Bo Brander offers an account of the current state of the Church of Sweden
At the end of October this year I will retire after almost 44 years in service as a minister in the Church of Sweden. This 44-year period has been the most tragic period of decline in the thousand year history of the Swedish church. When I was ordained in 1974 almost 95% of the inhabitants of the country were members of the church. Now the figure is below 65%. More than 85% of children under a year old were baptized, now it’s less than half who are baptized. In the mid-Seventies three-quarters of young people attended a confirmation course. That figure has fallen to just over a quarter today.
The most alarming crisis for the church is the breakdown of the custom of church going.
20 years ago, the Church of Sweden counted about 9 million worshippers at the main Sunday services. Today the figure is a mere 3.7 million. The decline is accelerating at an alarming rate, and more and more churches are closing. Often services are being held just one Sunday per month, and in too many churches the sermon is preached to more or less empty pews.
There are of course exceptions. There are still living parishes in the desert landscape of the Swedish church. They are described as ‘glowing spots’ by the retired bishop Björn Fjärstedt. They often combine a catholic liturgy with traditional Swedish Jesus-centred proclamation of the gospel in an atmosphere that is Charismatic and Pentecostal. People with different spiritual backgrounds are coming together for service and devotion.
But it is not only in the structure of the church that the Swedish church has fallen apart. Its inner life and spirituality is also crumbling. At the time when I was ordained, the Church of Sweden was easy to recognize as an Evangelical Lutheran church with the Word of God in its midst and the Book of Concord as its most important text for the interpretation of the creed. Little by little, the dark and heavy gravity of the church services was lifted by influences from world Christianity. The church shifted from services conducted in black robes, with long sermons and Eucharist held rarely, to masses in liturgical colours, with processions and a more active participation of the laity. The so-called High Church Movement meant a lot for this development. Today all this is questioned. The Bible, which earlier was called ‘God’s clear world,’ is now understood as a collection of uncertain stories, difficult to understand and even more difficult to accept.
Two things are dominating the church agenda at this time. The first is the moral concern for the equality of all human beings, and the equal right to live and express yourself without the risk of being questioned. The makes the Swedish church a very active part in the LGBT movement’s ambitions. A growing number of parishes strive to get the LGBT certification and display it with the pride flag.
The second is the total takeover of the governing of the church by political parties. At the turn of the millennium the ties between the state and the church were untied. It gave a hope that the church in a normal democratic way could rule and govern itself, but it went completely in the opposite direction. The political parties dominate the church—on parish level, on diocesan level, on national level. They decide on the liturgical books for the church. The Swedish church received new liturgical books at Whitsuntide this year. The opposition was strong—from priests, from laymen, and not at least from experts in hymnology and liturgical music. Even the Swedish Academy criticized the work strongly, but no consideration was given. In the long run this political ruling of the church is deforming it. Appointments of both bishops and parish priests are directed by political ambitions and if the parish board is not satisfied with a vicar it is very easy to get rid of that person.
Swedes are known for belonging without believing, but the map is under reconstruction. Nowadays hundreds of thousands of Muslims are living in Sweden. They bring their practices of belief into our society. Their religious customs are for the very secularized Swedish inhabitants a witness that it is not that odd to believe in God and worship him.
After the Church of Sweden, the largest Christian population is Roman Catholic. The Catholic Diocese of Stockholm is growing in numbers, but also in impact on Swedish society. When Bishop Anders Arborelius was made a cardinal a year ago it spread joy and thankfulness not only in the Catholic church in Sweden, but also among many Christians from different denominations. Suddenly we realized that there is a leader in Swedish Christianity who is not a Church of Sweden bishop, but a Catholic bishop. He is the natural leader of Christianity in our country.
The Church of Sweden is really under threat, but with the grace of God and in an attitude of repentance, and with a renewed relationship with Jesus Christ, the dehydrated Swedish church can blossom again and let Jesus work in full freedom in our country to bring joy and life to all her people. Let us pray that, with a growing ecumenical dialogue (particularly among the young) and with strong new leaders, this can come to pass.
Father Bo Brander is a priest of the Church of Sweden.