Many Norwegians are mourning the death over the weekend of the first female bishop in The Norwegian Church, Rosemarie Köhn. She was being hailed as a pioneer who cleared the way for diversity among the clergy.
Köhn was not only the first woman to be ordained in 1993 as a bishop in Norway but in all the Nordic countries. She’s also remembered for opening the church to homosexuals and, in 1999, all but ordering a lesbian female pastor, Siri Sunde, back to work after she’d married another woman. At that time, homosexuals living in an established partnership couldn’t be pastors.
It was also long before the former evangelical Lutheran state church in Norway broke loose from both the state and “certain conservative conventions,” wrote commentator Frank Rossavik in newspaper Aftenposten on Monday. He hailed Köhn for opening up the church and “changing it forever.”
She was born in Germany in 1939 to a Norwegian mother and German father. She and her mother survived War World II and moved in 1946 to Norway, where Köhn grew up in Gjerdrum, north of Oslo. She ended up studying theology and was ordained as a pastor in 1969. She also taught Hebrew and lectured at the University of Oslo on the history of religion and Christianity.
She was ultimately nominated to become bishop in Hamar in 1992 and formally granted the position by King Harald V, who along with Queen Sonja were present at the ceremony when she became Norway’s first female bishop.
Köhn served for 13 years, until she retired in 2006 and was succeeded by another woman, Solveig Fiske. “She created more room for those who hadn’t felt at home in the church,” said Kristen Grunleiksrud Raaum, leader of the church council. “She won folks’ hearts. She quickly became a much loved bishop who was part of changing the Norwegian Church.”
Known mostly as “Rose,” she was also viewed as “an icon for an open people’s church and for women as church leaders in Norway and all of the Nordic countries,” according to church chairman Olav Fykse Tveit. “She had experienced how important it was for the Norwegian Chuch to become more tolerant and make room for everyone.”
She married herself, in 2006, and is survived by her wife Susanne Sønderbo, a Danish pastor and psychologist. The two wrote several books together, concentrating on “good words for life.”
Köhn suffered strokes and died early Sunday at the age of 83 after what the church called “a lengthy illness.” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre announced on Monday that she’ll be honoured with a state funeral, to be held already this Thursday at the cathedral in Hamar where she was bishop.
“She was a bishop who made her mark, both with individuals and society,” said Støre. “We will remember her for her important campaign for a more open church and a more tolerant, egalitarian society.”