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Church, State About To Separate In Sweden After Four Centuries Apathy, Membership Losses Forcing Country To Denationalize Lutheran Church

Each Sunday, church bells peal from idyllic churches across Sweden. Magnificent old granite and iron cathedrals grace the modern skylines.

But inside, many pews are empty - symptoms of apathy and falling membership which, along with more immigrants and religions, are about to force the separation of church and state in Sweden after four centuries.

The first step comes Jan. 1, when children born to at least one Lutheran parent no longer will automatically become members of the state Lutheran church.

Over the next four years, the country will largely denationalize its Lutheran Evangelical Church of Sweden, one of the world’s oldest remaining state churches.

By 2000, local parishes and the state must appraise and divide up vast amounts of property. The church must cut its $1.68 billion annual budget, most of which is collected through taxes.

After 2000, the church, rather than the state, will appoint bishops.

The king no longer must be Lutheran, although King Carl XVI Gustaf says he will remain one. Civil affairs minister Marita Ulvskog, the so-called “church minister” required by law to be Lutheran, could quit the church and openly admit what she already has told its leaders: she’s a non-believer.

For most Swedes - unreligious and church-avoiding - the change may be invisible. For the church and religious freedom in Sweden, the evolution is profound.

“It will change the mentality of the church from a church equal to the postal system … to a church being a community, interested in its individual members,” says Rev. Dr. Ragnar Persenius, the church’s secretary for external affairs.

Undoing a 403-year-old knot takes time, and the split will not be total. The church will continue to collect its fees through taxes and will retain a monopoly over funeral homes and cemeteries, even those used by other faiths.

Lutheranism became the state religion in 1593, and for three centuries, all Swedes had to belong to its church. Since the 1850s, they did not even have to be baptized to be counted as members. Not until 1951 could they legally quit the church and stop paying it 1.1 percent of their annual income in taxes.

A church-state “divorce” formally was proposed in the 1950s amid an influx of Jews, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox from Europe. In the last decade, Muslims went from a handful of Swedes to an estimated 250,000.

Today, 10 percent of Sweden’s 8.6 million people are non-Lutheran immigrants. Church membership has gone from nearly everybody to 86 percent - and is still falling.

“I would not say that having the state church was the wrong thing in the 16th century,” says retired archbishop Krister Stendahl. “But with religious pluralism in Sweden, this status is untenable.”

Some of the most pluralistic European countries still have a state church. Britain, Greece, Finland, Norway and Denmark all appoint bishops and collect church fees.

In Sweden, some think the union exacted a spiritual price.

“People may have taken (the church) for granted,” says the Rev. Dr. Johan Dalman, a church theologian. “This is what we hope will change.”

Decades of pressure from the dominant Social Democratic Party finally moved the church Synod last June to accept a split-up - with trepidation.

“The threat, perhaps the reality, is that if people leave the church, we will have difficulty surviving. We will have to reduce our work or sell our buildings,” Persenius says.

Surveys show that few Swedes will quit immediately. But the real test will be new members, and the church has devised pastoral guidelines on how to attract fee-paying Lutherans.

“If the church cannot survive with a clear religious identity,” Stendahl says, “it will have no future.”