A new archbishop will take office in Sweden on September 2. But how many people actually care? Only three out of 10 Swedes state that they have confidence in the church. Aren’t the Swedes interested in religion?
Tolerance and respect may be closer to most Swedes' hearts than religion, but for others the church still plays an important role. Photo: Jim Elfström / IKON
Swedes are characterized by a general confidence in values of liberty and a positive view of frankness, tolerance, trust, and respect for other people, according to a study carried out by Uppsala University.
In the survey, Sweden also shows the strongest support in the world for a democratic form of government. On the other hand, Swedes show weak support for values relating to religion, family, and national identity. But this is not to say that Swedes lack faith.
Young people are receptive to spirituality
Annika Gustafsson is a theology student whose studies have included work experience in congregations and at confirmation camps. She says that almost all of the young people she meets are open to questions relating to religious and spiritual matters, even though they may have objections to ecclesiastical matters.
Many Swedes say that religion is not that important to them. Nevertheless, almost 40 procent of all 15-year-olds choose to be confirmed. Photo: Jim Elfström / IKON
“Some young people say that only 80-year-olds go to church,” Gustafsson says. “But there is a belief and a longing for spirituality. It's the language and form that can be experienced as unfamiliar rather than the content. No one I meet questions the message of love, compassion for your fellow man, and forgiveness.”
The role of religion has changed
Religion has not become less important in Swedish society but it has changed color, according to a report from Åbo Academy (Finland). In the secularized Nordic area the Protestant Lutheran church has to be liberal and open to a modern interpretation of the Christian message. Otherwise the church feels too authoritarian – an attitude that most Swedes do not accept.
The majority of children are christened in the Church of Sweden. Photo: Jim Elfström / IKON
Economist Agnar Hall is like many other Swedes: his contact with the church is limited to christenings, confirmations, marriages, and burials. “My daily life is not affected in the least by the fact that we’re getting a new archbishop,” he says, but adds that it of course affects the development of the Church of Sweden.
Hall claims that the church has been disconnected from Swedes’ everyday lives, but that it still fulfills a function. For example, when a major tragedy occurs, such as the tsunami catastrophe, and there are so many questions and no simple answers, then people need something to congregate around.
More and more people leave the Church of Sweden
In the 1970s, almost twice as many people were christened, confirmed, and married as today. And the Church of Sweden is losing members. One explanation could be that nowadays you are exempt from church taxes if you leave the Church of Sweden. Another explanation could be that Christianity per se has been removed as a school subject; young people no longer know the Bible’s message, so it is hard for them to relate to church.
Yet many Swedes express a longing for a spiritual dimension and a deeper meaning. Modern society has left a void that neither science nor a high material standard can fill.
Islam is a growing religion in Sweden. This Stockholm mosque opened in 2000. Photo: Maskot
Those who the Church of Sweden fails to attract look for alternatives. Non-conformist churches – of which the Pentecostal Movement is the largest with around 87,000 members – is one example. Others are varieties of eastern religions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism.
Due to immigration to Sweden, Islam is now the country’s second largest religion after Christianity. A number of mosques have already been built in different parts of Sweden and more are planned.
Within Christianity the Catholic Church in Sweden is also large. Today it has a total of 80,500 registered members.
The church as counterbalance
The former archbishop, KG Hammar, was controversial and received a great deal of media coverage. Although many people considered him radical and provocative because of his numerous attempts at renewal, he also appealed to many, particularly academics and intellectuals. But Hammar never succeeded in attracting more visitors.
Anders Wejryd, bishop from Växjö diocese, will be the 69th archbishop in the Church of Sweden. He is the first archbishop to be selected by the church itself since the Church of Sweden was separated from the state in 2000. Previously, bishops were appointed by the government.
Before his election, Wejryd highlighted two issues: that the Church of Sweden must become involved with less fortunate people both in Sweden and abroad and that the Christian experience can operate as a counterbalance to the anxiety and the demands that permeate society today. It remains to be seen whether Swedes will come to listen.
- Almost 8 out of 10 Swedes are members of the Church of Sweden - 7 million.
- Only 1 in 10 Swedes thinks religion is important in daily life.
- Around 7 out of 10 children are christened in the Church of Sweden.
- Just over 5 out of 10 weddings take place in church.
- Almost 9 out of 10 Swedes have Christian burials.
- Islam has around 130,000 adherents in Sweden (more according to Muslim sources).
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Charlotte Celsing is a freelance journalist with an MA in cultural anthropology and literature. She has lived and worked in Indonesia, on Fiji, and in Australia. Now she writes for the daily press as well as monthly publications and has recently published her first book.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Translation: Angela Barnett-Lindberg
© Photo 1: Jim Elfström/IKON
© Photo 2: Jim Elfström/IKON
© Photo 3: Jim Elfström/IKON
© Photo 4: Maskot
© Frontpage image: Susanne Engman/IKON
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