There are 3 500 churches in this vast but sparsely populated country. Sweden has almost 9 million people, and 2009 was 71,3 percent of them are members of the Church of Sweden.
What sort of Church is this, where does it stand within world Christianity, what is its relationship to the state, and why do so many in this secularised country still belong to it? This text aims to answer these questions and to introduce this church which, especially in its earliest years and more recently, has had a close relationship with the English-speaking peoples.
The church building and the services
Passing through the manicured churchyards with rows of carefully tended headstones and meticulously raked gravel paths, step inside one of these churches. The basic shape will be familiar to all Christians but some features will strike most English-speaking people as unusual: the many medieval wall-paintings and fonts, the baroque furniture and decoration, the lack of much stained glass, the model of a fully-rigged schooner hanging from the roof. There are many churches of startling modern design, especially in the suburbs.
Services in the Church of Sweden
The Swedish word mässa, like so much in Lutheranism, has been kept from medieval times, but it has traditionally meant the main Sunday morning service, in the past usually without communion. But with the great increase in eucharistic services world-wide in non-Roman Catholic churches, efforts have been made in Sweden to return more to ancient usage and this is what a church notice board might mean by the services it is announcing:
- service with communion
- Sunday/Feast-days principal service with communion
- Sunday/Feast-days principal service without communion
- Sunday service of simpler form
- Sunday service of simpler form, suitable for all ages
- Short evening service linked to the ringing of bells on the eve of a Sunday or feast-day.
Participation in the distribution of bread and wine near the end of a mass is open in the Church of Sweden to all baptised persons, including children if they come forward with an adult. The communion service will always be conducted by a priest, man or woman, who will have been ordained by one of the Swedish bishops. Other services may have lay leadership.
Catholic, Protestant or what?
The official description of the Church of Sweden is:
The Church of Sweden is an Evangelical Lutheran community of faith manifested in parishes and dioceses. The Church of Sweden also has a national organisation.
The Church of Sweden is an open national church, which, working with a democratic organisation and through the ministry of the church, covers the whole nation.
The description Evangelical Lutheran means that at the Reformation it adopted the reforms to the medieval teaching and organisation common to all Protestant churches, following the more moderate line of Martin Luther in preference to the stricter purging in teaching and practice associated with John Calvin.
Accordingly, evangelical means much the same as Protestant in ordinary English, placing a higher priority on the Bible than on Tradition. As the Word of God to mankind the Bible is recognised as the unquestioned starting-point of all doctrine. The moderation of the Lutheran Reformation is nowhere better seen than in Sweden where the churches remained much the same, bishops were retained in charge of their dioceses and the liturgy only changed in certain respects.
The character of the church can be well illustrated by its confessional documents. In addition to the Holy Scripture itself, there are the three catholic creeds, the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian and the Confessio Augustana or Augsburg Confession, all of which are said to summarize the faith, confession and teaching of the Church of Sweden.
Other significant writings are the Book of Concord, the traditional confession of Lutheranism, which in fact includes the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, the Schmalkaldic Articles, the document about the pope, the Small and the Great Catechisms of Luther and the Formula of Concord. In addition to this there are the Decisions of the Uppsala Meeting of 1593, which give the Church of Sweden a character of its own particularly in confirming the regulations of church life produced by the first reformed Archbishop of Uppsala, Laurentius Petri, in 1571. By this the liturgy was reformed according to Swedish and not German practice.
The description national church (folkkyrka) became popular in the 20th century as an alternative to state church and it denotes a church which embraces the whole country so that every part is in a parish with a local parish church; the Church of Sweden is not therefore a gathered church, ministering only to those who actively belong. The adjective democratic means that every fourth year elections are held for all the decision-making bodies within the church, at parish, diocese and national level. Every member of the Church of Sweden over the age of 16 is entitled to vote. To be a candidate for office one has to be a member, baptised and at least 18.
Alongside this democratic element is the episcopal structure the Church of Sweden has inherited from the past. This ensures that the clergy, although they are employed by the parish, are bound by their ordination vows to the church's faith, confession and teaching and have a special ministerial relationship to their diocese and their bishop.
The occasional services
These are where the Church of Sweden comes into direct contact with the majority of the Swedish people, and when the description national church most truly applies. Some 70 percent of the population are brought for baptism by their parents and about 50 percent go forward for confirmation in their early teens. About the same percentage are married by the church and some 90 percent are buried with a Church of Sweden service.
Baptism is open to all children and is regarded as one of the two sacraments of the universal church. Baptism of adults, at confirmation or later is now becoming quite common, and this involves a course of preparation. It is customary, where possible and desirable, to have the service with the congregation present in a normal service. Baptism is by pouring water three times over the forehead, ”in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” at the font often of medieval date and richly carved.
Confirmation is still popular in Sweden for those in their early teens. Great stress is laid on the long course of preparation, in which the doctrine and practice of the church is explained, and discussion encouraged on ethical and social problems. There is no examination at the end and this is linked to the emphasis that God's grace is freely given, human achievement not being a pre-requisite. This course is most often held in the parish but sometimes also in a camp during the long summer holiday.
Confirmation is not an episcopal act in the Church of Sweden, and the heart of it is the passage in the service when the candidates give an account of what they have experienced and been taught during their training, the laying on of hands by the priest in charge, followed usually by the first communion. It is not regarded as a sacrament but as a solemn confirming, at the age of discretion, by the candidate of what was done for him or her as a baby. The candidates wear alb-like garments as a symbol of the white dress worn when they were baptised as babies for this ceremony and many remember it as a solemn moment in their lives.
A marriage in church involves vows of life-long partnership, in sorrow as well as in joy. It is not regarded as a sacrament but as vows made by the bride and groom in the presence of God and whereby they have the church's intercession and blessing. It must take place before witnesses and after the state has certified that they are legally free to marry.
Funerals in church are for all members of the Church of Sweden. It is assumed that a person who has come out of the church does not want to have a church service, and the principle of giving preference to the will of the deceased means that this is the starting point whenever a church funeral is asked for. The service expresses the sorrow of the bereaved, the seriousness of death, but also the hope and promise of new life, trust in God's mercy and the proclamation of resurrection.
Since the Church of Sweden is responsible for almost all cemetaries, every parish has to provide a burial ground, access to cremation and a locale for a non-religious ceremony for those who wish it. There is no charge for the service itself but the undertaker's expenses have to be paid by the next-of-kin.
Confidential help and advice is offered by every Swedish priest to whoever desires it, irrespective of membership of the Church of Sweden. Priests are trained in counselling, and can, when the person desires it, move the conversation into private confession, when the person confesses their sins before God with the priest as witness. The priest then pronounces God's forgiveness for the sins confessed and the person knows a reconciliation with God and themselves.
Telephone help is available on a 24-hour basis with a duty priest. The state law prohibits the legal system from calling a priest as a witness in court. This means that under no circumstances can he or she be compelled to divulge that which has been said during a confession and the priest is bound by his or her ordination vows to observe this obligation.
The ministry of the deacon
The diaconate is not merely a year's probation before priesthood; it is a separate order dedicated to care of the sick and to pastoral work. It originated following the pattern of the German churches, in which at first mainly women were trained in certain church institutions and made vows of service and faithfulness to the mother house; in this way it was similar to a religious order with distinctive dress, not wholly dissimilar from that of a nun. This element has now been abandoned, and the deacons are more closely tied to the diocese and parish.
The vows made at ordination involve seeking and helping anyone in bodily or spiritual need, defending the rights of all, standing beside the oppressed, and exhorting God's people to all good works so that the love of God is made visible in the world. The existence of such formalised church social work has in the past tended to mean that voluntary work has not been such an obvious part of being a member of a Christian congregation; but today this element is increasing and in many parishes volunteers carry out much of this work, often co-ordinated and led by a deacon.
The church and its structure
The Parish council (kyrkoråd) exists in every one of the approximately 2 225 parishes and, together with the rector (kyrkoherde) is responsible for the liturgy, and for the educational, social and evangelistic work. There are employed persons in every parish: a priest, a musician and often also a deacon. In the smaller, often rural, settings these officers are responsible for services and pastoral care in several parishes. Others can be employed according to the needs of the parish, such as church workers, teachers, virgers, sextons, office personnel, children and youth leaders, cleaners etc.
There are 13 dioceses in the Church of Sweden. Each is led by a bishop, whose tasks include ordaining the newly trained candidates to the priesthood and diaconate, and holding visitations regularly in every parish. The bishop is under the new system elected by the priests of the diocese together with an equal number of lay delegates. He is assisted by the chapter (domkapitlet) and by a diocesan synod (stiftsstyrelse). The chapter, consisting of clergy and laity, oversees the parishes and clergy, ensuring that they keep to the doctrine and practice of the Church of Sweden; since there are no suffragan bishops or archdeacons, the dean of the cathedral is the bishop's deputy in the diocese.
On the national level the church is led by the Archbishop of Uppsala, who represents the Church of Sweden in international and ecumenical matters and speaks for the Bishops' Meeting, of all bishops. But the decision-making body for the Church of Sweden is the Church Assembly (Kyrkomötet); it consists of 251 members, meeting twice annually and decides all matters concerning the regulation of church life (kyrkoordning). The Church Assembly elects the Central Board.
The financial affairs of the Church of Sweden
The financial affairs of the Church of Sweden illustrate the long connection with the state. All members are liable to pay church dues, collected by the state with the taxes and, under the new system, handed over to the church to finance all its operations, which include the maintenance of all its historic buildings. For this latter item the church is to receive extra money from the state and has to obtain expert agreement to any restoration or alteration.
The church dues are made up partly of the parish element, decided in each parish for its own members, and partly of the diocesan contribution; the size of that is decided by the diocesan synod. The same arrangement is now available for all other registered faith-communities, such as for example the Roman Catholic Church. Since the Church of Sweden also retains the responsibility for funerals and burial grounds for every citizen, every taxpayer pays a sum to defray the expenses of that work; it also is collected through the state system and paid over to the church.
Church and State
The Church of Sweden has been an established church. Until the 19th century it was the only church recognised by the state and its affairs were regulated by the parliament (riksdag). Meetings for other kinds of worship were strictly prohibited except for certain immigrant communities who, during the 17th century won the right to worship according to their beliefs as long as they did so in private buildings.
The 19th century also saw the first questioning of the propriety of having the church's affairs decided only by king and parliament but it was only in the second half of the century that a Church Assembly was established. It was to consist of 30 clergy, including the bishops, and 30 laypeople and was chaired by the archbishop. In 1949 this was increased to 43 clergy and 53 laypeople. It was given the right to decide, advise or give its consent in church matters, at a time when power to a large extent still rested with parliament.
Much further debate has taken place during this century and various adjustments have been made loosening the close connection with the state. The present situation is controlled by a radical set of laws, which came into force on 1st of January 2000. The Church of Sweden was then declared a ”faith-community” which, along with others, like the free churches, Roman Catholics, Jews, Moslems etc, could register themselves as such with the state and can have their church dues collected by the state along with income tax.
All of them except the Church of Sweden look after their own affairs as private, voluntary societies but church affairs are still to some extent regulated by state law. Only elected persons can sit and vote in the Church Assembly, so the bishops are present but have no vote and the clergy are now employed by the parish, no longer by the diocese. As majority members of the Doctrinal Commission of the Church Assembly, the position of the bishops as custodians of the tradition and teachings of the church is still strong.