Conservative Laestadian Meri-Anna Hintsala has, against the teachings of
her church, become a pastor, and defended contraception, as well as
homosexual rights. Still she doesn’t want to offend anyone. On the day of
Salomaa’s newspaper interview Hintsala received dozens of e-mails. This
happens every time she talks publicly. Her thoughts do not please everyone.
She defends contraception, the existence of female clergy, and gay rights.
Some of the replies are beautiful. Some of these have been thank you notes
from Laestadian women theologians. Some are following Hinstala’s
example of considering the ministry themselves. Positive replies have also
come from sexual minority Laestadians whose experiences Hintsala is
considering for her doctoral dissertation.
“Many have said that they have gotten the courage to talk about their
identity to those close to them,” Hintsala observes. But then there is the
downside in responses to her. These messages call her an “ugly feminist”
who is hurting the reputation of Laestadians “by always fulminating about
the same things.” The latter critics have banished her from the “Kingdom of
God.” Ostracizing a Laestadian from her community is the worst possible
Meri-Anna Hintsala is one of thirteen siblings. During her childhood her
family went three times a week to services to listen, pray, and sing hymns of
Zion. Hintsala was the family’s oldest child and often tended the younger
children. During the summer her playmates were uncles near her own age.
Another kind of world opened up for her at the Elimaki library. She
devoured all kinds of literature. At times she was so absorbed in a book
while bicycling that she’d hold the handlebar with one hand and with the
other her book. Hintsala was most interested in novels, stories about the
oppressed, and women’s rights.
“The subordination of women and girls in other cultures made me angry. I
thought that nevertheless in our own culture women voluntarily allowed
themselves to accept that role in their family lives.”
In addition to books, school gave her an insight into social issues such as
sexuality. Rarely when this was discussed in the Laestadian Youth League
was its tenor anything but judgmental. Masturbation was a sin. Sex outside
of marriage was a sin. Homosexual liaisons were a sin. The viewpoints in
school were different and felt more natural to Hintsala.
“I thought even then that sexuality was more about factuality and identity
rather than a matter of spirituality.” Although the Youth League’s moral
preachings occasionally felt questionable, Hintsala still experienced
Laestadians as her spiritual home and did not rebel. Even as a new university
student, she believed in following her community’s traditional path,
accepting motherhood of a large family and volunteer work in the
Laestadian peace organization. Her parents nevertheless supported
Hintsala’s continuing education.
“Father said with a glint in the corner of his eye that it pays to study so much
so you won’t need to work outside.” Hintsala began her theological studies,
allowing for possible interruptions to be able to start a family. However, her
studies swept her along with them. She received her master’s degree in four
years, although she bore two children during her student years.
Then Hintsala pursued more master’s thesis work. It changed the direction
of her future. Her dissertation subject were the closed internet columns in
which she had taken part herself. Through them she sought testimony which
included the ability to be the mother of a large family.
“I asked them how they saw their own future: Most of all it was about
exhaustion and restrictiveness. Many a mother broke down in tears.”
Hintsala then decided that she herself would not become the mother of a
large family. Instead she would become one of the first Conservative
Laestadian women who would publicly oppose the movement’s ban on
“I thought that if no one else spoke of these women’s experiences I need to
bring forth the issue.” Since then the Laestadians’ position on contraception
has been discussed a lot. In the spring of 2009 the Human Rights
Commission testified that the contraception ban violates human rights.
Hintsala says that because of this public criticism the movement’s leadership
during the past few years has been cautious about discussing its position on
“The old teaching according to which all forms of contraception are a sin
has not been overturned although in practice people act differently.”
The second time when Hintsala chose her own path was when she was
ordained as a pastor. Although Finland has a good 100,000 Conservative
Laestadians who belong to the Lutheran Church, the movement opposes
women’s clergy. When the news spread of Hintsala about to be ordained as a
minister, many in the community pressured her to change her mind.
CONTINUE NEXT COLUMN
Two weeks before her ordination, Hintsala received a call from the Espoo
Conservative Laestadian Peace Commission that the future church woman
could no longer be a volunteer for the organization’s Youth League.
“At times, it seemed as if I had been scrubbed with a wire brush.”
Remembering these pressures does bother her. But she also indicates that
she received support from other Laestadians.
“Many have later apologized about their remarks about me. Laestadians are
basically peace-loving people. I don’t want to anger anyone myself.”
Why has she then placed herself against her community’s traditions?
“To overcome my own fears and to raise my own self-esteem is a staggering
process. I also want to change things. This demands involving one’s self in
the mix. I hope that in the future those Laestadians who long for change in
the movement, or feel a calling for the ministry, will have it easier than it’s
been for me.”
Her next conflict is already underway. Hintsala is currently writing a
dissertation about Conservative Laestadians’ Internet discussions. In her
master’s thesis work, besides the central theme of contraception, she has
chosen another sensitiva subject: Sexual minorities. The dissertation’s
subject matter considers about 400 articles that deal with gender and
sexuality. About a third of these have been written by Laestadians who
belong to sexual minorities.
Many of them keep their tendencies secret, others again have left the
movement. Although Conservative Laestadianism doesn’t consider
homosexuality as a sin, “homosexual acts” are considered as such.
“A family member who reveals their gayness is told that ‘just be what you
are but don’t make a big deal about it.’ This is not clear approval.”
Hintsala approves sexual equality in marriage laws and is ready to marry gay
couples if the Lutheran Church allows clergy to do so. “The bubble of shame
must be burst open. I want homosexuality in the world of religion to be
understood as a part of human diversity, beautiful, and a good thing in which
there is no shame.”
In her mind shame in homosexuality in the religious community is caused by
denial. “What is feared most is the issue of shame, not the issue of
homosexuality.” Hintsala’s antidote to shame is education, That’s why she
wants in her research to expose taboos.
“Everyone in my mind is a homosexual in the sense that almost everyone in
some phase of their life has had experiences with “otherness.” Hintsala’s
own sense of “otherness” is connected to her Laestadians. As a child she
lived in many different communities in which Laestadians were a small
minority. Now she feels herself occasionally a stranger in her own mode of
Lestadianism. “Lestadianism to me is like a childhood home from which one
needs to grow up.”
Hintsala doesn’t go regularly any more to Laestadian services but still
observes its communal traditions like the songs of Zion and classical music
but doesn’t watch television.
“I do watch serials on the Internet, but the living room is a place for
conversation with other people and not to stare at the tube.” Hintsala does
participate in the annual mass national summer service of the Lestadians in
Finland. She senses herself welcome at such occasions despite her female
priesthood and her divergent opinions. and if some Laestadians say she no
longer belongs to the Kingdom of God and is a non-Lestadian, this does not
bother her any more: “No one else can say whether I’m a Laestadian or not.”
Editor’s Note, Meri-Anna Hintsala lives in Espoo, Finland with her husband
and three children. At this writing she is 32 years old.
Translator’s Note: The Conservative Laestadian Church is a fundamentalist
branch of the Finnish Lutheran Church and has worshippers mostly in the
Nordic countries and North America. It was founded by a Swedish preacher
Lars Levi Laestadius (1800–1861) in 1844 in Sweden. Wikipedia is a good
source of information about it.
Harry Siitonen, in Berkeley, California,
September 28, 2015.