The Church of Sweden in a Time of Challenges

The Church of Sweden’s situation in its Western European context could be described by statistics. However, I want to start with my own experience. Deep in my memory, I have an experience of physical and existential pain. It is also a story of challenges and vocation.   

When I was 21 years old, a pastor asked me to lead the morning service on Christmas day. That was an honor indeed, because this is one of the most popular and beautiful services of the year. It has a long tradition going back to the middle ages.  I started to practice the liturgy in September. The opening liturgical hymn has an especially dramatic touch.  The minister sings as the angel, and the parish answers as the shepherds. At seven a.m. on that Christmas Day, I stood in front of the altar.  The church was a baroque-style wooden building in a rural area with old traditions. That morning, we used no electricity, just candles, and the light was glimmering in the gold of the sculptures of medieval saints. I stood in front of the altar, dressed in white like the angel, and out of my heart I sang: “I bring you good news of great joy, Alleluia.”  Se jag bär bud till er om en stor glädje, Halleluja.

When the parish should have sung the answer, guess what happened. Nothing. Just silence –  some seconds with a taste of eternity –  followed by my reaction.  I couldn’t stand it, so I answered myself: “A great joy for all the people, Alleluia.”

Afterwards in the vestry, my neck and shoulders felt strained. Even there, in a rural traditional area, one of the strongest of our liturgical traditions was broken. Later, I realized that I had listened not just to the silence of dechristianization, but also to the silence of the cosmos. St. Mary heard that cosmic silence when the archangel Gabriel foretold Christ’s birth.   And out of that silence grew her answer, her vocation.

The Church of Sweden, the national Lutheran Church, was until the end of the 20th Century a state church. On the first of January 2000, new legislation came into force. We have never received money from the state, but the state has collected our member fees. As in Germany, this system continues after the changed relationship. We have eight million members, and the old system functions.

The change is that the governmental Civil Minister has nothing to do with the church anymore. According to the old order, the diocese elected three bishop candidates, and the Civil Minister appointed one of them. She (I remember only women civil ministers) had as far as I know just one focus. The candidate who could ordain women became the elected Bishop.

When the Congregationalists of Massachusetts were disestablished by the state in the 1830s, the dechristianization of European hearts had already started. From the French revolution on, Christianity in Western Europe has been seen as something old fashioned, outdated, medieval. In the settlement culture of North America, the religious communities played a main role. The religion took the place of the roots and the relatives that the immigrants had left in the old world. The language, the culture, the whole identity was kept by the immigrants’ churches. Swedes still get religious when they move abroad. The Church of Sweden abroad is the most popular branch of the church. But at home, you have all the symbols of heritage and belonging everywhere. It is so natural so you don’t even reflect on it. The welfare state and the culture have taken the place of the church in Western Europe.

The Swedish process of division between state and church has been without tensions.  Most of the old national churches in Europe have gone this way before us. But to get disestablished in the hearts of the people, that has been a painful process indeed. The parish I served as a priest, a suburb of Stockholm, had 22,000 members, and we were five priests. I had the responsibility for one of the three churches.  It was like a parish in itself; we call it a district.  In the district we were six thousand church members. Out of them, ten to fifteen old women were regular church goers.

There is a joke saying that the Swedes must be carried to the church, otherwise they don’t come. The first time, we are carried by our parents to the baptismal font, and the second time in a casket. Why then, remain members?

The Gallup polls give three answers to the question of why church membership without being an active Christian:

1.  The church buildings and the church yards are important. With your member fee you pay for a part of the cultural heritage. The church building itself is preaching. It is a sign of safety and divine care. In Sweden, when  –  because of the decline of members – we have discussed closing churches where there are no people, it has created a loud debate in the media. The buildings are important.

2.  The second thing is that the church is seen as an emergency exit. The welfare state of Western Europe is the best attempt so far in world history to guarantee safety and security. But life is complicated. In national catastrophes, the churches get filled with people. Catastrophes happen also on a personal basis, and the church has an open backdoor: You are not left alone; you have a backup.

3.  The third point is the fact that the churches are seen as embassies of solidarity and mercy. All over Europe, illegal immigrants are hidden by parishes. Anti-racism demonstrations are normally organized by parishes. The protests against reductions in childcare or hospitals and for Jubilee 2000 are signs of solidarity.

From the beginning of Christianity in Northern Europe, the church can be described as a part of the state. Church and state were the same. Probably in the year 1008, King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden was baptized by St. Sigfrid, Bishop of Växjö. Out of Christianity grew the state.  Through baptism you became a Swede. The faith of the king united the nation, confirmed the royal house, and incorporated this northern part of the world into the international community under the pope of Rome.

Five hundred years later the Reformation supported the idea of a nation state. The king of Sweden –  as well as the king of Denmark and the king of England –   took the place of the pope. They became heads of their national churches. The Swedish king had no liturgical or confessional interests, so the clergy could marry officially but still use the medieval chasubles and hymns and keep the apostolic succession. The king needed the land owned by the monasteries, and in the church he got an obedient instrument for creating conformity in his country: one people, one faith, one king, one church.

Another 500 years later, the reality all over Europe is the multiculture.  It has always been there, but the nation states were ambitious projects of monism and conformism. Today the challenge is to be a meeting point for all the different communities of our society .

In the parish I served, we tried to find ways of being a church in a changing world. I walked wherever I had to go.  For ideological reasons I had no car. I wanted to meet individuals on the street. We met people in schools, factories, bars, neither to offer them help nor to let them be consumers of our service. We wanted to cooperate with them. We were not sure whether they needed us, but for sure, we needed them.  We needed to listen to them.

I believe that we must start listening to the silence.  The dechristianization is our Western European context. The old free churches –  the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Methodists – also have empty churches today, if they have not sold them.

I also believe that in responding to the silence we must sing and dance, but to sing and dance alone doesn’t work.   A part of the reason we tend to sing and dance alone is our traditional way of describing God. We have been Christ-centered in an individualistic way. Individuals were called by Christ.  All by myself, I was the giving servant. It was Jesus and me.  But in the Dance of the Trinity we are all participants. There is a  circulation among the Hypostases, the Actors in the Trinity. The church is the circulation of resources in the body of Christ. To be church is to join in the Dance of the Trinity.

My happiest memories are from our multicultural feasts when we danced West-African dances as well as Syrian Orthodox dances and Swedish folk dances, all together. On one of the celebrations we were 600 participants in our church. In the dance, the multiculture was no more a problem or a challenge. It was the reality, and the reality to celebrate was: We need you.  That is the credo of the dancing church.  I believe that this dance has something to do with the dance of the Trinity.

Mikael Mogren, a priest in the Church of Sweden,last fall was a visiting scholar at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.This paper was the basis of a presentation he made to a group of students, faculty, and visitors.

Near the close of his remarks, Mikael described the eagerness with which pastors would attempt to convey the Christian message to couples who came to the church requesting baptism for their children.  The result has often been that the couples are convinced that they can’t possibly think of themselves as Christians so they either decide to call the whole thing off or go through with it and never come back.

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