UNLIKE ENGLAND, Thailand or Iran, Sweden no longer has a state religion. The Church of Sweden, Europe’s largest Lutheran community, was formally written off by the government as early as 2000. But its roots are deep: it traces its history to a 16th-century quarrel between King Gustav Vasa and the pope. About half of the Swedes still belong to it. And true to the country’s democratic spirit, they get to vote on who runs it. On September 19, about 17% of the Church’s 5.7 million members voted for their governing synod.
Some issues in the election were religious, such as a proposed ban on new denominational schools. But others were more secular, including climate change, immigration and gay marriage. This is partly due to the fact that most of the “nomination groups” that field candidates for the synod are linked to political parties. The left seems to be doing better in church elections. The Social Democrats received 28% of the vote and 70 of the synod’s 251 seats, similar to their share in parliament. But the right-wing Sweden Democrats took only 8% in the church election, about half of the result in the national election.
One issue is whether political parties should be involved at all. The synod’s second largest group is POSK, an impartial outfit. “We have become more of a community of opinion instead of a community of faith,” argues Amanda Carlshamre, POSK ‘s chairman. This year, the archbishop went against a language test requirement for Swedish citizenship. Olle Reichenberg, chairman of the Bourgeois Alternative, the largest center-right nomination group, thinks it should be left to Parliament. Others argue that secular commitment is part of the Church’s tradition. As one of Sweden’s largest owners of agricultural land and forests, the church can hardly ignore climate change, states Jesper Eneroth, chairman of the Synod Social Democrats.
It is not clear how much the synod can do to the church’s biggest problem, diminishing interest. Only 3% of Swedes regularly attend services. Most of the major doctrinal disputes are over. The church has had same-sex marriages since 2009. The conservatives want to continue to let some old-fashioned priests opt out. It does not make progressive. It seems like a small point, but the churches have been split over smaller ones.
This article was published in the European section of the print edition under the heading “Selected”