SWEDES ARE GOOD FOR US!
By Nick Hance TSSF
Our party of priests and LLMs from the Oxford Diocese visited Sweden under the Oxford – Vaxjo educational link during 22nd September and 1st October. We were led by the Revd Hugh White, whose ability to speak Swedish helped us gain the maximum learning from our visit.
We stayed at St Sigfrid’s School near the city of Växjö, billed as “The Greenest City in Europe”. The School taught Music and the Arts but also provided 50 students with a ‘second chance’ to gain qualifications after dropping out of education. Our delightful hostess Åse is a teacher there and she organised Morning Prayer in the Chapel so starting each day perfectly.
Any stereotypical thoughts we had about Sweden and its people were shattered! Yes, Sweden is full of trees, lakes and brightly painted houses. It is twice the size of the UK; but it only has a population of 9 million people, consequently there is little traffic and life is much less frenetic. Swedes are not cold and distant, nor do they shy away from having contact with strangers. Surprisingly they do not avoid discussions about feelings and the deeper things of life.
We noticed a reverence for light and people used it everywhere in their architecture and homes as defiance against the five dark months of winter. At sunset houses become ablaze with lamps set in every window. Derek Lancaster said, “For me, the keyword of the trip was ‘beautiful’. We were in beautiful countryside and forest, we shared in beautiful worship and prayer and we encountered people whose calm, inner spirituality was beautiful.”
Visits were made to the cathedrals in Växjö and Kalmar, the Bishop’s palace, nearby parish churches – and an 8-mile pilgrimage along St Sigfrid’s trail through forests and hills. We enjoyed deep discussions with our hosts comparing the Churches of Sweden and England. We partook of Swedish “Fika” – a mid-morning coffee break augmented by a second breakfast and a mid-afternoon break of tea, pastries and fruit!
The main difference between the national churches was in the roles of priests and deacons. The role of a Swedish deacon is not a step towards priesthood but rather one of pastoral care. Priests do the sacramental work and manage the people paid by the Church of Sweden doing parish work. Deacons do much of the day-to-day Parish work.
About 70% of the Swedish people currently opt to pay the Church Tax ensuring magnificent resources are available in every parish (most churches had suites of toilets) but only 2% of the people go to church. We visited Mother and Toddler groups, homes for the elderly and a well-resourced drop-in centre for the poor and disadvantaged. Linda West said, “It will be interesting to see how things develop in the Swedish church over the coming years as their tax funding declines and they are forced to rely more on volunteers – something which I think may be a good thing as it will encourage more discipleship.”
Sweden currently has a relatively liberal policy towards immigration with over one-tenth of the population being immigrants. The recent election has shown that this has become a topical issue in Sweden and our discussions reflected this.
Everyone found the Inclusive Mass (eg gay, transvestites etc) at the cathedral a moving and spiritual occasion and, as Barry Fleming put it; “We shared the peace with no language barrier and we all knew what we were doing – sharing our personal feelings and emotions together.”