By Gary G. Yerkey
Late last year, during the Christmas holidays, a Swedish friend invited me to a dinner party in central Stockholm. It was dark and snowy as I walked to her apartment, past droves of shoppers out collecting their last-minute Christmas gifts, dazzled by the bright decorations filling store windows.
My friend’s apartment, too, was bright, with candles lit and a magnificent Christmas tree in the corner decked out for the season.
During a lull in our dinner conversation, I asked the dozen or so guests how many belonged to the Church of Sweden, which until 2000 was the state church and is still the largest Lutheran church in the world. All but two people raised their hands. How many of you, I asked, believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God? No one volunteered.
So what’s going on here? How is it that dues-paying members of a Christian church do not believe in Jesus Christ?
What’s going on is that, like the overwhelming majority of citizens of other Scandinavian countries, most Swedes see the church as a useful and praiseworthy institution. But praising God in church is not something they choose to do.
A recent survey by the Church of Sweden found that about two-thirds of the country’s 9.4 million people belong to the church. Yet only 15 percent of church members say they believe in Jesus Christ. An equal percentage of Swedes call themselves atheists. And only about 400,000 of the roughly 6.6 million members of the church say they attend services at least once a month.
The survey, conducted by Jonas Bromander, chief analyst of the Church of Sweden, also found that membership continues to decline (at an accelerating pace), from about 95 percent of the population 40 years ago to the historically low 68.8 percent today.
Church membership in other Scandinavian countries has also fallen. The Church of Norway, for example, has seen its membership decline from 86.6 percent of the population in 2001 to 76.9 percent in 2011. Similarly, in Denmark, membership has dipped from roughly 85 percent to about 80 percent in the same period. And in Finland, the comparable numbers are 85 percent and 77 percent.
That the decline has not been even more dramatic is perhaps surprising given the remarkable and sustained secularization of Nordic society in the past few decades. But experts argue that Scandinavians choose to belong to the church even today because it provides a convenient and historically important meeting place, as it were, for family occasions such as weddings and funerals.
Ninety percent of all Swedes are still buried with a church service, according to the Church of Sweden. It also serves as a refuge in times of national crisis such as the sinking of the ferry Estonia in 1994, in which 800 people died, most of them Swedes, or the murder of Foreign Minister Anna Lindh in 2003.
Björn Vikström, bishop of the Swedish-speaking Diocese of Porvoo, said recently that, while membership in the Finnish church has fallen, most Finns still choose to baptize their children and bury their loved ones in the church. They also believe that schools should celebrate Christmas and other Christian holidays by reading the Bible and singing psalms, he said.
“It seems like Finns today have a love-hate relationship with Christian traditions,” Vikstrom said in a Helsinki Times article in December. “On the one hand, people want to mark their freedom from them. On the other hand, they miss the sense of fellowship and continuity that the traditions help create.”
Sven Björkborg, a pastor who serves several parishes southwest of Stockholm, says that Swedes, too, support the church because it guards important national values and traditions and does good work, such as helping the poor and the elderly and comforting the lonely. He says he believes in Jesus Christ, which is not a requirement for Church of Sweden clergy. (Affirming women’s ordination to the priesthood is required.)
A December poll by the Swedish opinion research organization Sifo found that 83 percent of Swedes believe that Christmas should be about family, compared to a good meal (55%), attending church (12 percent) and celebrating the birth of Jesus (10 percent).
Others say that the decline in church membership in Sweden can also be attributed to the scrapping in 1996 of a law making children automatic members at birth, provided that one or more of their parents belonged. Today only children who are baptized into the church become members.
Financial support for the Church of Sweden, valued at about 36 billion kronor (about $5.5 billion), comes mainly from a tax paid by all members of the church. The amount of the tax, collected by the state, varies from parish to parish but averages about $250 a year.
Anders Thorendal, the church treasurer and its chief investment officer, has said it costs about 19 billion kronor (about $3 billion) a year to run the church. Decisions on how to use the church tax are made at the local level, he said, and a separate “buffer” fund for emergencies of about 5 billion kronor (about $800 million) is managed at the national level.
Some analysts have argued that for the church to survive financially, it will have to cut expenditures drastically or increase the church tax, which could be unpopular.
H.B. Hammar, former dean of Skara Cathedral, said that of the 3,384 churches in Sweden only 500 or so are used at most once a month.
“With fewer and fewer paying members, you have to review your options,” he wrote in the national daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, “and do it before it is too late.”
Hammar said that hundreds of churches need immediate renovation, costing billions. They could also be sold to private individuals and used for housing, cafés, offices or light industry. But doing that, he said, would trigger a wave of public protest, which oddly enough would be greater “in our heavily secularized Sweden” than it was in the United Kingdom, where a similar proposal was floated a few decades ago.
The former dean argued that in Sweden today the church has become a kind of medical center, providing support in times of crises. But to perform that function “there is no need for church buildings.” Ideally, he said, “blow them up!”
Freedom of religion, meanwhile, remains a pillar of the Swedish constitution, and all public schools are required to teach students at least the basic tenets of the world’s major religions.
But every year, the government has felt the need to remind pastors and public school principals the law requires the separation of church and state.
“The law stipulates that Swedish schools are non-confessional,” the Swedish National Agency for Education, for example, said in an op-ed piece in the daily national newspaper Dagens Nyheter in November, “[which means] that there can’t be any religious elements such as prayer, blessings or declarations of faith in education. Students should not have to be subjected to religious influence in school.”
While the Church of Sweden continues to lose members, a religious awakening of sorts has been occurring in the country thanks to the gradual influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, or “new Swedes,” over the past few decades.
Today, roughly 15 percent of the population is foreign-born. There are now 92,000 Roman Catholics and 100,000 Eastern Orthodox Christians living in Sweden. The Pew Research Center recently reported that there also about 40,000 Buddhists, 20,000 Hindus and 10,000 Jews. But it also said that Sweden today has a significant Muslim population: some 430,000. Some analysts have predicted that the Muslim minority in Sweden will increase from about 5 percent today to 10 percent by 2030.
As for Bromander, the chief analyst at the Church of Sweden, he has sought to put a positive face on the continuing fall in church membership, saying that times change and so do organizations.
“Large numbers of members isn’t a goal in itself,” he said. “The church can still be a relevant arena for a lot of Swedes, and I’m sure it will be so.”