Why Are They Leaving the Church of Sweden?
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN SWEDEN
THE Church of Sweden Is Going Downhill, More Are Resigning, Fewer Get Baptized.” “Serious Crisis Threatening the Church.” “There is great anxiety within the Church for the future.” “The Church has lost its grip on the Swedish people.”
Headlines and statements like these abound in the Swedish press. They testify to the fact that the official Church of Sweden is experiencing what many within the Church consider to be the worst crisis ever. One of the priests expressed his evaluation of the condition by writing in a daily: “The situation is for the present extremely dark within the Church of Sweden. Actually there is reason to believe that we within the Church have reached the bottom.”
What has happened to this Church, which historically has had a strong position in Sweden? In 1593 it was officially declared Evangelical-Lutheran as to its confession. In 1686 it was tied to the State, thus becoming the State Church of Sweden. This meant that practically all Swedes by birth would become members of the Church.
In the beginning, this membership was permanent. It was impossible for anyone to resign. According to an ecclesiastical law of 1686, all kinds of dissociation or apostasy were declared forbidden and were punished with the loss of right of inheritance and with expatriation. Not until January 1, 1952, was it possible to resign from the Church, after a new law of religious liberty was instituted.
Jehovah’s Witnesses the First to Resign
During the first years thereafter, few people used their right to resign. The Swedes in general just did not care. One exception was Jehovah’s Witnesses. They resigned almost immediately. The Witnesses declared that they wanted to show that they belong to one international Christian brotherhood, a church that is free from the influence of any political state or government and solely governed by God through his Son, Jesus Christ. So far, more than 17,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sweden have resigned from the Church.
What is now worrying the authorities of the Church of Sweden is that so many others have resigned during the last 10 years. About 110,000 have handed in resignations to their local priests. Moreover, a recent poll shows that 10 percent of the members of the Church are planning to resign. That would mean another 800,000.
The Female Priest Issue
A study by the Swedish Institute for Sociology of Religion reveals that the foremost reason why people are resigning is that they have lost their faith and interest in the Church. In many cases this is due to the bitter strife that is raging within the Church concerning the issue of female priests.
In 1958 the Swedish Parliament decided to let women become ordained. Of a total of about 2,900 priests serving in the Church of Sweden, now about 330 are women. This has caused a storm of reactions among both priests and laymen. The majority, about 58 percent, of the priests are in favor of female priests, mostly for the sake of equality of the sexes. But a phalanx of about 42 percent of the bishops and priests are resisting the idea, some very vigorously, pointing to the words of the apostle Paul at First Corinthians 14:34: “Let the women keep silent in the congregation.”
The weekly magazine Vecko-Journalen of March 20, 1978, reports: “The question of female priests has become a malignant ulcer in the Church.” And in an interview in the same magazine the archbishop, Olof Sundby, said in connection with resignation of membership because of the issue of female priests: “It is not so much a question of different opinions about the issue as it is our way of handling the opposition, often characterized by the lack of love and tolerance.”
The daily Smålandsposten of January 27, 1979, said: “May the strife in our church end before all respect for the church and our priests is gone and our sanctuaries are emptied of the most important thing: the people.”
But the strife keeps raging and the “sanctuaries” are being emptied of the people. A recent study reveals that only 1.98 percent of the Swedish population attend church, and in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, the corresponding figure is .78—less than one percent! One of the superintendents of the Church, a priest, recently suggested to Church authorities that half of the churches in Sweden be closed to relieve at least 1,000 priests and church musicians of their duty to prepare and hold services. The labor saving would be used to “help the church and the society out of their critical development.”—Svenska Dagbladet, November 20, 1980.
Deviation from the Bible
There is another reason for the increasing resignations. According to the Institute for Sociology of Religion, many feel that the priests deviate from the Bible in many of their views and dealings. For instance, pointing to such Bible verses as Romans 1:26, 27 and First Corinthians 6:9, 10, many find it repugnant that an increasing number of priests accept and even give their blessing to homosexuality. Others find it indecent that priests, in their efforts to get people to attend church, have opened up their sanctuaries for worldly politicians, singers, musicians and other entertainers, even letting them take over the service. Recently, Church members all over the country were shocked when the a pastor primarius in Stockholm invited a number of astrologers and fortune-tellers to present their ideas and to cast visitors’ horoscopes in the Cathedral of Stockholm (Storkyrkan).
Church members also turn against the lenient view spreading among the priests concerning sexual morality. A recently retired bishop of Stockholm openly recommended that young people in his church live together freely, declaring himself ready to perform their marriage as soon as they have made up their minds.
The sympathy of many priests as to free abortions, which now have reached the level of one abortion for every three childbirths in Sweden, has also frightened members away from the Church.
In the daily Norra Skåne of October 22, 1980, an assistant vicar summarizes his view of the situation as to ‘worldliness’ in the Church in this way: “Nowadays, almost everything is permitted within our Church. Those who intend to become priests may deny most of the Bible and still become ordained. Sermons may deal with just anything except the pure and clear Word of God without intervention from anybody. The clerical vow to preach the Word according to the Scriptures and the creed of the Church seems to be an empty vow without any importance and commitment.”
Naturally, Swedes are losing their faith in God and Christ as they notice the lack of faith among their spiritual guides. This is what a cathedral dean emeritus of the Church of Sweden, Gustav Adolf Danell, claims in a bitter article in the daily Smålands Dagblad of January 3, 1980. He says: “How will priests, who are trained to be doubters of the Bible truths, be able to guide other people to a faith that they themselves do not have? The Church is becoming an excellent instrument for the continuing dechristianization of our people.”