Gay images lead Pope to cancel talks with Lutheran archbishop


The Churches

The wrath of the Vatican has fallen on Sweden following an exhibition of photographs in Uppsala's Lutheran Cathedral depicting Christ surrounded by homosexuals.

In an unprecedented breach of diplomatic relations with a friendly church, Pope John Paul II has made clear his disapproval by telling the Archbishop of Sweden, Dr Karl-Gustav Hammar, that he is unilaterally cancelling a meeting between them in Rome next weekend.

"We have been told that frankly the Pope did not want to meet him. The whole trip has been cancelled," said Mr Tommy Lofgren, a church spokesman in Uppsala, seat of the archbishop.

Possibly even more problematic for the pontiff, Dr Hammar has been open in endorsing the position of gays in the church and supporting the ordination of homosexual priests, including those living with partners.

Such a position is radical even in socially-liberal Sweden and has been criticised by some Lutherans. It certainly remains anathema to the Catholic Church despite a series of scandals involving priests in recent years: or at least sufficiently serious for the conservative and ageing Pope to call off a meeting with the archbishop, who is the Lutheran's Church's head of ecumenical relations. Officially the Vatican line is that the meeting has been postponed.

In a terse and hurt statement, Dr Hammar, who since last year has been leader of the church to which more than 90 per cent of Swedes at least nominally belong, said: "I deeply regret the decision of the Vatican and I am very surprised that this point has been made so strongly.

"I do not see it as a personal failure that talks will not take place in the near future. That they have decided to humiliate the entire church of Sweden in this way seems strange to me."

Crunch point for the Pope appears to have been the controversial exhibition of photographs by the Swedish artist Elizabeth Olsson, which were displayed in the cathedral, the Swedish equivalent of Canterbury, a fortnight ago.

More than 10,000 Swedes queued to get into the church to view the dozen poster-sized photographs in which Ms Olsson's friends depicted episodes from the life of Christ, including a transvestite version of the Last Supper and a naked portrait of Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist. Other pictures showed Christ surrounded by AIDS patients and a homosexual beaten up by skinheads.

"It was the biggest crowd we have ever had at the cathedral. There were lots of police on hand to prevent trouble, but they were needed to control the crowds," said Mr Lofgren.

The invitation for the exhibition came from the cathedral's dean, Dr Tuulikki Koivunen Bylund - another papal sticking point as she is a woman priest - and Archbishop Hammar made it clear he could not intervene in her decision.

The exhibition prompted death threats to the artist and expressions of outrage in the media.

The archbishop has told interviewers that its display was an opportunity for everyone to discuss homosexuality and its place in the church.

Mr Johann Hasslow, the archbishop's spokesman, said: "Of course, the exhibition has been controversial in Sweden, and some people do not approve, but that is quite normal. Dr Hammar has a reputation for being a bit liberal. He will never change his views just because of this, never."