Life as an Orthodox Churchman in the Church of Sweden
An interview with Dag Sandahl by William J. Tighe
Reverend Dag Sandahl is a priest in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden and a member of its General Synod, its highest governing body. He has been a leading orthodox dissident in the Church, which as of January 2000 has been disestablished, that is to say, no longer supported by the government as a state Church. What follows is an edited combination of interviews conducted July 12, 1999, in Sweden, and March 11, 2000, in New York City by our correspondent William J. Tighe.
William J. Tighe: Perhaps you might tell us something about your Christian background—when you were born, your education and your decision to be ordained in the Church of Sweden.
Dag Sandahl (DS): I am a typical product of the Church of Sweden. I was born in 1948 and baptized that year. When I was four, I started Sunday school, and I tried to leave when I was ten—but we had a good priest! When I finished Sunday school, I started my Confirmation class. I did what was expected.
Then, of course, as a teenager I began thinking about what Christianity stands for. I read the Handbook for Atheists and the Gospel of St. John in order to understand. That Handbook was much debated. It struck me as a rather dull book, and now I realize why. So I was struck by the insight that Christianity must be true.
I had no thought of being an “officer,” but we had a good priest there and he said, “Well, I’ve been thinking, could you have a vocation for the priesthood? I have a book here and five quotations from the Scriptures. Read and think about it, and I’ll pray for you.” Suddenly I realized that it was possible to be a priest, and I think my mother prayed for that. So I went to Lund University and studied theology. I was ordained in 1971 when I was 23 years old.
And then I was immediately sent to Kalmar. I wasn’t fond of the idea. They placed me in a basement, not with the purpose of building a parish, but to do youth work, to have study groups, and so on. But I had a firm conviction that if you are going to establish a new parish, you will have to celebrate the Eucharist—now I would say that you have to start with that, but then I had to start with smaller family services and a lot of study groups. We met in the basement for fourteen years before we built a new chapel.
So now I have been in Kalmar for 28 years. I was elected to the Church of Sweden General Synod in 1979. Then in 1986 I was elected to the Central Board and left that in 1998. Next I was elected to the Finance Board, a corporation that controls church finances.
I understand all of your priestly career has been as Komminister of the Two Sisters Church in Kalmar. Could you explain what a komminister is?
DS: You have a kyrkoherde or vicar and then you have an assistant priest. That is the komminister—”ministering together with.” Kalmar, a city of about 32,000, forms one ecclesiastical district or vicarage, the Kalmar Cathedral, with one vicar or kyrkoherde, but within this vicarage there are five churches.
You were also until very recently rural dean of Kalmar. What does a rural dean do, and when did you hold the position?
DS: I became rural dean in 1989 and was removed in 1999. A rural dean cares for the priests and the deacons primarily and is a member of the deanery council. He will, with the other deans, meet formally with the bishop two or three times a year. He does visitations to the parishes in his deanery and reports to the bishop. He deals with disputes and conflicts and calls in the bishop if necessary. He has special responsibilities for priests when it concerns their studies and their parochial situations. But in all this he is supposed to act more as a friend than as a supervisor to the other clergy in his district.
Did you enjoy being a rural dean?
DS: Yes, perhaps much more than I realized. We went with the vicars and some of the komministers to Israel trying to work out how we could conduct a pilgrimage for ordinary people. We had seminars. We worked on church history. I was lecturing in the parishes. That was enjoyable.
Then I had another opportunity to lecture. The diocese asked me to speak on “What is a Priest?” I did so twice. But the second time there was an uproar from the women priests about what I said. But when I read the evaluations of what I said—their main criticism was, “He is against the ordination of women, so he shouldn’t be allowed to talk at all.” It was that, rather than what I actually said.
What I said was, “You are all priests for, with, and in your parish, not under it, not over it.” And I talked about the present situation. I gave examples and said, “Discuss this situation: You are the new vicar and you have a komminister who is not permitted to be a vicar because of his views on the women’s ordination question. He is angry, bitter, and frustrated. How will you take care of this man, who is more theologically trained than you are? How will you do it?”
And then I said, “Discuss this: Else, your churchwarden, is the pillar of your parish; you know you can rely on her. She has a son who wants to be a priest but is refused ordination because of the women’s ordination question. He went to the bishop and said, ‘I have been studying and reflecting on this question and I don’t agree with the decision the Church has taken. I will not fight; I will not make trouble; I will just be a good priest in my parish, but I do not think that this is what God intended for the Church.’ Then the bishop looks up in the air and says, ‘Then I can’t ordain you.’ Now Else comes to you, the new vicar, and says ‘I will give it all up; I will quit.’ What do you say?”
The fact that I had them discussing these two examples drawn from reality in Sweden was too much. So the bishop said to me that he could not spend any more time defending me as a rural dean.
So you were fired?
Because of your opinions or because of the publicity that your opinions attracted?
DS: The publicity, because there are other rural deans with the same opinions, but they are not written about in the newspapers or discussed in the media.
I saw a newspaper with your picture in it. Why does it describe you as the enfant terrible of the Church of Sweden?
DS: I think it is because I have been one of the leaders in the opposition for such a long time. For two reasons, I think. One of my friends, an assistant professor at Uppsala, says that the older generation of opponents never answered any questions from journalists, and they were badly treated as a result. We have to answer the questions when they are asked. Martin Luther said the priest has an “official” task, and so if you are an official—and a priest is an official—you have to speak officially, and not give your private opinion. And in addition to this is my personality. I like to discuss things. But I think you have to talk freely about your opinions in an open society, but then you will be considered an enfant terrible.
What is the situation in the Church of Sweden today for clergy as well as for candiates for ordination who oppose the ordination of women?
DS: The ordination candidates must sign a paper in most of the dioceses. They have to declare that they will work with all priests, men and women. That’s the point. If you can’t act liturgically with women priests you will not be ordained. The same goes for the priests if they want to be vicars, deans, or bishops in the new church order after disestablishment in the year 2000. Candidates getting five percent or more of the votes will have to sign the paper declaring that they are willing to cooperate with all clergy. If not, they are ineligible for election.
I have read elsewhere that sometimes a candidate will have to agree to assist a woman celebrating Communion. I believe when she administers the host, the male candidate (or priest) would assist with the chalice.
Has that been changed by the new requirement or are both of these tests still required?
DS: Those types of practical tests were used mostly, I think, to make the situation clear. But they will continue. They have been sending candidates of whom they are suspicious to women priests in order to find out what they are doing—perhaps to trap them.
Dr. Folke T. Olofsson, a docent at Uppsala University, described the case of a Pentecostal minister in the Gothenburg diocese, who wanted to become a priest in the Church of Sweden. The bishop told him that he would not make him sign the declaration as a condition of ordination, but that he would have to receive Communion from a woman priest. And if he was willing to do it right then, the bishop said he would telephone a woman priest who worked in the diocesan offices and would have her come right up to the bishop’s office to celebrate the Eucharist.
DS: Yes. That was awful.
Women’s ordination, I know, was forced upon the General Synod for debate by the government in 1957 and was defeated, with all the bishops voting against it. So the government dissolved the synod, had new and politicized synod elections, and in 1958 the new General Synod approved the proposal and the first women were ordained on Palm Sunday in 1960. What was the position in 1960 of clergy and ordination candidates and theological students opposed to the ordination of women?
DS: In 1958 the decision was taken with a “conscience clause.” That conscience clause originally came out of questions from young theologians in Uppsala. They asked about their situation and whether they could be ordained if they were opposed, and since there was then a lack of priest candidates, the Church was very eager to have them.
The Minister for Religious Affairs later said, on behalf of the government, that no one in the matter of the ordination of women will be forced to act against his conscience, and that this was a firm guarantee. Then in 1960 the opponents tried to work out what it meant for them to have a conscience clause and the Kyrklig Samling, the umbrella organization for the dissident groups, composed 17 points, or theses, concerning the practical outcome of the conscience clause and the necessity to avoid all recognition of the ministerial or sacramental acts of ordained women. In January 1960 it was published.
So in the 1960s we lived with a conscience clause, with bishops conducting separate ordination services for men opposed to the ordination of women. That continued until 1974 or 1975. But the bishops said this was a pain, because at the ordinary ordinations of men and women together, the usual number of people would come to be present for the sake of their friends, but at the ordinations of men opposed to women’s ordination, many people would come to show support. And typically they would join in the singing and responses with enthusiasm, and that was a plague for the bishops to see. They couldn’t stand the situation.
Eventually a shift came when 5 or 10 percent of the clergy were women priests and the bishops couldn’t handle the situation anymore. They said there were too many conflicts between opponents and female clergy, but in reality most people opposing women’s ordination did so without being personally hostile to women priests. It was alleged that there was hostility and harassment, but no examples were ever substantiated.
And the fate of the conscience clause?
DS: It ended in a typically Swedish way. They tried to tighten the screws in 1979, but we survived that. But in 1982 we repealed the original 1958 law providing for the ordination of women. After that a woman could be a priest based on the general law of equality in Sweden. And when that law was repealed all the provisions associated with that law went also, including the conscience clause.
So we said, okay, according to the state there is now no conscience clause; but the Church has also made a promise, and it had to be true to its promise. So, in 1993 we tried to draft a document in a commission. We had the support of the Bishops’ Conference, the Central Board, the Free Synod [the principal “orthodox opposition” group], and the Church Union [the Kyrklig Samling]. It was published, and the intention was for it to be discussed in all of the 180 odd rural deaneries and then be sent back to the commission for revision. But the whole thing collapsed after two days. There were some women priests in the diocese of Stockholm who protested so loudly that they scared the bishops, and so nothing was done.
So the original purpose of the meeting was not to make it more difficult for opponents, but to find if there was a way to have a modus vivendi in the Church?
DS: Exactly. We wrote a document with A, B and C statements. “A” was what we were united in, what we could say together. “B” was what the people in favor of the ordination of women would want to say, and “C” was our statements. We were asked or pushed to say, or they would have liked us to say, that if a woman is ordained she really is a priest and when she celebrates, it really is the Eucharist. If we would say that, there would be no problems for us. But we said validity isn’t our question. Because we don’t go to their Eucharists, that implies that we don’t recognize them as in accordance with church order. But don’t force us to say more than we can; we are questioning, not denying. And they became furious.
But we all agreed in the document that there are two honorable statements about women priests. First, you are not intellectually or theologically dishonest if you are against the ordination of women, nor, likewise, if you are in favor. But you have to discuss the situation with the other side. Our side does not devalue the other’s piety. We don’t want to run you out of the Church when we say we want to discuss the question. And that goes for both sides. Then we said, secondly, this is a theological question, not a question of equality between men and women. And we were united in these two statements. But this was too much for them.
And so since 1993 or 1994 it has been impossible for opponents to become ordained?
DS: Absolutely impossible, actually from 1998, because before then there were some bishops who might occasionally take a candidate. Back in 1993 they might say—and this is a quote from Bishop Hellstrom—”They would call me and say, I can’t take him, but he is a very good candidate, so can you take him?” In those days, Hellstrom would ordain such a candidate, who would stay in Hellstrom’s diocese for two years and then go back to his old diocese. That was a political way to handle the situation.
But now we have about 40 qualified candidates who have been refused ordination because of this issue.
I know from my reading that even after 1958 there were five bishops (out of a total of 13) in the Swedish Church opposed to the ordination of women, and that in 1961 and 1970 two more opponents became bishops. Yet the episcopate of the Church of Sweden appears to have gone quickly in the sixties to becoming almost a monopoly of those who support it. How did this happen? To what extent did the government take an active role in it?
DS: The government’s role dominated everything. Under the old system of appointment the clergy of the diocese and one lay person from each parish would vote, and the government would choose one from the top three vote-getters. All five of the opposing bishops died or retired between 1958 and 1971, and in every case except two (Visby, 1961; Gothenburg, 1970) the government was able to choose a proponent.
In the diocese of Visby in 1961, where the retiring bishop was a proponent, all top three candidates were opponents. Gustav Adolf Danell, the dean of Vaxjo, a strong opponent, won, and this was the sixth of the eight times he had been elected a bishop but never appointed. The government refused him and instead appointed Olof Herrlin, the dean of Uppsala, whom they obviously found to be the “softest” man. In the elections in between the government could always choose a candidate who was in favor. . . .
Even if he might be third on the list?
DS: Exactly. Once I heard two deans say, laughing bitterly, “If they put me and you on that list and a monkey is third, they will appoint the monkey.”
In 1970 in Gothenburg Bertil Gaertner was number three on the list. He had lived in America and had come back to Sweden less than a year before to be dean of Gothenburg, and I think the idea was that he must be modern because he lived in America. He was also the youngest of the three and would be bishop longest, but the idea was that there would be a press campaign to force him to ordain women; but he stood firm. And after that candidates from us dissenters have never received all three top positions in an election.
In dioceses with bishops like Gaertner or Herrlin, could a woman priest be forced into their dioceses against their will?
DS: Yes, and they were. It happened in Gothenburg, and then the Chapter made a declaration saying that the intrusion went against their principles, but that they would treat her with politeness and recognize that she is legally a komminister in the diocese, although by that they said that they were not going to open the question of whether she was a true priest or not—they simply would treat her as they did all the other komministers in the diocese.
Then there followed a press campaign against Bishop Gaertner to try to force him to recognize her as a priest. It went on for a long time, but then he was a guest on a talk show and they found he was a wonderful man and so he became very popular. On the talk show he talked about football, and the people realized he was one of them. He went to football matches in Gothenburg and stood among the ordinary people instead of sitting in a celebrity seat, and the people liked that. “He’s a devil of a bishop,” people said, and the other bishops hated it.
Besides being Bishop of Gothenburg from 1970 to 1991, both during his time as bishop and after his retirement, Bertil Gaertner has been a leading figure, perhaps symbolically the leading figure of the “orthodox opposition” in the Church of Sweden. What role has he played and does he play among the “orthodox opposition” groups?
DS: He is the symbol, and he has the ability to gather together all the groups. He can meet the charismatic people and get their trust (he has been the advisor to their group); he can bring in the high-church people, and the Lutheran confessionalist people (the “old church” movement, which has historically been strong in the Gothenburg diocese). We had a meeting in Linkoping in 1997. It was, technically, organized by the Free Synod, but the invitations to it went out as “Bertil Gaertner invites you,” and 2,000 people came to be with him.
So that has been his role—writing books, lecturing, preaching, and celebrating. He was supposed to preach, celebrate, and lecture on Christology in Boras in March 1999. He has spoken there every year for decades, but suddenly the local politicians said he was not welcome. So one week before, the local vicar had to call him and say, you are not welcome; but perhaps you could just come to the service and sit there and I will do the service and you can give your speech afterward.
Gaertner said “no.” It was a foolish thing to do to him, of course. It made headlines in the newspapers, and it was very rude to the group that had asked him to come. There had always been a big crowd to hear him there when he came to speak. There are many people who consider him to be the best-known religious figure in Sweden—he came in number one in a media contest. There was an interview with him with the newspaper headline, “A Bishop for Fifty Thousand People.” These fifty thousand were drawn equally from low-church confessionalists and high-church elements.
Bishops in the Church of Sweden by virtue of being bishops were voting members and leading members of the General Synod. And then that changed at a certain point . . .
DS: In 1982.
. . . so what has been the position of bishops in the Church of Sweden after 1982?
DS: Lame ducks. One of the lay members of the General Synod was sitting in front of me in the 1982 synod and said, “We can’t have the bishops here. They know they will come to the next General Synod, and we don’t. They can prepare in advance; they can write an agenda, and we’re just sitting there. This must come to an end.” And he was right. They had the power in the General Synod. So their opponents said, “We will take command”—and they did.
After 1982, didn’t the bishops still have the right to attend the General Synod?
DS: After 1982 they had, not “the right,” but “the duty” to attend, as it was written in the law. But beyond this, two of the bishops were elected as members. The bishops decided that this was an impossible situation, because there should not be an “A Team” of elected bishops and a “B Team” of attending bishops. So they decided that they would not run for election and that resulted in their sitting silent at General Synod meetings. Then the synod debated whether this was a good order. They decided to encourage the bishops to speak, and then they gave the bishops the right to put suggestions to the synod, but not to vote on measures. A bishop would say, “If I were in a position to propose—or vote—then I would do such-and-such.” That’s ridiculous, of course.
The position of the bishops and their lack of authority will continue after disestablishment in 2000?
DS: Yes. When the archbishop went into a synod debate and said that the bishops preferred indirect elections for synod members, some of the members were furious at him for presuming to speak. One of them said in the discussions after the decision that evening, “The pack left, the bloody pack left,” referring to the bishops. So there are still some strong anti-episcopal feelings there.
What does the disestablishment mean to the practical and the political life of the Church?
DS: Parliament enacted a new church structure, and we will still have political parties acting in the Church Assembly. So we have in one way a very “established” disestablished church. About 10 percent of the electorate votes in the Church Assembly elections. I think that figure will go down, perhaps to 6 percent. Well, for how long can you have elections under democracy with figures like this?
Speaking as an American, where we haven’t had established churches for a long time, and as an English historian, what seems strange about the Swedish situation is that it is taken as very significant that the Church of Sweden is being disestablished. But it is being disestablished wrapped from head to foot with chains forged by the government or by itself, with debates in the Riksdag about whether bishops can vote in the Church Assembly.
DS: Since 1864 we have had the civil communities separated from the Church. In earlier days the school and the central social functions were related to the parish, but after that date we had a new order. That situation lasted 140 years, and then we split on a national level. But in Sweden the way to control the Church is through the political parties. They can disestablish the Church as much as you want, but still they control the Church, and that’s the point.
Why the desire to control the Church? Is it just a political a priori that all social organizations must be ultimately under the control of the state, even if not formally under its control?
DS: Yes, I think so—especially any organizations producing ideology.
What is the thought of the “orthodox opposition” about the difficulties and opportunities that are or may be available for Christian orthodoxy in the Church of Sweden now that is has been disestablished, as compared with before?
DS: In late October the Kyrklig Samling invited representatives of the various conservative groups to meet in Rome, in order to ascertain and discuss what provisions they were making for the future. So we had a lot of theological discussions, trying to find out who we are in all these diverse positions.
All the groups discussed their perceptions of the situation. There we saw that the low-church/pietist element of the orthodox opposition is interested only in its own organizations, not really in the fate of the Church of Sweden. The confessionalist Lutherans [in Swedish termed the “old church” element] are interested mostly in confessionalist Lutheran organizations. Only the high-church people really care about the Church of Sweden as a church and as a whole. Here is a situation that we can’t have if the orthodox opposition is to be effective, namely that two of the three elements in it are interested only in their own organizations, not the life of the Church. They want to run their own organizations more or less within the Church of Sweden while ignoring it—as ecclesiolae in ecclesia, churches-within-a-church.
What about the high-church people?
DS: I think that their position is the worst. They love the Church of Sweden, but that is a love unanswered by the Church. We have lost some priests to the Roman Catholic Church, some of our best priests. They went away, and now we will face, so far as I can ascertain, what happens when a lot of priests suddenly realize “we can’t give up the positions we hold now.” I have been obliged to stay in my parish for forty years. Such is a “life sentence,” and I think it will cause depression: there will be priests who will have to do the same thing for years, because they can have no new position. It is a policy that will cause stress, frustration, anger, and hatred.
So what is the strategy for the future of the orthodox opposition?
DS: If there are church elections in which 6 percent of the population vote, a lot of these will be high-church professional people who go to church every Sunday. If it is true that there are 50,000 people who look to Bertil Gaertner as their bishop, then these 50,000 are regular church-going people who attend every Sunday. The number of Swedes who go to church in Sweden every Sunday is about 250,000 [out of 7.6 million church members]; so one-fifth of those who go to church are strong conservative people who look to Bertil Gaertner. This is a significant part of the people who go to church. That is the hope, that this group can survive. But there always is the situation, the possibility, that there will be a crackdown and people like Anders [Reinholdsson] and Folke [Olofsson] [two of the more prominent theologians and activists of the high-church element of the orthodox opposition] will be put outside, and then the Church will be severely damaged.
And what of those on the other side? What is their view of the future of the Church of Sweden? Do they have a collective view of what the Church of Sweden will stand for in its new circumstances, the role that it will fill in society?
DS: Yes. The Church will be “Mrs. Walker,” walking alongside the Swedish people, walking not so much with answers as with questions: “We will share their questions and we will discuss them, not prescribing the reality, but discussing what we can see.” That is the church as “co-walker”—that is what the archbishop says about it.
One can talk about being “co-walkers” with the people, but if the people suddenly decide to become racists, if they suddenly decide to become like the Austrians are now caricatured: anti-immigrant, hostile to outsiders, what then? A people can go in almost any direction. We were speaking about postmodernism earlier today, and about how it enables people to indulge their desires without too much concern for principles or consistency, so that anything becomes possible. Do they really mean what they say, and all that it implies, when they talk about “walking with the people” as the church’s role?
DS: Yes. The archbishop is a full-fledged Postmodernist, although that doesn’t go for all the bishops. There were four bishops on the Doctrinal Committee—all thirteen bishops are members of it—who made a quiet attempt in a very modest way to present an alternative view, at least as a way that the Church might develop in another direction, but they lost. I think it is significant that the other nine were of the same mind as the archbishop; it shows that even theology is fully controlled by the archbishop. His views are now proclaimed as the path for all.
Earlier you were talking, partly seriously and partly jokingly, about the Free Synod [the Free Synod of the Church of Sweden, a largely high-church orthodox opposition group, and the most “activist” among these groups] and how it ought to be dissolved. Why would this be a good thing to do? Has it no more purpose to serve?
DS: We have 1,500 members, down from a high of 1,700. A lot of these are dying off, and the fight has gone out of them; they have no chance to work with us. Perhaps we had better admit that we have been defeated, as I think we have been. The organization was created in 1982 for a task that is not ours any longer, because our candidates will not be ordained and our priests will not get fair promotions. Their skills will not be used and their gifts cannot be lived out in the service of the Church.
You seem pessimistic. What has happened to change your thinking?
DS: I had a hard time as I reflected upon this new church order. There are whole paragraphs saying “you’re not wanted”—that has caused a lot of pain. I’m rather tired of it, and disappointed. I have been involved in this organization at all levels for a long time; I’ve been having discussions with bishops for a long time; and now with retired bishops, and I hear what they say, that this isn’t a good situation, and they complain about it.
To what extent is there ecumenical involvement in these struggles in Sweden? Does the orthodox opposition find any degree of sympathy from Roman Catholic circles?
DS: Yes. We met the new Roman Catholic bishop [Anders Arborelius, a former high-church Lutheran theology student], and he was sorry about the situation. He said, you know what church diplomacy is about, and we said, yes; and we have to live in this situation of diplomacy between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Sweden. But his answer and the tone of the conversation were more positive than with the former bishop. He understands the situation.
I understand that Orthodoxy has a presence in Sweden, and that it has been there for a sufficient amount of time to begin to become naturalized, at least in some cities. To what extent is becoming Orthodox an option for dispossessed people in the Church of Sweden?
DS: I think there are two priests who have become Orthodox in the last two years. There were some young people who became Serbian Orthodox priests; and one former Lutheran priest has become an Orthodox priest. But the Orthodox are mostly poor immigrants from the Middle East who have no strong position in Swedish cultural life.
Are there any glimmers of hope for the orthodox within the Church of Sweden?
DS: Yes, a hope, but perhaps a hope only when the Church weakens enough. After 2000 we will have members leaving the membership rolls to save money from the church tax. And people hate to pay money for an archbishop arguing for same-sex marriage. And then who will be prepared to take care of the Church? The whole system could collapse. I can see the Church imploding—just falling down. We’re a heavy organization, not very efficient, suffering from a lack of confidence, with tired and confused priests. There’s no future for such a Church.
But the Church doesn’t exist for itself. It has the purpose of giving the gospel to the people. We had that debate back in the 1950s, and then they said, “This isn’t a missionary church”—and I regret that deeply. Perhaps there will just be a tiny minority left to do that work. God could create a miracle, and that is what we pray for.
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“Swedish Dissent” first appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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