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Signs of hope in a ‘secular’ land

07 August 2015

The Church of Sweden is experiencing elements of revival, says Andrew Brown


Reaching up: the towers of Hogalid Church in Stockholm, Sweden

Reaching up: the towers of Hogalid Church in Stockholm, Sweden

SWEDEN is, by some measures, the most secular country in the world, yet for most of the 19th century, Christianity was so completely established that banishment was among the legal penalties for apostasy: until the 1860s, anyone who left the Swedish State Church — even for another form of Christianity — could also be obliged to leave the country.

Dissenters were usually fined or imprisoned, but in the 250 years of the law’s operation, at least 15 people were exiled, mostly people who became Roman Catholics, but at least one Baptist, Fredrik Olaus Nilsson, in 1850.

The liberalisation of this law to allow people to join other Christian denominations came slowly. Until 1951, every Swedish citizen had to be registered as a member of some approved denomination. By that stage, only about four-fifths of the country claimed to believe in God; by 1980, the figure had shrunk to a half, and the decline continues steadily. The Church was formally disestablished in 2000.

Yet a fascinating book by the sociologist David Thurfjell, Det Gudlösa Folket (“The Godless People”; Molin & Sorgenfrei, Stockholm, 2015), finds all sorts of contradictions in this picture. For one thing, the entirely voluntary subscription that people pay to be members of the Church is still paid by nearly two-thirds of Swedes, even if only a minute fraction, about 1.3 per cent, go to church on a Sunday.

The number is shrinking steadily, but, in recent years, more people have signed up to pay than have requested to leave the Church, even if overall membership is shrinking because elderly congregations die.

The Archbishop of Uppsala, the Most Revd Antje Jackelén, with whom I talked at the General Synod in York last month, says that there is a movement among intellectuals and elites back towards Christianity. A surprising number of politicians, journalists, and even showbusiness people are now openly Christian, in a way that would have been hard to imagine 30 years ago.

As Archbishop, she is once more treated as an authority on ethics — speaking, for example, 12 times at the annual summer political fair at Almedalen this year, only twice on religious themes.

Meanwhile, during the period of Christianity’s greatest decline, the number of Swedes saying that they definitely do not believe in God has shrunk; the number who believe in an ill-defined “spirit or life-force” has risen to more than half, and belief in life after death has also increased. What on earth is going on?


THE Christian answer would, I suppose, involve a gradual forgetfulness of what Christianity means: a quotation from G. K. Chesterton would come in handy here, about the way that people who no longer believe in God believe in anything.

But Thurfjell has a different and subtler explanation. Let us start from the observation that in 1951 almost everyone in Sweden was legally Christian, and everyone, legally, believed in God, or belonged to a religion that professed the belief. Yet at least a fifth of these legally Christian Swedes had no belief in God.

Even at the time, this was felt to be an intolerable anomaly, and was attacked from both inside and outside the Church. The combative atheist philosopher Ingemar Hedenius opposed conventional Christian belief as being profoundly immoral. In particular, he was horrified by the notion of eternal conscious torment for the unsaved.

At the same time, the Free Churches and the Pentecostal movement attacked conventional Christianity precisely because they did believe in eternal damnation for all but the elect: one of their leaders described the Swedish Church as “millions of baptised heathens rushing to perdition”.

Within the Church of Sweden, there was a “high” sacerdotalist tradition which also wanted a retreat to purity — or, as its followers would probably have seen it, an ascent to a purified Church, more clearly distinguished from the world around.

The combined effect of these three movements, Thurfjell argues, was to change the ordinary meaning of “Christian”. As late as the early 1960s, the material used for religious education in primary schools approached Christianity through a list of 12 themes — respect for others, sharing, the love of nature, reverence for old people, and so on — only two of which were explicitly religious or churchy. The others were everyday virtues or non-religious spiritual refreshments.


IN THIS sense, then, Christianity stood for common decency, good behaviour, and delight in life: at least, it was understood that these were all examples of it.

But that was not enough for many Christians, and far too much for atheists of Hedenius’s style, and for many Social Democratic intellectuals. Social Democracy in its pomp was very like a State Church, with a chosen people. Instead of the clergy, there were scientifically validated experts, but their judgements were quite as much to be obeyed. “The Social Board wants you to eat eight slices of bread a day” — as one famous (unironical) poster campaign of the 1970s had it.

During the 1960s and ’70s, “Christianity” came to have a much more precise meaning: it became something at first distinct from ordinary decencies, and then something opposed to them.

The underlying beliefs of the Swedish people, and to some extent even their underlying practices, did not shift much. But their understanding of their own beliefs shifted dramatically. Once upon a time, Sweden was seen as virtuous and blessed because it was uniquely Christian; by the time I came to live there, in the late 1970s, it saw itself as virtuous and blessed because it was uniquely secular and unreligious. This is still the popular understanding.

People still believed in all the virtues of the primary school (more, I think, than they do now), but they now saw them as human values rather than Christian ones. Christianity, Thurfjell says, has become something that other people do.

This development has some likenesses to Professor Linda Woodhead’s account of the “values gap” that opened up between the Church of England and the society around it, although there are also important differences (Comment, 20 September 2013).

British governments are less ideological and less powerful than Swedish ones; Swedes paid their church tax without complaint, whereas the English are unlikely to tolerate a restoration of tithes. There is nothing in Sweden corresponding to the English church-school system; and, because the Church of Sweden really was a part of the State, it was Parliament that decided that there should be women priests, as far back as 1958, although their progress was bitterly contested for decades.

So you can make a case that disestablishment in Sweden, when it came in 2000, had become an almost inevitable development. “There were many people who feared that when the Church was no longer a part of the State, that it would be a collapse in membership,” Archbishop Jackelén said.

“But that hasn’t happened. It has diminished by about one per cent a year, and, in recent years, there are rather more people joining the Church than leaving it. Overall, it’s still shrinking, though, because people are dying.

“We know that, even if nobody asked to leave, there would still be rather fewer of us. Demography is pulling us down. But I feel very strongly that there are great and largely positive expectations of the Church, and that its voice has grown stronger and clearer, not least because we no longer are a State Church. We’re more of a partner now.”


WE TALKED about the priests in Ingmar Bergman’s films: sinister figures of a corrupt authority, who incarnated the darkness that enlightenment was meant to banish.

“When I was a young priest, doing home visits, people would sometimes say to me: ‘But you’re a human being!’ — and I would get so frustrated, because, why on earth had I studied for years, and learned Greek and Hebrew, just to be called a human being?”

Only much later did she realise that it was a compliment. She was playing successfully against type. The priest was not supposed to be a human figure, but an agent of government, and of society’s expectations.

Bergman was, of course, a genuinely unconventional figure. The grim and monochrome priests who haunt his films seemed perfectly normal by the standards of the society around them. It would be a great mistake to suppose that Swedes were profoundly discontented with the authoritarianism of their society in the 1950s or later. They grumbled, and they made jokes about it. But it fitted them as a shell fits a turtle, and they were almost as reluctant to leave it.

When that authority collapsed — first, as a result of the triumph of the Social Democratic state, which secularised rather than abolished the Erastian state, and then because the economic basis of that state collapsed in the 1980s — the Church suffered greatly.

Now, however, Archbishop Jackelén says, things are slowly getting better again. The Church was, until recently, the tenth most trusted organisation in society. Now is it is up to seventh place.

Slowly, it is adapting to the changed patterns of family life. Christenings, apparently, are growing in popularity, because they have replaced weddings as the ceremony that marks the formation of a new family. In fact, they have become such lavish affairs, she says, that in some places the Church is having to seek out single parents and poor people, and explain that they can have their babies baptised even when there is no one else to share the joy.

It is too early to speak of a “re-Christianisation” of Sweden, Archbishop Jackelén says. But what her conversation, and David Thurfjell’s book, suggest to me is that what keeps societal Churches going, and even what spreads them, is not theological conviction, but the identification of everyday decencies with a religious label.

Perhaps the most striking statistic in Thurfjell’s book is that, in 1930, 99.7 per cent of the population were members of the Church of Sweden. They cannot all have believed in it, and yet they all got something from it. Perhaps what societal Churches must do to become strong again is to stop worrying about atheism.

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