From Sweden with love…

Dan InmanAt the end of May 2010, I had the opportunity of going on an ecclesiastical exchange to Jönköping, a city in the south of Sweden on the southern shores of Lake Vattern. I was working in a church with which we are twinned in the benefice, Sofiakyrkan. The trip was all part of a new programme in the Diocese of Oxford that seeks to strengthen our links with the Swedish Diocese of Växjö. It’s an interesting link because the Swedish church is, like the Church of England, national in character and was, until 2000, the established church in Sweden. Unlike in England, however, a large majority of Swedes still pay a church fee of about one per cent, and just under fifty per cent of Swedes are confirmed at the age of fourteen. Yet, despite this, Sweden has some of the lowest levels of belief in God in the world, and it is by these standards, the most secular country in Europe. The Swedish Church, which is Lutheran, should also be a valuable ecumenical conversation-partner at the moment, as it is one of the first major denominations to permit gay marriages in church, and has had women bishops since 1997.

In Jönköping, all this meant that there was an extraordinary number of clergy; there, a population of the size of Barford St Michael (c.500) would be sufficiently rich to pay for its own priest, organist and deacon, and there would be no difficulty paying for the upkeep of the building and graveyard. People in Sweden, it seems, feel that although they don’t retain Christian faith, they do retain an affection for the church and, in particular, are glad for its social work, its sponsorship of the arts, youth-work, and its development work overseas. While I was there, I was hosted by the PCC chair (who is always a layperson in the Swedish Church) in a basement flat, and with my bicycle, spent the week meeting clergy and laypeople, joining in the church’s social work with the unemployed, and, in particular, taking part in the church’s youth work and confirmation programmes, both in the diocesan retreat centre in Skyllingyrad in the countryside, and in the local secondary school. I also spent an afternoon in the local church pre-school, where I was treated to a kindergarten version of the Eurovision Song Contest, where twelve toddlers chose to sing – unsurprisingly – Sweden’s 2011 entry repeatedly until I vowed to vote for Sweden next year, and for the rest of my life. They seem to take it rather more seriously than we do…

In short, I learnt a lot in the three weeks that I was there. In particular, I was most impressed with the ease with which the Swedes are willing to discuss the ‘big questions’ of human existence, especially in the context of confirmation preparation. Perhaps this has something to do with the generous welfare provision that Sweden enjoys, and stress people there lay upon family life, but there seems to be more time and space for this sort of reflection and, frankly, they seem healthier for it as a people. The church continues to play a valuable role in prompting the rest of society to think more deeply about what it means to be alive and morally responsible, even in this more secular age, and there’s a lot we could learn from Sweden, both as a church and as a society, about what it means to nurture the good life.

A Swedish counterpart should be returning in the winter to experience life in our churches in this benefice and I hope, all being well, to set up some sort of association for younger clergy in both dioceses, so that these nascent ecumenical relationships might be developed in the coming decades, for the benefit, God willing, of both of our churches.

Dan Inman