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Clifford Owen visits the Church of Swede

The Sunday morning Eucharist had just finished.  The visitors had swollen the congregation by a third.  There was some good conversation but no coffee afterwards.  As we made our way out through the church porch a small party of family and friends were gathering dressed in Sunday best.  They had a babe in arms wrapped in a beautiful christening gown and were awaiting their turn to enter the church for the baptism.  The church was Holy Trinity Uppsala, Sweden on May 28th 2000.  

  “Do the baptisms ever take place in the main act of worship?” I asked the Rev’d Dr in charge of our party.  “Oh, frequently”, he replied.  “It’s the normal practice.”  Quite why the norm was being departed from that May morning no-one seemed to know, but the experience of my four-day visit to the Church in Sweden gave me a new scenario bench mark to work from.  For years MORIB has been trying to focus thought on the numerical difference between the Church of England’s baptised membership figures and the faithful core regular worshipping numbers, and calling people not only to “mind the gap” but actively to work to close the gap!  In Sweden I got the impression that no-one particularly minded the gap!  

At first hearing the Church of Sweden might give the average Mr. MORIB apoplexy, because membership is not even tied to baptism but to statehood!  However, all that has just changed.    

A quotation from a paper* by Dr Ragnar Persenius, Church Secretary of the Svenska Kyrkan, sets out the new position:

Up until 1st January 1996 it has been possible for children automatically to become members of the Church of Sweden at birth, provided that one of the parents was a member.  Baptism was not required, although about 90% of the children were baptised.  This internationally unique situation was due to the specific historical and legislative development in Sweden.  The regulations were not theologically motivated, although some individuals have tried to give such motivations to them.

About 88% of the population in Sweden belongs to the established Lutheran Church.  The bonds between people and Church are strong.  They are most evidently displayed in the many rites and traditions which are closely connected to particular milestones in life.  The statistical figures of baptism, confirmation, weddings, and funerals in the Church are still very high, even though attendances at Sunday services are comparatively low from an international viewpoint.

After 1995 baptism is the normal requirement for a person to become a member of the Church of Sweden.  The principle of the openness of the Church is marked by the possibility for children to belong to the Church while on their way to baptism, in a form of catechumenate.  An important sign of renewal of the identity and approach of the church is the pastoral programme of evangelisation which the church has enforced in connection to membership reform.  Every parent belonging to the Church is according to the programme to be contacted by the local parish for information about the membership rules, teaching and an invitation to baptise the newborn child.

The visit I was privileged to be on was the first liaison / introductory visit for Anglican Clergy and Ecumenical Officers following on from the PORVOO agreement.  I made sure that a copy of “Baptise Every Baby?” was handed to the course tutor, and one given to the Communications Officer in Church House, Uppsala (the object being to give them apoplexy!).

Nevertheless, I think I believe them when they say that the bonds between church and people are strong.  Sweden has a different history from ours.  They had a relatively unviolent Reformation and their theology is described as Evangelical-Lutheran.  A four-day visit is quite insufficient to test out in any depth what this means.  In fact, one myth about Sweden, that it is the most secular country in Europe, was quietly put to rest.  If anything slightly more attend church each week than in England.

As I say, my visit provided me with a new scenario bench mark.  Whilst I was encouraged to see that movement in our (the C of E) direction was beginning to happen I realised that it was no good my being judgemental about their baptism practice.  One would need some time to understand their historical development and present culture before pressing them towards BI's agenda.  Now that following PORVOO our ministries are interchangeable, it would be worth noting that more Anglican clergy could find themselves on visits to and ministering in Scandinavia, and vice versa, with all the possibilities for dialogue that that opens up.

On an encouraging note, I came away from Sweden feeling that in no way could I write off this State Church as a religious charade.  There is real faith there.

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