church. It has been a part of our way of life, regardless how much you actually care about the Church or the gospel.

I think people these days are more aware of their own choices. Younger people may feel that, ‘if I have no relation with the religion why should I be a member?’ One can somehow also respect that kind of honesty.

But as a Christian who feels that the faith community has given me so much, of course I have to look in the mirror and ask if we are doing something wrong. Are we talking about a welcoming God and at the same time acting as an exclusive community? Are we talking about love and care, but the way we are acting as a church we are sending out a message that is contrary to the people? I think we are sometimes too much of an organisation rather than a community. We should see more the value of faith in ordinary life and support our members to be Christian.

Have years of financial growth and prosperity here created harder attitudes towards those less fortunate, and also contributed to racism?

I think that if you have personally no experience whatsoever about what it means to be excluded or unwanted, or somehow needy or ashamed that you haven’t ‘made it’; if you have had such a safe life journey then sometimes it is difficult to understand how it really feels like when you’re not doing well, and you don’t have the tools and instruments to get out of that desperate situation. That’s why it is so important that Church communities don’t have exclusive clubs that just have rich people in them and marginalise poor people in the community.

In our Church statistics it is often really the poor who are giving their money away, with the elderly often making donations. On the other hand, recent statistics also show that people in Finland, such as some of the supporters of The Finns Party, are often people in our suburbs who are poor themselves, and who feel that life is very threatening. For them there is not too much promise for the future and they may become racist or very tough about anything that is different from themselves. There are a lot of fears behind hate speech.

How do you promote tolerance?

Whenever I have changed my mind concerning different things it has never occurred when I read statistics or some kind of sociological theory. It has happened when I met the person; when I first spoke with the very poor African person and when I first met people who later told me they were homosexual. You realise that most people are not stereotypes. You cannot put all homosexuals into one box, just as you cannot put all the Germans into another box. Human stories will change people’s views, so stereotypes will fade and then the communities and interaction begins.

Another thing about hate speech or aggressive behaviour is that it is clearly racist; I think that all adult people should somehow react immediately when it happens in public, also for bad jokes that are racist.

Do you have anything that you would like to say to these people who may have racist views concerning these newcomers to Finland?

I don’t think that I would be very helpful if I would only preach to them, saying, ‘oh you are wrong, you are condemned,’ but I would really like to personally commit myself to a discussion and hear more. Tell me more. I’d like to make them think about what they are saying and ask if they really mean that what they are saying?

Also, if there were Christians I would say that I think that this type of speech is not Christian behaviour, it is against our Gospel.

You have also said that you could see Muslims or people of other religions using the facilities of the Church. How does this work in practice?

I don’t think that it would work that Muslims would use the places where we share sacraments. But I do see it happening in our diocese that parish halls and clubrooms are used by youngsters, and for mother’s clubs and summer camps.

When Jesus said ‘love your neighbour’, that neighbour might also be a Muslim in your neighbourhood. The Christian attitude is about hospitality and creating space for people to get to know one another. One of my slogans is that we need to actively move from hostility to hospitality.

How do you see the status of the family unit here in Finland?

It’s a difficult question. Each of us needs a safe space to grow and to belong to. The word ‘family’ means so many different things nowadays. It would be ideal if everybody would have the opportunity to live all of their lives within a traditional happy family but we also know that this ideal model of family is not always paradise – they can also be a living hell.

I think we should not idealise the traditional family. Of course it would be lovely if people were able to live in that sense nowadays. But now we have children who have a weekend home with their father’s new family and weekdays maybe with the mother or with her new family. And then you have a family that is statistically normal, but where the mother or father may be travelling all week doing business.

Then you have these rainbow families, same-sex families. Some of them have children and some of those families are doing just so well, and it is a safe place for children to grow.

I think for me as a Christian and as the Bishop it is more important to ask how our lifestyle and our value system are supporting the space for children to grow.

There should have at least one adult person to relate to the child if the situation does not allow them to have the ideal model of the family.

We are also sacrificing too much of our own health and the safety of our children for the market economy. I think that the family life is more threatened by that than by the Muslims or homosexuals.

How do you see the future?

We will see a lot of changes, as all the institutions will. The institution of our church will probably have less clergy employed and so on, less finances and resources. But we are a exceptionally rich church in the global perspective.

Some changes might be positive and some might be negative. As a faith community we have a great future. The more complicated life becomes, the more we provide places where everybody is accepted, where there is mercy. You don’t have to worry about being evaluated all the time and you do not need to be successful and win all the time. It is a place where you are really accepted as you are.

The tougher that life becomes, we face more moral guilt and loneliness; we have to try to cope with the idea of our own death, or the death of a beloved one. The church has the space and vocabulary to help cope with these, and hope and God.

James O’Sullivan