Remains of the Swedes
An Interview with Bishop Göran Beijer of the Mission Province of the Church of Sweden
William J. Tighe (WT): Could you give our readers a brief outline of your life and career?
Göran Beijer (GB): I was born in 1940. My father was a priest, and later a rural dean, on the island of Götland in the middle of the Baltic Sea. I studied theology at the University of Uppsala, and was ordained a priest on Götland, in Visby Cathedral, in 1967, by one of the last, actually the next-to-last, orthodox bishops in the Church of Sweden, Dr. Olof Herrlin.
I worked as a priest in Visby for seven years, and then I was asked to join the staff of the Church of Sweden Mission to be its Information Secretary, which I was until 1982. Then I spent a year in Beirut, sent off by the Church of Sweden Mission to study the Eastern Churches. I did some work on the staff of the Middle Eastern Council of Churches, with which the Church of Sweden began to have contacts in the 1970s.
Then I came to Stockholm as a chaplain at St. Jacob Church, a downtown church with a long Catholic tradition in the Church of Sweden. At that time it was still a separate parish, but later it was merged into the Stockholm Cathedral parish, but I stayed on as chaplain responsible for those of the parish who worshipped at St. Jacob’s.
In 1997 the first woman was elected as a bishop in the Church of Sweden, Christina Odebergh of Lund diocese, and I and other people at St. Jacob’s refused to accept the spiritual oversight of our own bishop, Henrik Svenungsson, any longer, because he had participated in her consecration. As a result, I was removed from my position as chaplain, but they gave me other things to do, as they did not yet dare to fire me. So I worked on at those tasks until I retired at the end of 2005.
I have been active all my life as a priest in the Church Union, a major Catholic society within the Church of Sweden, and within the Free Synod, since that organization was set up in 1983 in order to safeguard a place for the orthodox in the Church of Sweden. But when that failed, I saw no reason to remain within the Church of Sweden, and devoted myself to the cause of building that “free diocese” that eventually became the Mission Province. Many of my like-minded friends held back, thinking that they would give the Church of Sweden one more chance, but I had come to the conclusion that there was no possibility for that, and so I went for the Mission Province.
WT: What is the Mission Province of the Church of Sweden, its nature, its purpose, its origin?
GB: Well, the Mission Province in Sweden was set up when it was clear that ordination candidates who couldn’t fully cooperate with women priests were no longer going to be ordained. The Church of Sweden’s bishops decided that in 1993, and from that time on, we started to discuss what could be done, and it ended up with some of the groups in the Church of Sweden opposing the ordination of women to the priesthood—some of them, but not all of them—deciding to set up a “mission province” with a hierarchy, so that those candidates could be ordained, and those congregations of a like mind could have priests in the future whom they could trust; and that there would continue to be a ministry that would maintain the genuine tradition of the Church of Sweden.
WT: Could you say a little about the present size of the Mission Province?
GB: The Mission Province is still very small. Congregations in the Church of Sweden are geographical parishes. People belong to the geographical parish of the area in which they live, and are not allowed to belong to any other parish. Approximately 80 percent of the Swedish population belong to the Church of Sweden as “formal members,” and as these “formal members” have congregational voting rights even if they seldom come to church, we could not reasonably expect that any congregations would vote to affiliate with the Mission Province. So we had to set up free congregations, which we call “koinonias.”
As it is now, we have only ten of them in Sweden, but in addition there are approximately ten koinonias in Finland. If one adds up the formal numbers of the koinonias in Sweden, then that would give about 50 members, but there is also a kind of “supporters’ club” for those who support the Mission Province, but do not live within accessible distance to one of the koinonias, and that has about 500 members—although a few of them may also be registered as members of one or another of the koinonias. In Finland, the koinonias are usually bigger, with maybe 30 to 50 members in each one.
WT: How, on the one hand, does the Mission Province view its relationship with the Church of Sweden, and, on the other, how does the Church of Sweden view the Mission Province?
GB: The Mission Province regards itself as a free, non-geographic diocese of the Church of Sweden. We clearly understand that it is an “irregular” diocese, but we still claim to be part of the Church of Sweden. That claim is “historical” rather than “institutional,” because the Church of Sweden has been the historical National Church, and we are trying to carry on its good heritage, a Lutheran heritage, but one with a clear Catholic perspective as regards liturgy, sacraments, and church order. Of course, we have little regard for the current state of the Church of Sweden as an institution.
The Church of Sweden, for its part, regards us as a new denomination, and so it defrocked from its clergy our three bishops after they were consecrated, as well as our General Secretary. There are some priests of the Church of Sweden who act as priests in our koinonias, and nothing has been done to them; most of them are retired priests within the Church of Sweden.
Our idea about all this is similar to that which has been institutionalized within the Church of England for orthodox Anglicans and their parishes by giving them “flying bishops” (Provincial Episcopal Visitors): Their local diocesan bishop is their “bishop in legal matters,” but the bishops of the Mission Province are their bishops in spiritual matters. We have ordained ten priests so far, and then there are some priests from other churches, two from Ingria, two from Latvia, and maybe a few more to come. There are about 30 priests in all in the Mission Province.
WT: Has the Church of Finland taken as harsh a stand towards Finnish adherents of the Mission Province as the Church of Sweden has done?
GB: I don’t think that they have really gone into the matter to the same extent. The three Finnish priests who have been ordained in the Mission Province don’t claim to be priests in the Church of Finland, so perhaps that’s why they’ve paid no attention to them—but they have begun to be harsh towards some of their own priests who have been sympathetic towards us.
WT: In the ongoing struggle in the Church of Sweden—and, really, one can speak of it as “ongoing” since the 1950s—a struggle whose most obvious manifestation was the struggle about the ordination of women, but involving other issues, such as the relationship between church and state, the increasing interference of the state in the church’s life in the course of the women’s ordination controversy, it has seemed to an afar-off onlooker such as myself that the brunt of the opposition struggle has been borne by the “high-church” party, by those who considered themselves specifically to be “Catholics within the Church of Sweden.” But when the break came in the 1990s, people like me were surprised that relatively few of the “Catholic party” and particularly of its clerical leaders were willing to participate in the Mission Province. It even seems to me that some of them had a distinctly hostile stance towards it. Would you be willing to discuss some of the factors that led so many of the “Catholics in the Church of Sweden” to hang back from the Mission Province?
GB: The Free Synod, when it was set up in 1983 as a consequence of the rearrangement of the Church Assembly [the governing body of the Church of Sweden], was mainly a “high-church” organization; very few Confessionalists went into it. But then, when the crisis came and we had to look to the future to see what to do when orthodox candidates would no longer be ordained in the Church of Sweden, it proved that the high-church people didn’t want to have anything to do with action or an organization that could be seen as “schismatic.” So the main group in the Mission Province is the Confessionalist group.
Interestingly, the idea for something like the Mission Province came from the high-church side, through the Free Synod; we got it through our contacts with Forward in Faith [the largest and most assertive “orthodox opposition group” within the Church of England, mostly of an Anglo-Catholic character, with affiliated organizations in the United States and Australia —ed.], which from its beginning started thinking about seeking a “Third Province” or “Free Province” for itself within the Church of England. We adapted that to Sweden as a “free diocese,” and for various reasons it came to be called the Mission Province.
The high-church people were those who rediscovered “the Church” and its theological and sacramental significance in the 1930s and 1940s. New Testament scholars in England and Scandinavia found, contrary to the earlier liberals, that Jesus really spoke about the Church and that it was not an invention of St. Paul and others. In a way, I would say they were so in love with the idea that there is a Church and that salvation is found in the Church and you mustn’t break with the Church but stay in it, so that even if the Lutheran Tradition is to look more to Confession of Faith, true doctrine, than to Church Order, the high-church people would rather put up with a lot of heresy than to break out of the Church. I think that they will have a problem with that in the future, but that’s where they are now.
WT: Do you foresee any dangerous problems for the Mission Province arising in the next few years?
GB: One thing I could foresee is the impact of what could happen in England when the Church of England decides to consecrate women to the episcopate. Then there will be a “Free Province” of those opposed—they will either be given it by the Church of England or will take it for themselves—and then we will have discussions in the Mission Province about how we should relate to that, and that could cause tensions among us.
I think that the majority of us would like to go into some form of close cooperation with the “Free Province” in England, but there are some Confessionalists who are strongly against it because they consider the Church of England to be a non-Lutheran church, which it is, of course. This is an instance of the tension you can find in all Lutheran bodies between those who look on Lutheranism in an exclusive way, and require strict Confessional agreement, and those who are more inclusive; and I would say that the majority in the Mission Province would be more inclusive in their view of Lutheranism, even though there are those who are strongly exclusive.
I belong to those who are very proud of their Lutheran heritage, but I think we can cooperate with every person and group that does not clearly object to any of the Lutheran doctrines. But there could be tensions, I’m sure about that. Up to this point, though, we have discovered that we have more in common than what divides us, and I have a good hope that that could carry on for the future. We have so much in common that we mustn’t destroy it by quarreling about niceties.
WT: From your own perspective how do you see the future of the Church of Sweden over the next few years, perhaps a decade or a little more?
GB: I could see the present Church of Sweden always following the way that the culture goes. Today, they are endorsing everything that is demanded by the homosexual lobby, the “gay lobby,” so two years ago, they decided to bless, in a wedding-like way, homosexual partnerships, and from this a lot of people came to understand more than before that the Church of Sweden is walking in a liberal way, a modernistic way, that can’t be considered biblical; and they will react sooner or later. The Church of Sweden is a “national church,” and most Swedes find it very hard to think seriously about any other church than the Church of Sweden.
But I think that people will be so disappointed—because there are no signs that the Church of Sweden will change its way, that it will challenge the culture, but will simply go on in its present path—that eventually those who are interested will look for something else. I don’t see that happening in the next few years, but it’s possible that there will be a sudden flood that will frighten us in the Mission Province because we will have problems dealing with it. For the next two or three years I foresee slow growth, not particularly substantial, but I think we have a firm foundation and so can have a good hope for the future.
William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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“Remains of the Swedes” first appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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