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Svensk pastoraltidskrift

The Church Assembly 2006 – A Clarifying Reform

The Rev. Yngve Kalin, Hyssna, Publisher of SPT, served as a delegate to the last Church Assembly, a substitute for Berit Simonsson, Henån, of the non-political nomination group Frimodig Kyrka. (A traditionalist group with seven delegates out of 250) Previously Kalin has served as a delegate to the Church Assembly during two terms of office. Here he reflects on his observations from the sessions. His conclusion is that "the distance to the everyday life of the church at home has never felt greater."

The Church Assembly 2006 is over. No church in the whole world - except the Swedish Church - has a decision making process where the political parties of the society in practice have taken over the decision making organs of the church and made the political parties and not the church congregations the basis for the democracy in the church. In the future there will be no attempts to hide this, as it has been decided that now all delegates of the Church Assembly will have a party label next to their names. This will be the rule all-around, of all church related boards and committees. This is a clarifying reform. It shows exactly how things are. The Swedish Church is unique in its way of making decisions. It has now become a fully democratic church, and the transformation continues step by step. It is now more and more obvious that only symbolic traces remain of the dual lines of responsibility. There once was a balance between the practice of the ministerium of the church and the autonomy of the church councils. That balance is no more.

No other historic and episcopal church in the whole world has reduced the role of the ministerium the way it has been done in Sweden. It is now subordinated to the political powers. In the discharge of their official duties the bishops are surrounded by politically elected inspectors. That is the case concerning the Doctrinal Board (of the Church Assembly), the Diocesan Chapters and the Diocesan Boards. Nowadays the clergy are employed locally (by the church councils). Many church councils interpret their responsibility as employer to include supervisory responsibility as well. In the new church law there are still instructions that the distribution of responsibility between the ministerium of the church and the autonomy of the church councils should be maintained. But the awkward wording of the law has made these instructions useless.

There is a paradox concerning the way in which the new Church Assembly makes decisions on theological matters. When decisions are taken it is always emphasized that the bishops and the Doctrinal Board have given the approval. It is pointed out that they have no objections. The most obvious example was the decision last year about church blessing of registered partnerships. It was repeated this year concerning the ecumenical agreement with the Swedish Missionary Covenant Church. In reality it has turned into a kind of circle argument, as the bishops de facto are appointed by those who legitimize the decisions. The bishops would never have been elected, if they had not declared their support for the new order. The last hearings of the nominated candidates for bishops support this statement. In order to make a career in the church, you have to be completely in step with the prevailing (political) majority opinion.

The discussion about the introduction of the party labels was an example in point. Lars-Gunnar Frisk from the non-political nominating group POSK - (there are still some delegates to the Church Assembly who are not tied to any political party – some liberals and some traditionalists in three independent groups) - did not want any party labels, as they in his opinion lacked any relevance in this context. But in his statement he succeeded in offending the political nomination groups to that extreme that almost all political group leaders felt obligated to respond to the charge. They meant that the political parties, openly and honestly, were fulfilling their obligations for the church, completely in accordance with the present system of rules. No delegate deserves to be accused for such a thing!

Of course, they are right. You cannot criticize groups and question individual delegates for participating in the work on the prevailing conditions. The criticism of a politicized church has to be done by criticizing the Church Order as such.

After being away from the Church Assembly for four years, again this impression was confirmed. The Church Assembly consists of a collection of people with a variety of experiences. They function together both with great friendships, sometimes also with meaningful debates, and with a skillful organization. Many friendly words are expressed in the corridors, and important opinions are shared. This is not where the problem is. There is a fault in the whole system. This is true both concerning how the Church Assembly is elected and how decisions are made.

The agreement with the Missionary Covenant Church is a good example. There was great agreement in the corridors, and it was evident also in plenary debates, that the agreement really was not ready for decision. Many issues had not yet been explored, even heavy theological and pastoral issues concerning baptismal theology and praxis and relationships to earlier ecumenical obligations through the Borgå Agreement. But the nomination groups of the Church Assembly, with the endorsement of the bishops, had decided the issue in advance. This is the way to go for the Swedish church – the problems have to be solved afterwards! There is a naiveté that is worrisome and which comes from a lack of self-esteem sometimes expressing itself in behaviors that may be like panic reactions caused by fear of losing the initiative.

As an example The Church Assembly ordered a small book is to be published that in a positive way should describe the input of women priests during 50 years in the Swedish Church. An anniversary celebration is prepared for 2008 to celebrate the reform of 1958. The majority of the Church Assembly probably did not reflect over the fact that you not always accomplish what you want with a jubilee. The impact on the media does not really consist of the fact that the Swedish Church has had women priests in soon 50 years but in the fact that there still are groups of people in the church that reject this order. The plenary debate revealed explicitly how sensitive the issue still is, and what emotional storms that still can blow up.

Two constructive decisions were made by the church assembly: 200 million Swedish crowns will next year be returned to the congregations as more money than calculated will stream into the coffers on the national level. That is barely 30 crowns (=$4) per church member. It is now up to every parish quickly to think about how this may be used locally, for instance for an evangelizing drive – and submit an application to the diocese! There will also be a venture to publish "The Great Christmas Handbook" – a positive attempt to reach all church members – in the same way as once was done with the "Small Book" and the "Big Book". (A few years ago a small book describing the Christian faith was distributed in the mail to all Swedish households.)

The Questioning Hours with opportunity to pose questions to the Board of the Swedish Church was clarifying in two respects. The first point was the total silence from the Board and lack of interest in realizing what is happening by the reform of local employment of the clergy. It is obvious that the Church Board is not observing the matter concerning the many buy outs of clergy, refusing to see the connection with the deficient instructions in the Church Order.

There was the question about how the stipulation in the Order should be understood concerning the right to refuse performing a blessing ceremony of same-sex couples. The Board confirmed that there will be such a right of refusal in the Order. When the instructions for the blessing ceremony will be finalized in December, there will be a clear writing about it, protecting the individual priests and other people involved and making it possible for them to refuse.

My in-hop at the Church Assembly supports my view that the Swedish Church is changing at an accelerating pace. It is being done by the implementation of all the rules of the new Church Order and by the fact that people from a previous era are being phased out. The ministerial line with responsibility for the doctrine, independent of the political groupings, does not in practice exist any more in the Swedish church.

The fear we felt 1999, facing the introduction of the new Church order, was justified. Already then we asked who were the subjects and who were the objects in the decision making process. Nowhere in the new system there are any common worshiping church members as subjects and active participants in the system of rules. They have become objects of decisions made by other people. If they want to have anything to say, they have to do it through the complicated election system, through the so called nomination groups.

A Church Assembly nowadays means nomination groups gathered for deliberations and decisions about the way they want to lead the church. Every delegate has to report to the nomination groups and not to their congregations. It is not the (worshiping) congregation that has elected him or her as their representative. This is a fact that is not denied any more. It will become obvious everywhere through the party label every delegate has to wear. In the long run this was definitely the most important decision made at this year’s session of the Church Assembly.

The distance to the every day work in the church at home has never felt greater.

2006 © Yngve Kalin & Svensk pastoraltidskrift nr 23 - 2006
Translator: Birgitta Peterson, MD.


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