‘The church’s role in northern Sweden has been bothering me’

'The church's role in northern Sweden has been bothering me'
The spire of Kiruna's church in the far north of Sweden. Photo: Hanna Franzén/TT
OPINION: Sweden's north isn't always as secular as you might expect, writes Paul Connolly, who has observed plenty of support for the church in over six years living in the region.

If there's one thing living in northern Sweden has taught me, it's never believe the stereotype.

The six and a half years we've lived in, first, Norrbotten and then Västerbotten have been marked by a regular succession of myth-exploding experiences.

Unfriendly Norrlanders, six months of darkness, and the idea that the north is an empty rural wasteland inhabited only by trolls, eagle-sized mosquitos, and polar bears drifting about on ice floes, are just some of the preconceptions that have been given a well-deserved kicking.

But there's one myth that I've been responsible for keeping alive, and that's the image of Norrlanders as sensible, rational folk with little time for the absurdities and intolerance of religion.

I assumed that, given the north's tendency to vote for the left-leaning Social Democrats and the fact that, for the first time in my life, I've met real, actual Communists, Norrland would be barren ground for religiosity.

But it really isn't. And that's been bothering me.

My five-year-old twins, who attend the local pre-school, badgered me this autumn to allow them to follow their friends to a weekly ‘mini-club'. Even though it was to be held in the local church hall I wasn't too concerned – surely they wouldn't try to proselytize little kids. That would be immoral. I was assured it was just a social thing.

The second week they came home with a Bible. The third week they were taken to the local church for, according to my girls, “songs and talks about the man in the sky.”

The church in the area has been involved in controversies in recent years. The pastor of the Lutheran local church is married to Aleksander Radler, a former spy for the East German Stasi, who was pastor himself and caused the imprisonment of about 23 young people over 50 years before being stripped of his licence to preach. 

READ ALSO: Swedes 'least likely in Western Europe' to go to church

Piteå's church, the oldest wooden church in Norrland. Photo: Erik Simander/TT

Religion here is not total anathema. Although a couple of my friends here are vocal in their distaste for the local church there are also those in the community who support it – there's even a Christian pop band who play regularly.

Here in Västerbotten, we don't have the history of Laestadianism – the branch of Lutheranism that started in Lapland and has 19 feuding sects relentlessly arguing over minor doctrinal issues like some outtake from Monty Python's Life Of Brian – which is still mildly popular in Norrbotten.

Rather, religion in Västerbotten took hold as part of the 19th-century Swedish state's attempt to establish control over this wild region by setting up outposts of the Lutheran church in local towns and villages.

As a result the church gained a stronger foothold here than in many other parts of Sweden, because it came to be seen as part of the state apparatus. Even as religion began to dwindle, it still had that faint tinge of the establishment about it. It still had some sway.

But it's fading fast now.

“Young people here don't care for religion at all,” a friend of mine said. “It's only the old people and those who don't much like to think for themselves.”

“And that's probably why the church will do anything for new blood. It's dying and it's desperate.”

Paul Connolly is a Skellefteå-based writer and monthly columnist for The Local. Follow him on Facebook and read more of his writing on The Local.

Member comments

  1. I believe that was the take away, formerxtian – The proselytizing of the church to 5 year olds without a better consent of the guardians. There is not enough detail here to inform a decision, if this was just a ‘mini-club’ and they used this for foisting religious doctrine then it is immoral. With that said, I do have the feeling that this is easily solved by frank discussions with ones children, teaching them both tolerance and the ability to make decisions.

  2. But was that “mini-club” openly a church function? How is proselytizing 5-year olds moral? It’s been my experience that Christian churches are not above deceitful tacticts when it comes to proselytizing.

  3. Paul Connolly most likely doesn’t much like to think for himself or has more problems with thinking than the majority of old people (why church shouldn’t be here for them if they like it). The worst article in the Local I have read. If more people like Paul will contribute their shit here, I will stop paying for this newspaper.

  4. I agree. Why so against church and religion? The article lack such substance. Surely there must be better things to write about. Religion gives a lot of people comfort. Why include this narrow minded,nasty, and inaccurate comment “It’s only the old people and those who don’t much like to think for themselves.”

  5. There is a simple solution to what the writer sees as immorality. If you don’t like the church, don’t go to a church function. Problem solved.

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