The country’s 12 bishops on Friday voted to back the creation of a special liturgy for the marriage of same-sex couples, opening the way for the first gay church marriages within the next two years.
“It is a historic breakthrough that a bishops’ meeting unanimously recommends equal marriage in church,” said Sturla Stålsett, leader of the Open People's Church, which has led the campaign for gay church marriage in Norway.
Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien, praeses of the Norwegian Bishops’ Conference, announced the decision on Friday morning.
“A united bishop’ meeting has approved the drawing up of liturgies for marrying same sex couples,” she said. “This is a very important day for the church.”
Norway’s 2008 marriage law gave gay couples the right to marry in the same way as heterosexual couples, but left it up to the Church to develop a liturgy, which it has since refused to do.
In 2013, eight of the country’s 12 bishops said they were in favour of allowing same-sex couples to have full church weddings. But after discussions with the four opposing bishops they agreed to push for a simpler blessing ceremony at the synod to avoid splitting the church.
But after the success of the Open People's Church in last month’s church elections, when it won almost two thirds of the votes, the bishops appear to have listened, setting up a special meeting on the issue.
Byfuglien said that the bishops’ overarching concern was to avoid splits in the church over the issue.
“There are different perceptions of marriage among same sex couples both in the Norwegian Church and among the bishops. But we are keen to find a decision that could have a unifying effect,” she told the NTB newswire.
The final hurdle is a vote in the church synod this spring, after which the liturgy needs to be prepared.
“After the synod has agreed to this in the spring, the decision will need to be put out for consultation. The first gay marriages could happen in 2017,” Stålsett predicted.
This would put the country years behind its Scandinavian neighbours. Sweden authorized religious same-sex marriage in 2009, and Denmark in 2012 made it mandatory for all churches to offer full religious weddings for same-sex couples.