I thought this morning that I would begin by telling you a little bit about what I was doing last weekend when I was not here.
As many of you know, I have served as the Secretary of the Europe Area of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. When we have meetings, we try to go and visit one of our member churches, to learn about what they are doing and to offer encouragement and solidarity in difficult situations they are facing.
Last weekend, we visited our most northerly member church, the Uniting Church in Sweden. I had long been agitating to go and visit them, because I think they are a very interesting church and also because I like the experience of really, really cold weather and I high hopes for that in January in Sweden.
On one count, I was disappointed. It was really no colder than here. But on the other count, I was absolutely right. Their story is both interesting and inspiring.
The Uniting Church in Sweden is the most recently established church in Sweden. It was formed just six years ago, in 2011 but, as the name implies, it is not brand new. It has been formed from bringing three churches together. One of those churches, the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden, which itself grew out of a revival movement within the Lutheran Church of Sweden in the 1870s, was a part of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and its predecessor organisation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. It is the part of the Uniting Church which would traditionally be most closely related to us in theology and practice. The other partners to the union are the Baptist Union of Sweden and the United Methodist Church of Sweden.
To someone interested in church structures and theologies, this is fascinating. How can you bring together and hold together one two churches which practice infant baptism with a church which rejects infant baptism? With difficulty, but it can be done, by agreeing to live with difference. The part of the Uniting Church of Sweden which rejects infant baptism agreed not to seek to re-baptise adults who had been baptised as children even though it does not really recognise the validity of infant baptism. This is an act of great ecumenical generosity, made for the overall good of the church as a whole.
In the process of coming together, valuing tradition and cherishing identity were important. Individual congregations of the Uniting Church were free to keep their old names – Baptist, Methodist and Mission Covenant. But more and more, over the last six years, congregations are choosing to change to the new name. More and more, the worship traditions of each of the partners are being shared by the whole church. It is growing into a new identity. It is a church which is uniting, not claiming to be united. This speaks of moving forward, of hope, of growing trust and deepening love.
I’m sure you are all as fascinated as I am by church structure, but there’s more to the story of the Uniting Church in Sweden than that. There are 760 congregations spread across the whole country, with a total of 70,000 members, meaning that the average size of a congregation is about a hundred. But here’s something that surprised us. Another 130,000 people are involved in the activities of the church. Not members, but people involved. I expect my friends on the Committee were, like me, thinking about all the members of our churches who are not involved in the life of the church. How do they do it?
I suspect that there are lots of answers to that. But let me offer a few.
The first is, as I have been saying, is that this is a church which is visibly and deliberately coming together. Slowly, carefully and respectfully, they are dismantling the barriers which have normally kept denominations apart. They are not trying to preserve the past for its own sake but are building something new on the foundations which were laid down by the different churches which have come together. They are respecting and valuing and making space for the traditions and the styles and practices of each congregation, not forcing change, not trying to homogenise things that are incompatible but valuing diversity.
The second is that this is a consciously liberal church. Certainly there is a variety of opinion within it. Churches which do not have that are sects, not churches. In the Uniting Church in Sweden, there is freedom to think and believe and practice faith in the way that seems right to each member. Broadly speaking, though, the church as a whole is theologically liberal which means that it is not inwardly focussed, not consumed with theological power struggles as so many other churches, not least the Church of Scotland, are. Sweden is a broadly liberal country, and this is a church which is quite in tune with the way many people think. That’s not to say that the general population is religious, quite the opposite, but they see in the Uniting Church a church which reflects generally held concerns across Swedish society, particularly concerns for justice and equality.
But by far the most significant thing, and this came out again and again with everyone we met, is that this is an outward looking church. Many congregations are engaged in active work on diversity issues, promoting the rights of women, youth, minorities, supporting the struggle for justice for all, not only in Sweden but in twenty-seven countries around the world where there are active partnerships. Over a hundred congregations are involved actively in working with refugees and new immigrants. Informal Swedish language classes, run by volunteers, are a staple of many congregations in a country which has welcomed hundreds of thousands of “new Swedes” as they call them in recent years. Literally thousands of church members are starting from the presumption that new Swedes are friends, and then living and working to make that a deep reality.
We saw one extraordinary example. In addition to all the work done by congregations, the church runs a refugee integration centre in Uppsala which we were privileged to visit. Over three hundred people at a time are being taught the skills needed to be Swedes in Swedish society, from the language to riding a bicycle to learning how to use a computer to understanding Swedish law and culture to learning the norms of parenting. For instance, if you hit your child in Sweden, you’ve committed a criminal offence, but many are coming from places where physical punishment is accepted. Even more challenging is the fact that many families arriving in Sweden have endured the trauma of war, long periods of separation, and have not had the chance to develop normal relationships with their children because their focus has had to be only on survival. We heard of a man from Aleppo who’d found it difficult to sleep at first in Sweden. It was so quiet without the constant sound of bombs exploding. Another told us of his journey on foot, by smugglers’ boat and lorry, and by prison van from Afghanistan to be reunited with his wife and daughter. “How could you do it?” we asked, facing such danger, hiding in forests from the authorities, cutting border fences, experiencing arrest and deportation. “I wanted to be a father to my daughter,” he replied.
The World Communion of Reformed Churches is very thankful for the work and witness of the Uniting Church in Sweden, and for similar work being done in many member churches. January is a time when we often try to think about church unity and to me, what I saw last weekend is really what church unity is about. It is about coming together as churches in a way which values different perspectives and it is about coming together to serve the world, not for the sake of the church, not to be seen to be doing good works, but for the sake of people in need. Only a church which lives the message of unity in its own being can authentically demonstrate Christ’s message of unity to the world, a message which there is an increasingly desperate need for the world to hear. We have much to learn, and much work to do.