IC’s trip to Sweden: A church for and with all

Sally Barnes in Sweden with IC trustee Jonathan Draper, Nick Bundock and Stephen Edwards.

In April a delegation from Inclusive Church was invited by Swedish Lutheran friends from the Diocese of Stockholm to take part in a conference being held on their pilot project, “Accessibility and Inclusion- a Church for and with Everyone”. We were also to visit churches that are part of the project to see the work they are doing and to meet members of their communities. This visit arose as a result of one made last year by the same group who we hosted in Manchester and Liverpool Dioceses. We took them to see schools and churches that were similarly working on inclusion. This was a return match, you could say.

The first thing I need to comment on was the hospitality and friendship we were shown. Nothing was too much trouble. Our itinerary was planned to encompass every aspect of our day. Apart from the official programme it included sight-seeing, dining out, time for discussions and meeting the Bishop of Stockholm, Eva Brunne, who received us with much warmth. One or more of our hosts was always there to make sure we would find our way around, provide all the information we needed and especially not to get run over by cyclists(!). Our hosts really went the extra mile for us.

The project

The main aim of the project, which started in 2015, was to work on diversity to achieve the goal of developing and maintaining a church for and with everyone. Changes in attitudes within parishes and diocesan administration would be achieved through training for all and be on-going. To support the pilot and begin their work in the parishes, one full-time and two part-time officers were appointed and paid for by the Church of Sweden. Because it is a pilot project, five churches were invited to take part to start with, including all their employees, which amounted to 35 in all. It is important to say that in Sweden the number of employees attached to churches is far greater than those in the UK!*

Extensive preparatory work by project organisers took place including visits to get to know the parishes concerned in order to develop an awareness of their different situations, needs and viewpoints. In-depth interviews were conducted in each parish. These included asking church employees and their youth groups’ seven questions. These were:

  • What norms do you see in your parish?
  • Do your norms shut anyone out?
  • What individuals are missing?
  • Can you provide an example of someone breaking a norm?
  • Can you provide an example of an activity or place where it is considered natural for everyone to meet?
  • The goal of the project is to have a church for and with everyone, If you had complete freedom to decide what support you need now and in the future what would that be?

Assessing the results opened up many different issues – as one would expect in any country and institution embarking on such a wide-ranging project. As a result of the findings, it was agreed that the diocese needed to provide stronger support to encourage the development of parishes, including that of leadership.

A project report was drawn up and a conference, “Norm Breaking”, was held in 2016.  A concise and clear plan of action was created which identified the core aims of the project. It was also of crucial importance that the full engagement of all pilot project employees was necessary in order to ensure the successful implementation of the plan. A key document was drawn up outlining the theological reasoning outlining why it is everyone’s responsibility to work for inclusion of the world’s diversity.

IC visits

By the time we arrived (24-27 April 2018), the project was already three years into action. We visited two of the churches involved. The first, the church of Fisksätra in the suburbs, was carrying out what was described as “unique interfaith work”. When we arrived, we went to the community centre attached to the church where supper was available for all who wished to come. Food was free and in abundance. Guests came from the wide range of nationalities and cultures that made up the community. Their pastor Pia-Sophia, with the church workers, Pernilla and Tina, told us there were 70 different nationalities and around 200 languages, many of the community were vulnerable, through poverty and unemployment with a number having a range of different needs. A social worker is an essential member of the staff. They all work closely together alongside Catholics and Muslims with the aim of creating a peaceful, friendly, integrated, positive and harmonious society for the inhabitants of the suburb. There is at present no one from the Jewish community as there are very few living in the locality, “but if there were we would welcome their inclusion too”.

A high number of the population belong to different Islamic traditions with whom an open dialogue is kept. The Imam and a number from the Muslim community were present and joined in with the meal and activities. A plan to build a mosque behind the church with a linking glass tunnel is proposed. “We come together for those things with which we are in agreement and join in activities” said Pia-Sophia. We are supported in the work we do by our diocesan bishop and archbishop. Pastors who are studying come here”.  An annual festival of cultures takes place and prayers for world peace. National Swedish TV transmits programmes from Fisksätra conveying the spirit of collaborative co-existence they all work so hard to maintain. Among our discussions, we talked of the issue of extremist parties that are rising in Sweden, as they are in many European countries, and the opposition they show to this kind of collaborative love. The comment I received on asking the question about who might oppose them and why was, “They hate because so much love comes from this place”. This we all saw, felt and were moved by.

The next day we were taken to the parish of Högalid to meet the staff and some of the young members of the parish who attend the many integrated activities that were taking place there. The building is huge with twin spires that dominate the surrounding area of Södermain and contains the highest pulpit I have ever seen. Again, by UK standards the churches are well-staffed with qualified colleagues who work in a highly integrated way with a wide variety of groups and individuals. Gunilla, their pastor, with other staff members, talked us through their philosophy of inclusion and the work they do. No one is considered to have “special needs”. All are considered full members of the community with access to everything. Qualified staff work together as a team to support anyone who may need particular support. Two of the younger members, both of whom had Down’s Syndrome, talked about what they feel about the community and the activities that are available to all those who wish to join in. They showed us, for example, the cards to help members learn sign language and we joined in the art activities. Youth camps take place during the holidays which, among many things, focus on preparation for confirmation, and disabled and non-disabled children take part together. We attended a Eucharist conducted by Gunilla in supportive sign language, which is the norm for the service. The HÈ«galid staff and community recently received an award from the City of Stockholm for their work on inclusion.

In the evening, the Bishop of Stockholm, Eva Brunne  welcomed us to her home and gave us time to exchange views and talk about the differences and similarities between the Swedish church and that of the CofE over what was an extrememly delicious meal.

Who is missing at the table?

On the third day, we attended a conference at Värfrukyrkan entitled, “Who is missing at the Table?” Delegates came from all over Stockholm who are part of the project or interested in it. It was so good to talk and discuss with a wide range of people from different disciplines the feelings they have about inclusion and their contribution towards it; hearing how expertise is shared between churches and groups – learning together being a key element of support and developing knowledge that can be put into practice. No one person, group or church can do everything in isolation; diversity by its very nature being so varied and complex – just as we are.  

Each of us as IC delegates had been given a slot in which to talk about our own experiences and why we were part of IC.  The Revd Dr Nick Bundock, Rector of St James and Emmanuel, Didsbury, Manchester, was a key speaker on “The Congregation – obstacle or opportunity”. The Swedish delegation, when they visited us last year, went to his parish and heard the story of how the church community changed and developed after the tragedy of a young parishioner who took her own life because she did not know how to be a Christian and gay. At the conference, Nick (with her parents’ permission) took everyone through the sequence of events. He talked about the stages they all went through; how it changed the way they thought of what their faith was about and how they now read the Bible differently. Through their soul-searching and discussions, they did lose a few members who went elsewhere but he talked about how his church has grown and broadened out though the inclusion of the acceptance and welcome of LGBT members of the community. Other groups who had previously felt left on the margins, or, that the church was not for them, also now came along and felt welcome. This story has been well documented elsewhere but Nick’s sensitive, straightforward, honest and direct way of relating it was deeply moving and had a profound effect on those present.

It was then our turn to give an overview of our work (always with others) for inclusion and the organisations we represented that link with IC. The Revd Dr Stephen Edwards, Team Rector of Wythenshawe and Area Dean, in Manchester, talked of the stages his deanery went through on their way to becoming what is now the first inclusive deanery in the country. He talked of the steps they took and the work they carried out in different ways according to the needs each church had identified. Many approaches were taken; some through day workshops, others with speakers and discussions, before they all felt ready to sign up to the IC statement.

I talked about Women and the Church (WATCH), its aims and my long involvement of working with others towards the full inclusion of women, ordained and lay, at every level in the Church. Interest was shown in the journey we had taken and still are taking. While in many ways Sweden has been way ahead of us regarding women’s ordination it still is not without its own issues, examples of which we were told about during our stay. I also took the opportunity to talk about the Anglican-Lutheran Society, of which I am a trustee, on what we do and what our aims are.

The Very Revd Dr Jonathan Draper in his turn talked about being the newly appointed General Secretary of Modern Church. Jonathan gave an overview of the history of the organisation- now in its 120th year and formed to encourage non-dogmatic approaches to Christianity, to support liberal voices in our churches and to work ecumenically though regular publications and yearly conferences.

The afternoon began with Ruth Wilde, IC’s new National Coordinator, who came from the Student Christian Movement, where she was the Faith in Action Project Worker. Ruth talked about many aspects of her life that have brough her to where she is now. She is a Quaker and takes part in many Christian projects and a broad range of social justice initiatives, including working one day a week for Christian Peacemaker Teams, being one of the founder members of South Birmingham Peacemeal (a small ecumenical house group) and working as an Associate Tutor and Woodbrooke Quaker College. She is looking forward to beginning her MA in Theology in October. As well as talking from a personal perspective about her life and her own experience of exclusion in the church, she gave an overview of what Inclusive Church does and how it operates.

The final session of the day was a session directed by the diocese consultant, Eva von Eckermann, on “What do we do now”, which related to the project, how it was progressing and hopes for the next stage. It gave people time to give their views and talk with one another.

Final thoughts

On our final day we visited the diocesan office for a round-up of the week, discussing what we had experienced and felt about what we had seen. We could see that the work of the project was impressive. It was so valuable to all those who were taking part, not to mention those who were benefitting from their participation. It was clearly making a difference. The experience of the original five pilot churches will be invaluable to and supportive of those who will be joining in the future. The fact that it was instigated by colleagues from the diocese who had had the vision and laid careful ground work in preparation was a major factor; so was being funded by the Church of Sweden, who saw the importance of financially supporting the difference gifts, insights and expertise of those involved.

It is true to say that we had the impression that Sweden was way ahead of us, and in some ways, they are.  But in our discussions, it can be seen in other areas that is not necessarily so. We heard during our visits about the negative experiences of some women pastors for example, that women can be silently ignored and/or rejected, that there is still repression and a non-acceptance of their gifts in some parishes – all of this is very familiar to us here. It was said that, in these cases, as in any case of discrimination, it is necessary to point out the norms and behaviours that are excluding individuals and groups that diminish the church. This is one of the reasons why the pilot was felt so necessary and vital and that is should come into being.

 “If you don’t accept everyone who comes you are denying the gifts of God. What does that mean when you are made in the image of God?” – this was a comment made by one of our Swedish friends that we could all affirm. Both churches in our different ways still have a long way to go but go and get there we will. 

There is so much more that could be said and written about our week in Sweden. The main impression we were left with was the sheer determination, endeavour and faith shown by those involved who are working in partnership and mutual support of each other, all carried out in the full hope that what is taking place will develop beyond the pilot so that the Church in Sweden will truly become “A Church for and with All”.

Written by Sally Barnes, an Inclusive Church trustee.

*In Sweden, historically, the Lutheran church received a ‘tax’ from every baptised adult citizen. Nowadays, the church and state are separated, but many people still opt in to giving money through tax to the church.