Disestablishment and Disintegration

THE TURN OF THE MILLENNIUM meant that the Church of Sweden was disestablished. In about the same way as in England the King in the beginning of the 16th century took power in the church. With the freedom of religion, fully brought into law in Sweden in the middle of the 20th century, a discussion of the state church system also started. For several decades those who furthered the involvement of the ordinary political parties in the running of the church could resist the demands for separation between state and church.

Finally they had go give up and agree to disestablishment. But by then the politicians had such a firm position in the church that they could write the laws for the free Church of Sweden. As one would expect, everything was disposed so as to give them prolonged power in the church. The development had been going on for some time, but now it is finalised – as far as possible, power has been taken away from the bishops and the diocesan authorities and given to the local parishes, and from the parish priests to the parish councils, themselves in the hands of the politicians.

The Church of Sweden still describes itself as an episcopal church. But that is now a label that does not concur with reality. In all matters there is now a Congregationalist church in Sweden. There are rules that bishops and diocesan chapters shall inspect the parishes, but they have no power to change anything. The priests used to be employed by the dioceses, even if they usually were appointed by the PCC’s. That of course is the catholic way – the priests are the bishop’s representatives in the parishes. But now they are employed by the parishes. That means that the PCC can deal immediately with a priest, if it does not like what is being done or said. It no is longer . obliged to lodge a complaint with the diocesan authorities. The position of the priests is weakened.

Now it has turned out that this will not always work according to the ideals of the politicians. Already local parishes have acted in their own ways. In Church of Sweden you must belong to the parish where you live. Thus most parishes could be expected quietly to follow the demands of the politicians. For instance, twice in the last decade, in parishes in central Stockholm, PCCs were about to appoint orthodox vicars; but the political parties put pressure on them and they changed their minds.

There are, however, parishes which resist political involvement. And now, the free church being only some months old, two of them have acted. A parish, Solberga, near Gothenburg, appointed as vicar a priest who oppose the ordination of women. According to the laws for the Church of Sweden a priest who cannot celebrate mass together with a woman priest is not eligible as vicar ( such a candidate cannot even be ordained). The decision in this PCC was reported to the diocese which of course decided that it had to be changed. But the PCC answered that it had no intention of doing so.

At the same time a new cathedral dean, being also the vicar in the cathedral parish, in Harnosand in the northern part of Sweden, was appointed. In this case it is the diocesan board which has the right to appoint.

The cathedral PCC and the bishop proposed a chaplain of the cathedral. But the politicians thought otherwise, and chose a woman vicar. Asked by the cathedral PCC why their proposal had been turned down, the politicians answered that they didn’t have any obligation to give reasons for their decision. As you can guess, the PCC was infuriated, and went on to appoint, if not a dean, so at least a cathedral vicar of their own.

The central authorities of the church are now exploring what to do. One idea is to put financial pressure on the parishes, which in these cases turns out to be a problem – they are both rich (in the Church of Sweden only a poor parish gets additional money from central funds). The only way the diocesan chapters can act is to deny the priests in question the right to function as priests. But what would probably happen then is that the parishes in question would opt to continue with the priest of their choice anyway.

What you see is a free Church of Sweden falling apart already from the very beginning. That combined with the other problems for the national churches of Northern Europe – falling church attendance, the liberal agenda with blessings of homosexual unions and inclusive language, and so on – offers a bleak prospect for the future.

Those who the Swedish mass media now use as spokesmen for the Christian faith are the Roman Catholic bishop in Stockholm and a Roman priest, professor at the University of Lund. The Archbishop of Uppsala is all into the modern views – everyone has his own faith which the Church should not question, and more important than what you believe is what you feel etc.

The Free Synod of Church of Sweden, the equivalent in Sweden to Forward in Faith, has tried to counter the politicians, but has in all important issues failed to do so. It will now rearrange its priorities. It will work for some kind of free diocese – which will not be accepted by the authorities, but could be formed anyhow. Already free eucharistic communities (called ‘koinonias’ after the Greek word for fellowship) are being formed. In Stockholm the Koinonia of St. Stephen has been active for over a year with Sunday masses in a former hospital chapel.

In Sweden there is no longer a single orthodox diocesan bishop; but the former bishop of Gothenburg, Bertil Gartner, is still strong enough to lead the Free Synod and the koinonias.

Soon however the time will come when it will be necessary to have a new bishop consecrated for those who resist the new ways of Church of Sweden. The pattern established by the Province of Singapore for the United States could suit Sweden very well!

Goran Beijer is Dean of Stockholm in the Free Synod of the Church of Sweden