Instead of demolishing church buildings: Ecumenical vision for Sweden
The Church of Sweden – a Lutheran church having been an established, national church for many centuries, now trying to find its way as a free church – is in so many ways a reflection of Swedish society. Its heritage is of course manifold, and let me just mention three: relevant liturgy, old and new church music and thousands of very old and some newer church buildings.
Here we are going to focus on the third kind of heritage, the church buildings. What about them? How many will remain in a church whose membership is in a free fall situation, as some odd 70 000 members leave the church on an annual basis? Who will afford the up-keep? Until now the state has guaranteed an allocated sum to be set apart for especially older churches, but one can wonder for how long this support will be given. With the very weak attendance some of these churches are already little more than museums.
Pondering on this rather drastic state of affairs – and I just wonder about the leadership as I cannot hear much talk about what is nothing less than a crisis situation – I had a vision the other morning that should be seen as a positive contribution to this state of crisis.
But first I will recall a conversation that indicates how difficult it may be to think out of the box. More than ten years ago, and I was at the time the ecumenical officer of the Church of Sweden, I had a short exchange of words with the at the time auxiliary bishop of Stockholm Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, William Kenney. I said to him, have you thought about the fact that hundreds of churches now part of the Church of Sweden, which were built before the time of the Reformation, were built and used as Roman Catholic churches? Must you not appreciate the fact that these buildings at least in a historical and theological sense also belong to you? But bishop Kenney looked at me and said rather dismissively something like, “I don’t see why we should have any sentiments about these churches today”. Born and bred in British Birmingham he did not have much in common with a largely rural phenomenon, Swedish medieval church buildings, which we were talking about.
My vision is very simple. Church of Sweden, the formal holder of all these incredible properties, some of them of conspicuous beauty and well kept, some of them built already in the 11th and 12th centuries, should simply make a call to all other church denominations and others of good will as well and say: this heritage, historically speaking and theologically speaking, are also your properties. In times of severe secularization the best we could do would be to share these buildings in the best way possible, free of charge.
Each denomination should be encouraged to keep up its tradition in terms of worship and liturgy and be allocated a suitable time for such worship.
There would be practical problems with such an arrangement. All could not possibly come in at the same time a Sunday morning for example. But that is just the point. All of a sudden we would have practical ecumenism as there would have to be a situation of sharing and compromise.
In the World Council of Churches there is at the moment talk about “ecumenical space” as a space where Christians with very different traditions and opinions (theologically, ethically, politically etc.) could meet without obligations to change from what they are, yet seeking a common agenda for unity. A church building may be such a space where some have remained, others have left, some because they had to (Roman Catholics during the time of the Reformation) others because they wanted to (but also in some ways forced to leave, for example the Mission Covenant Church which broke away from Church of Sweden in 1878). It is about time that all churches, having been formally welcomed by the actual holder of the properties, in this land come back and claim their rightful ownership.
Only together will it be possible to play a meaningful role as a church in a world filled with conflict and loneliness.
There are many obstacles to such a vision if one wants it to take root. Many churches for example might say: we don’t need another church building, as we already have more than we need ourselves. All would however not reason in that way. Not least more recent immigrant churches, for example the Syrian Orthodox Church, which is growing very fast in Sweden at the moment, might be prepared to accept an invitation to make use of our church buildings. But also, I hope there will be Pentecostal and other Charismatic churches that would feel happy about such an arrangement and who would come.
The outcome of such a movement of welcoming back all church denominations of Sweden into our church buildings is quite unpredictable, but this is also the point. We would never be sure of where the Holy Spirit is leading us.
To end, I have a vision for Uppsala cathedral. Instead of having, let’s say three services on a Sunday, which is not bad, there would be twenty or thirty. There would be movement all day. Literally thousands of people would be there. What a wonderful vision don’t you think?! And the government would have to say: “with such an open agenda for all the churches in the country but also all others (other organizations) of good will, we cannot but agree that the state subsidy should continue for many years to come.