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

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.

'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

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. 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.

  2. 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.”

  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. 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.

  5. 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.

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For members


OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.