On Being a Living Priest in a Dying Church in Sweden
by Folke T. Olofsson
Even if the title “A Grief Observed” had not already been employed, I would use it, for what I write about is a grief: the dying, and eventually perhaps the death, of a loved one: the Church of Sweden, in which I was ordained a priest 35 years ago. It is a grief observed, as if I were standing apart from what happened, no longer involved in the painful process, but looking at it from the outside, as if it were happening to someone else—or is that just something I keep telling myself to ease the pain?
My view is not that of the detached historian. It is a personal and partial account of a lost love. Anyone who would like a detailed history of the last 50 years in the Church of Sweden, or an unbiased report of what is happening now, will have to turn to the journalists and historians. The only thing I can say is: I was there; this is what I saw and experienced, and it is bad enough.
Today Sweden is known as one of the most secularized countries in the world. Every now and then, reassuring reports claim that people are more religious than they seem to be, and that they would probably be even more religious had not the church been so excluding in its dogmas, so exclusive in its outmoded services, so antediluvian in its morality. The answer to that is that religion is not necessarily equated with Christian incarnational, sacramental belief.
Only a hundred years ago nearly every Swede could say: “I am called a Christian because I am incorporated into the body of Jesus Christ through baptism and with this body/congregation, believe and confess him to be my Savior and Redeemer.” How many would today profess themselves Christian in these words from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism? Ten percent? Fifteen? Yet 80 percent of Swedes still formally belong to the former state church and still pay the annual church tax—or as it is called now, the parish rates, roughly 1.25 percent of one’s income. When I was ordained, 90 percent of Swedes belonged to the Church of Sweden.
Being Swedish primarily meant belonging to the State Church (though not necessarily believing in God). One country, one people, one king, one (nominal) faith (with certain accepted exceptions). It belongs to the story that until 1951 you could not leave the Church of Sweden unless you entered another church or religious community approved by the King. Today, four years after the disestablishment, after the formal, though not real, severance of the bonds between church and state, what have we got? Not salt, but a mirror of contemporary Swedish society. Belonging versus believing. The history of the Church of Sweden explains a lot of its present plight, but there is little comfort in that knowledge.
Since my fifteenth year, the year of my baptism, I have been a communicant member of the Church of Sweden. I have gone to communion regularly for 45 years in what I thought was the real Church.
During these years I have lived with and through all the changes that have taken place: I have seen them being prepared, have heard the arguments, seen the campaigns, and encountered the propaganda, threats, false promises, and lies with which they were frequently implemented. I have seen how the church has been occupied and taken over from both the outside and the inside. I have seen how those who stood up for the traditional Christian faith were marginalized and even eliminated from the church.
The issue of women’s ordination is both pivotal and illustrative. “Those who do not approve of the ordination of women must leave the Church of Sweden,” Bishop Caroline Krook of Stockholm announced in a newspaper interview, and the political and religio-political establishment and the mass media, with few exceptions, echoed her.
Typical was an editorial by Ulla Johansson for the Christian Socialist magazine Broderskap (Brotherhood): “Throw out the church hooligans. . . . The Church of Sweden has to stop talking drivel. It goes without saying that those who cannot think of working together with a woman or ordain a woman should not hold an official office in the Church of Sweden.” In an interview in a diocesan magazine, Rolf Forslin, a deacon and leading church politician, was equally blunt: “If it doesn’t suit them, let them start their own business; one has to be hard on those opposing the ordination of women.”
If you want to stay, you have to obey the innovators, against tradition and against your conscience. If you don’t obey, you have to go—that is the plight of traditional Christians in Sweden. Of course, I cannot compare our situation with what Christians are facing in places like Sudan, who often have to make a choice between denying their faith in Jesus Christ and being killed. I would not use the word martyr in reference to us.
Nevertheless, in the struggle for the traditional Christian faith going on in Sweden, those who try to uphold it are more than unwelcome; they have been marginalized systematically for decades. Together with them I have seen and bear witness to all the small steps leading to where the Church of Sweden is now, without being able to stop it.
The Bishop of Växjö, Anders Wejryd, once told journalists that “one does not have the right of a private interpretation of the issue of the ordination of women. . . . It is a matter of loyalty.” Yet I, out of loyalty to the Word of God and the Tradition of the Church, do not even secretly wish to entertain a private interpretation of the issue of the ordination of women, and because of that, find myself in the paradoxical position that I would be refused if I applied for ordination today, nor would I be eligible for the position of rector of Rasbo, which I have held since 1980.
My Church Also
Yet somehow, the bishop of my diocese, Dr. Ragnar Persenius of Uppsala, was able to write to me in a letter last year: “The Diocese does not refuse [to recognize] you as a priest or a rector, no matter how the new regulations about ordination and promotion in the Church order are applicable in your case.” After reading that sentence many times, I eventually concluded that it was either nonsense or some kind of newspeak or powertalk, i.e., a definition of the world as those in power want to define it in order to exercise their power, and thus a lie.
Rejected and ineligible in principle, if not yet in practice, that is my position. For awhile I had hanging on my study wall both the letter testifying that I was an ordained priest in the Church of Sweden and a copy of the regulation stating that persons like me would not be ordained or promoted. It was a reminder that the church has changed and that the new Church of Sweden does not want priests like me. I am of another kind. In a way this is not a stigma but a distinction, a badge of honor. But it still hurts.
This came home to me at the last convocation of priests held (almost too symbolically, in the People’s Palace) when the Church of Sweden was still a state church. I obediently showed up wearing my black formal cassock as prescribed in the old regulations for convocations. I met a woman priest, who with a forced smile greeted me with the words, “So you have dared to show up!” I calmly replied, “This is also my church.”
But when Archbishop Hammar, in his purple shirt, golden pectoral cross, and non-hierarchic cardigan, asked us to sing a chorus echoing St. Bridget’s prayer, “Show us Lord, your way, we will walk in your truth,” and went on to tell us how wrong the Church had been throughout the centuries, and how he in a few days’ time was going to visit Rome to teach the pope this insight, then I realized that I and all the things I had stood for in the Church of Sweden had lost.
I had lost and they had won, but when I saw what the victory was like, it struck me full force that I did not want to be among the winners! The Church of Sweden as it now presented itself was no longer the church as I had once found her and she had embraced me. No, this was no longer my church.
The Real Church
How, then, did the Church of Sweden once become my church? In a small town in the province of Småland, on the south Swedish highland, where I was raised, there were two squares. The Big Square, which had elms and a fountain where a little bronze boy played with a dolphin, was the site of Salvation Army revival meetings on summer Sunday evenings. The Small Square, which also had a fountain but no statue, boasted a Free Church building—a Pentecostal chapel, a Salvation Army hall, and a Swedish Alliance Mission chapel—at each corner but one, and a fourth Free Church, a Baptist one, was just a block away.
On my way to school I had to pass all these chapels plus three more churches: a Methodist church with a tower but no bells, a huge Mission Covenant church, and lastly, the big church overlooking the town, built in red bricks, with a high tower, clocks, and real tolling bells—the Evangelical Lutheran National church—the Church of Sweden.
So there were many churches familiar to me, but where was the real Church? My parents belonged to the Mission Covenant Church, so I attended Sunday school there, but I never joined it. In my early teens I embarked on a religious pilgrimage of my own. I attended Sunday services in the different churches: Methodist, Pentecostal, Baptist, Salvation Army, Alliance Mission. I observed, listened, and learned, and came away from these experiences with a deep and lasting respect for the Word of God, transmitted through simple but dedicated preachers, and a love for Jesus as the living Savior in the hymns and in the prayers.
I also developed an awareness of theology as a coherent, interrelated system, an awareness that has never really left me. And I brought with me something else from this pilgrimage: the ability to detect a lingering flavor or scent of what I believe to be true faith and spirituality, which I either find and recognize or do not find and recognize in the churches and theologies of today. The scent and the flavor of the Holy Spirit?
Yet I also encountered the dogmatic and cultural narrow-mindedness that brushed off all my queries with, “Once you get light on this, you will think the way we do!” (In retrospect I can see the truth in this answer, but I also realize that its relevance largely depends upon whom or what the speaker represents.)
In the big church with the tower and the tolling bells, things were different. When the priest at the altar pronounced the forgiveness of sins or proclaimed that Christ was truly present, visibly and tangibly, in the Eucharistic elements, that was a new language to me. Initially, liturgical Christianity was something foreign, even repugnant to me, but I soon recognized the flavor and the scent that I had learned to know before.
It was the same Spirit who was present in the prayer meetings with the Pentecostal ladies, and when the priest one Easter Morning preached and proclaimed the resurrection of Christ—he is alive and present, the grave is empty, and he is active here and now as the Risen Lord—I was finally convinced that the liturgical, petrified, dead State Church of Sweden, so much ridiculed and criticized by Free Church people, atheistic socialists, and freethinking liberals, was a real church, if not the real Church.
Given for Us
Thus I found, at the age of 13 or 14, my spiritual home. I went to communion for the first time. I became an ardent and dedicated churchgoer, Sunday after Sunday following the church year. By constant use, the hymns, the liturgy, the texts, the prayers became a part of me, and I also felt a sense of family and a strange tenderness for the little old ladies and the old white-haired men with sticks with whom I knelt at the communion rail: “The Body of Christ, given for thee. The Blood of Christ, shed for thee.” For us.
Eventually, I received what I believe was my call to the priesthood. As the two priests who had been serving at the altar were leaving for the sacristy, one carrying the chalice and the other the Missal, I suddenly knew, as if someone had told me: “That is your place!” I can still see their chasubles. Until then, I had wanted to become a doctor or a writer. It had never occurred to me to become a priest.
But even then, all was not well with my spiritual home. On some Sundays, after the communicants had left the church, in came those who would attend the baptismal service, which was held after the High Mass. They did not show up for Mass but just swarmed in afterward, chatting, laughing, making a lot of noise. There seemed to be no connection at all between the group that was visible every Sunday under the pulpit and around the altar, and the one that occasionally materialized at baptisms, weddings, confirmations, and other solemn occasions.
Confirmations, in particular, amazed me. I knew many of these confirmands from school, and it is no exaggeration to say that quite a lot of them never showed any sign of Christian belief whatsoever. But at age 14 they were all confirmed. Sweden was a Christian country; we lived in a Christian society.
Or did we? My town, like the whole country, was for decades governed by the Social Democrats and the trade unions. They originally wanted a separation between church and state, but later changed their minds and became the staunchest upholders of the state church system in order to “democratize” it from within. By taking over theological education and by politically choosing local church boards, delegates to the church synod, and electors of bishops, they could rule the church from the inside. After the church had been successfully domesticated, modernized, and socialized, then the bonds between church and state could be severed. This eventually happened in 2000.
It was a shock to learn that the parish in which I was baptized and confirmed, in which I regularly attended services and went to communion, was run by politically chosen people who seldom or never worshiped in the congregation. Even in my youth, there seemed to be three distinct “churches” within the Church of Sweden: that of the politicians, that of the belongers, and that of the believers.
A Black Day
One Sunday in the spring of 1960, some churchgoers after the service told me that this was a black day, a day of grievance for the Church of Sweden. I asked why, and when they told me that three women were being ordained priests that Sunday, I was at first unconcerned. I knew that some of my high-church friends thought the ordination of women would be a disaster for the church, but its advocates presented it as a reform of church order only, not of doctrine, whose aim was to reach out to those alienated from the church. Only later did I realize what had really happened that Sunday.
Gradually, I also realized that those who took their Christian faith most seriously were the ones who opposed the novelty. The flavor and scent I had learned to recognize were more detectable among the opponents. Still a student at the time, I attended Bible studies at which ordinary parish priests occasionally stated their reasons for being against the reform.
Now, they said, man was in command of the Bible, free to interpret it in the way he, she, or the spirit of the times wanted. As a consequence, there would, to begin with, be a new understanding of the priesthood, a new way of looking at Creation and the order given in it, a waning of belief in the insolubility of marriage, acceptance and even blessing of same-sex relationships, and, as the crowning event, the replacement of God the Father by God the Mother.
It sounded like some dystopian theological science fiction at the time. These priests were criticized by their more moderate colleagues, but forty years later I cannot but admire the clear-sightedness of these “pike-jawed faithpolicemen,” as they were called. With a saddening regularity they were chased through the columns of the local newspapers, otherwise filled with tear-jerking accounts of poor ordained women being harassed by those reactionary, woman-hating, loveless, dogmatic black-coats.
Become a priest in that church? In the end, I decided the matter by tossing a coin. King: that side of the coin meant secular studies. Crown: that side signified the crown of life: theology. The crown came up. Frivolous? Yes, perhaps, but it reveals some of the bewilderment I felt at the time.
I began to study theology at Uppsala University, where some of the professors were still upholders of the old theology. The study of the history of Christian thought was for me like opening a window to fresh winds and huge vistas. The old quip, “Once you get light on this, you will think the way we do,” acquired a new and deeper meaning.
After my graduation, I received from the World Council of Churches a one-year scholarship to the ultra-liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York. That proved to be one of the best years of my life, because it helped me sort out what I did and did not believe. At Union I met all the ideas and fads that much later would hit Sweden, but I emerged with a classic Christian belief: that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.
Having encountered the whole intellectual, philosophical, and theological smorgasbord of a liberal American seminary, I concluded that the Church of Sweden was catholic enough, given the circumstances: under attack, besieged, and embattled, yes, but worth fighting for. I resolved to apply for ordination when I returned.
Rejoice in Fire
And so, after a semester of practical training, in which the only thing I learned was how to fold and glue my manuscript for the weekly sermon, I was ordained in Skara Cathedral in 1969. Mine was the last ordination of the bishop, a good and God-fearing man who had not voted for the reform of 1958; and his successor, a man who had changed his views on the disputed issue when the mitre came within sight, was also present at the altar.
It was the Fourth Sunday of Advent, with the theme “The Lord is near,” and the Epistle was Philippians 4:4–7, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” I recall the heaviness of the hands of the bishops and priests on my head—as if they were handing over a burden. I also remember that the chasuble I wore was red. It reminded me of the fire of the Holy Spirit, but it also made me think of blood, the blood of the martyrs. Burden, fire, and blood—and yet, rejoice in the Lord! This was priesthood.
My first year as a young unmarried priest in a small-town parish was largely a disastrous encounter with the state church religion, despite some unforgettable memories of ordinary Christians in the remote villages. I more or less fled to Uppsala and higher studies in dogmatic theology. I worked as a chaplain at a boarding school and a retreat center and for three years did ordinary parish work, so I can say that I knew the Church of Sweden from the “factory floor.” I knew how ordinary people lived, what they thought and talked about.
Every now and then, arguments about the ordination of women flared up. For a while, it appeared that the two sides might come to an understanding. At the beginning, there had been a “conscience clause” for those opposed to women’s ordination (as there will be in the beginning, but only in the beginning, for those opposed to blessing same-sex partnerships), which stated that the reform must not be understood in a way to prevent their ordination.
But then the bishop of Stockholm, Ingemar Ström, orchestrated a campaign in the biggest, most secularized newspaper that led to the dumping of all that had been negotiated and agreed upon. Miles of propaganda, letters to the editors, and cartoons against those who opposed the ordination of women appeared in journals, magazines, and newspapers. Everybody had an opinion, and most were against or outright hostile to the “women-hating oppressors.”
The Equality Laws came into full effect in the Church of Sweden, meaning it was regarded as just another ordinary workplace in society and priests were simply civil servants. It was unjustly discriminatory to reserve any civil service positions to men, and there could be no exceptions for the church. There was no allowance for the concept of the church as a communio or congregatio sanctorum with a self-understanding of its own.
The conscience clause was discarded, and no longer could there be separate ordination services for those who did not accept the reform. Theology students had to participate in services celebrated by women priests and receive communion from them. Because of this, quite a number of young men who obviously had a divine calling to the priesthood were rejected by the authorities. In 1982, the bishops issued a letter bluntly stating that no one opposing this reform could, in the long run, serve in a trustworthy or credible way as a priest in the Church of Sweden.
Eventually, it was also decreed that priests already ordained could not become rectors, let alone deans or bishops, if they did not sign a formal declaration that they were prepared to cooperate in all capacities with other priests regardless of their sex. Passed by the General Synod in 1999, this decree is now enforced meticulously.
In 1982, I was a married priest with a growing family and the rector of Rasbo, a parish with four medieval churches and about 4,000 inhabitants just outside Uppsala. The movement to sever the bonds between church and state had led to a change in the Church of Sweden’s General Synod. Under this reform, the General Synod in practice became a politically chosen congress of church politicians, dominated by the Social Democrats. Even the bishops could no longer vote in the General Synod unless they were chosen by and thus represented a political party.
As these changes became established, traditionalist opponents formed another synod, called the Free Synod, to liberate, maintain, and renew the Church of Sweden. I joined it mainly because I saw it as my duty, although, deep down, I also prayed, hoped, and believed that there was something in the Church of Sweden that could be liberated, was worth preserving, and could be renewed. So I, who had always been an onlooker from a safe distance in the background, suddenly became a regional dean of the Free Synod.
But the Free Synod had its own problems, right from the beginning. It suffered from an inbuilt tension between the catholicizers and the confessionalists, which was never really resolved. It also never attracted enough people to have an effective impact, even though many, especially priests, expressed their sympathies in private.
For its part, the official church never yielded an inch. It took ideas from the Free Synod, but presented them as its own, never acknowledging the synod as the source. Publicly, the synod was met with overt hostility, from both the press and the religio-political establishment. Its members were depicted as the ecclesiastical equivalent of racists, sexists, homophobes, neo-Nazis, and pedophiles. “Kvinnoprästmotståndare”—opponent of the ordination of women—is still one of the worst things you can say about a person in Sweden. Sadly, the Free Synod proved to be a lame duck on the margins of the church.
The Charismatics, a fair number of whom were sympathetic, even members of the Free Synod, did not engage in what they considered church politics. The Evangelicals never bothered, or else sympathized in passive silence, as they wanted to be recognized by the state church, and the politization of the church and the ordination of women were not of any interest for them as long as they could freely gather around the gospel, promote personal piety, and evangelize. Reality has in the end caught up with them, and they have to address the contemporary issues of the “lesbitransgay” agenda of the sexual liberationists.
After women’s ordination, eventually came changes to the official prayer book. There was a conscious attempt to downplay or take away words like Lord, King, Father, Son, Almighty, heavenly, everlasting, holy—everything that is considered patriarchal, sexist, or non-egalitarian, i.e., a great part of the ordinary biblical language. The old way of addressing the Holy Ghost has been replaced by a wording that can be interpreted in a feminine way. In the Mass book there are prayers in which God is addressed as both Father and Mother.
So it is that during my more than 20 years as rector of an ordinary parish outside Uppsala, I witnessed how the Swedish Church, with small but constant steps, has been tearing down classical Christian faith and its moral praxis.
The homosexualist agenda has advanced steadily. A few years ago, an openly lesbian photographer, Elisabeth Olsson, was allowed to exhibit her photos in the cathedral on large screens. Titled “Ecce Homo,” it featured such subjects as a representation of the Last Supper depicting Jesus wearing ladies’ red, high-heeled shoes and surrounded by leather-and-chain-clad men. In his right hand, instead of a piece of bread, he held a powder puff.
What he held is his hand was the emblem of a self-referring narcissism—looking at himself in the mirror powdering his cheeks in order to please the onlookers as a sexual object. He was not the imago Dei, the loving One, the Original, after whom people around the table should be fashioned. He was nothing but Man trapped in his own fashionable image, defined by others, an object of desire in the eyes of others like him.
The emblematic ideological significance of this action was obvious. The church had always been one of the most powerful forces against homosexual relationships, and conquering the cathedral of the church’s archdiocese was a victory for the proponents. And the campaign has gone on successfully: Now Parliament is discussing new “gender neutral” marriage legislation and has passed a law against defaming homosexuals. An ombudsman has been appointed to ensure observance of the law, not least among the churches. Publicly reading or telling what the Bible or the Koran say about homosexuality is still permitted, for the moment.
And just two years ago, there was a blessing of a lesbian couple, one a priestess and sister of the archbishop, in Uppsala Cathedral, which took place within the framework of a Mass celebrated by the woman bishop of Lund, Christina Odenberg. She angrily denied the story until a program surfaced (all others having mysteriously disappeared) on which was printed: “Mass of the Way with the Blessing of a Partnership.” About homosexual “marriages in church” Bishop Caroline Krook of Stockholm has said, “Marriage is one thing, partnership is something else, but both can be blessed.” There is now ample room for practicing homosexuals in the diocese of Stockholm, and they are many. Not unexpectedly, there is no room for those who oppose the ordination of women.
A year ago, once again in Uppsala Cathedral, the dean who invited the Ecce Homo photo exhibition opened the cathedral for a Memorial Manifestation for an immigrant Kurdish woman shot dead by her father for violating “the honor” of the family. She wanted to live just like an ordinary young Swedish woman, with a boyfriend, a job, and a life of her own. A memorial service of a general religious character was held, in which the name of Jesus or the Trinity was never mentioned, and 15,000 white carnations adorned the church. The importance of the occasion was made evident by the presence of the Crown Princess and the Minister for Equality Affairs.
The picture of six women, all dressed in black, carrying the casket out of the cathedral, headed by another woman also entirely dressed in black and clasping a big photograph of the victim, was momentous. The picture was like an icon of a saint of a novel cult, as if the cathedral had become the shrine of a new martyr. The killing was an indefensible crime, but this event was staged as a powerful ideological marking and manifestation of a particular agenda, and I was not the only one who had difficulty telling where mourning and compassion ended and ideological exploitation and ambition began.
On what sort of theology are such “reforms” based? In recent years the Swedish archbishop, Dr. Karl Gustaf Hammar, has presented ideas like this: You don’t have to believe in the Virgin Birth—Mary was a “theological virgin,” a way of expressing that Jesus was very special. You don’t have to believe that Jesus walked on the water—that’s a metaphorical way of expressing his authority over the powers of chaos. Neither do you have to believe that he was the unique Son of God, because that was a common mythological way of referring to religious or politically important people at that time—“there were many sons of God”—though God’s love was somehow displayed in a concentrated way around Jesus.
Nor do you have to believe in the saving significance of Christ’s death, because nobody today understands the underlying ideas of expiation and sacrifice, and we do not look at things that way now anyway. What he has to say about the Resurrection, when pressed on the matter, is that it is necessary for the Christian faith, but I think it would not, according to Dr. Hammar, be necessary to believe in a bodily resurrection. It is the encounter with Jesus that really matters. Whatever that is.
When, two years ago, the Roman Catholic bishop Anders Arborelius and the Pentecostal pastor Sten-Gunnar Hedin jointly published the “Jesus Manifesto,” stating the traditional Christian faith about Jesus Christ—conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of a virgin, risen from the dead leaving the grave empty—Archbishop Hammar responded that he wanted more space around Jesus; he did not want to enclose Jesus in the narrowness of dogmatic definition, creating barriers and thereby excluding people. Earlier in his career he had talked about myths, but he has given that up because he was not understood. Now he prefers to talk about the Christian faith as “poetic truth.”
What does he want to convey? Is he saying, “Stay and pay, you don’t have to believe those old tales?” I do not think he is. He is not only a committed ’68 leftist (he has infuriated even the liberals with his outspoken leftist views) but also a pious and sincere man, who is just saying publicly what the teachers at the theological faculties and seminaries have been telling their students for the last hundred years. For this, the newspapers commended him, “doubt being the root of Western Civilization.” His kind of residual mysticism is all that is left when the Word of God has been deconstructed and the divine Revelation has become an illustration rather than an incarnation. Is anyone surprised?
An assistant professor in the history of ideas at the University of Lund, Svante Nordin, who presents himself as neither a believer nor a militant atheist, has written: “The Church of Sweden as it appears in the days of Archbishop Hammar has probably as little to do with the Christian belief in a historic sense as, let us say, the politics of [the Social Democratic] Prime Minister Göran Persson has to do with Karl Marx.” I do not think it could be said more clearly.
Is the religion of the official Church of Sweden today actually the Sunday version of the Social Democratic weekday ideology? The new universalist religion of humanitarianism and human rights? That is certainly not my church.
What To Do?
But what does one do with such an insight? Leave? For what? Convert? To what? Start a “new business,” adding a third or fourth confessional Lutheran Free Church to the microscopic ones already existing, and fighting against each other? Form a mission province (whatever that may be) with controverted bishops as a successor to the Free Synod? Become a Swedish branch of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod? Join the Nordic Catholic Church created in Norway by the Polish National Catholic Church?
If, for the sake of argument, I left the Church of Sweden, joined a new church of some kind, and returned to Rasbo (which I think I should be obliged to do) to evangelize, preach, and celebrate the Eucharist in, say, the Sport Hall, the people of the parish would no doubt ask me why I am not in the “real church, the stone church with its graveyard, its icons, and its altars with inserted slabs of stone engraved with five gilded crosses, stones that you yourself had installed and told us represented Golgotha here in our parish”; they would ask me why I am not in the “real church” when I preach what they have always heard me preach, saying the prayers we have always prayed together, singing the hymns from the same hymnbooks we always used, celebrating the Eucharist with the same liturgies as before. Why are you not in the real church, when you have not changed your theology or your praxis?
I would not have a good answer to their questions. I am confused and wavering, I readily admit that, but who would not be confused in a confused age? Only idiots would be sure what to say and what to do. And prophets. And I, at least, am not a prophet.
In the meantime, what shall I do? Resign at age 62, turning my back on the Church of Sweden in its present form and condition? Stay until I am 65 (if I live that long) or until someone literally throws me out as a “church hooligan” or “taliban”? Stay until further notice, praying with the congregation: “Regard his [Christ’s] eternal and perfect sacrifice, with which thou hast reconciled the world with thyself. Let us all, through the Holy Ghost, be united into one Body and perfected into a living sacrifice in Christ”? Stay and pray without communion with a real bishop, having become some kind of an emergency congregationalist, not of my own choice; try to follow, teach, and preach a traditional Christian belief and morality as well as I can; become some kind of private Catholic?
I perfectly well know that you cannot be such a thing as an “emergency congregationalist” or a “private catholic”—a private solution to an ecclesiological problem—but I also know that the criticism from the theological and ecclesiological backseat-drivers, including my own demons, does not exactly help in this dilemma.
A Lutheran Answer
The anamnestic and epicletic body of believers in the process of being transfigured into the Body of Christ, realizing what it in essence already is—is that where the real Church is to be found? Is this perhaps also essentially in line with what Confessio Augustana expresses in Article VII: “One Holy Church will remain for ever. Now this Church is the congregation of the saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered. And for that true unity of the Church it is enough to have unity of belief concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments”? A typically Lutheran answer, with all its weaknesses and strengths in a broken, provisional situation.
Staying until further notice and praying. For what? For the resuscitation of a dying church? For a miracle? Even the resurrection of a dead church? “Lazarus, come forth!”
In a recent article in a national Sunday newspaper, a journalist asked two confirmands outside a church after a service: “Why do you still belong to the Church of Sweden? Are you a Christian?” The answer one of the two confirmands gave was this: “I don’t believe in God. I’ve been to church mostly because I am curious!” And from my knowledge, I could have prompted, “Because I follow my mates, and confirmation is a tradition in our family.”
The only things that have changed over the years are that the numbers of confirmands have declined (in the last ten years the numbers have dropped 20% and the average is now around 40% of all fifteen-year-olds), and that those who are now attending confimation classes do not do it for the presents they will get, as many did before. That, at least, is one step forward.
I do not know what this young confirmand did not believe in, and even if I am not inclined to take his no as a final answer, I have enough respect for his no not to turn it into a veiled yes of some kind. A sound curiosity, however, is something that the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Truth, can do quite a lot with.
—Folke T. Olofsson
“A Grief Observed” is a shorter version of a much longer reflection.
Folke T. Olofsson is docent of theological and ideological studies at Uppsala University, and is rector of Rasbo parish in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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