Who is really out of place when a religious service opens parliament?

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Who is really out of place when a religious service opens parliament?

Sweden Democrat leader Jimmy Åkesson's complaint that an imam 'politicised' the religious service that opened the Riksdag last week, raises an interesting point about the place of religion and in Swedish politics, argues contributor Ruben Brunsveld.


When the temperature starts to drop below 10 degrees Celsius and the warmth of the sun starts to fade, you know it’s time for the opening of the parliamentary year in Stockholm's historic ‘Storkyrkan’.

It's an event accompanied by many beautiful Swedish traditions.

But since last year it seems that a new tradition has been added to the opening of the Riksdag: Sweden Democrats complaining about the ceremony.

This year, party leader Jimmy Åkesson complained that the presence of an imam and a rabbi in the ceremony last Thursday politicised what was supposed to be a religious event and a moment of reflection.

He continues his lament by saying that he is not against inter-religious dialogue as such, but that the opening of the parliamentary year is not the time or place for it.

On the latter we can actually agree.

The position of the Church of Sweden in Swedish society continues to fascinate me with its mix of Catholic, Lutheran and animistic symbols and rituals.

Although the vast majority of Swedes claim to be atheist they, nevertheless celebrate Saint Lucia more fanatically than their own birthday (or name day for that matter).

My Swedish friends tell me it is more culture then religion.

“Don’t worry we do not mix the worldly with the divine!” they say.

Yet until recently, Swedish citizens were automatically born into membership in the Swedish Church.

Moreover, a religious wedding ceremony is still binding before the law and here we are in Storkyrkan (lit. 'the big church') celebrating the opening of the parliamentary year.

A fascinating contradiction, it seems, for a country so proud of its strongly rooted sense of secularism.

This time, the confusion seems to come forth out of the fact that the ceremony serves a double purpose.

It is both a religious ceremony and a political one.

If it were primarily a political one, you could wonder what the imam, rabbi, pastor and all other clergymen were doing there.

The royal family, as representatives of the state, would still have a function, but representatives of all faiths would be superfluous.

If on the other hand the ceremony is primarily a ‘Gudstjänst’ (worship service) as Åkesson describes it, it seems not the clergymen, but the politicians are out of place!

If he is right in his description, then it is not the imam, rabbi, and pastor, but Åkesson and the other politicians who are intruding and politicising the ceremony.

The problem is that the world is once again not as black and white as Åkesson would like it to be.

Politicians base their views on their personal experiences and upbringing, including their religious beliefs.

And although Åkesson is in claiming that, for centuries, the basis for the shared value system in Sweden has been Christianity, he will have to accept that for many Swedes, other religions now play an important role.

He writes that Swedish society is kept alive and vital by traditions and by honouring those who came before.

That is absolutely true.

But it is equally true that society is kept alive by change. By new views, new people and yes new blood.

No matter how much he would like to, he cannot turn Sweden into an open-air museum of the 1950s.

The sooner he realizes this the better, because this yearly lamentation is one tradition Sweden can easily live without.

Ruben Brunsveld is the Director of the Stockholm Institute for Public Speaking (StIPS), which offers training in Intercultural Communication, Public Speaking & Negotiation Techniques


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