by Sally Barnes
from Signs of the Times No. 71 - Oct 2018

In April a delegation from Inclusive Church (IC) was invited by Swedish Lutheran friends from the Diocese of Stockholm to take part in a conference being held on their pilot project, ‘Accessibility and Inclusion - a Church for and with everyone’.

We also visited churches that are part of the project to see the work they are doing and meet members of their communities. This visit arose as a result of one made last year by the same group whom we hosted in the Dioceses of Manchester and Liverpool to see schools and churches that were similarly working on inclusion.

The first thing I need to comment on was the hospitality and friendship we were shown. Nothing was too much trouble. Our itinerary encompassed every aspect of our day. Apart from the official programme it included sight-seeing, dining out, time for discussions, and meeting the Bishop of Stockholm, Eva Brunne, who received us with much warmth. One or more of our hosts was always there to provide all the information we needed and make sure we would find our way around, especially not to get run over by cyclists! Our hosts went the extra mile for us. I want to thank them for their warmth and friendship. We will ensure the links we have made stay firmly in place.

The main aim of the Swedish project, which started in 2015, was to work on diversity to achieve the goal of developing and maintaining a church for and with everyone. No-one is to be thought of as a minority or taking part to promote the interests of a specific group. Changes in attitudes within parishes and diocesan administration would be achieved through training for all and be on-going. To support the pilot and begin their work in the parishes, one full-time and two part-time officers were appointed and paid for by the Church of Sweden. Because it is a pilot project five churches were invited to take part to start with, including all their employees, which amounted to 35 in all. (The number of employees attached to churches there is far greater than those in the UK.) Extensive preparatory work by project organisers took place including visits to get to know the parishes concerned in order to develop an awareness of their different situations, needs and viewpoints. In-depth interviews were conducted in each parish. These included asking church employees and their youth groups seven questions. These were:

  • What norms do you see in your parish?
  • Do your norms shut anyone out?
  • What individuals are missing?
  • Can you provide an example of someone breaking a norm?
  • Can you provide an example of an activity or place where it is considered natural for everyone to meet?
  • The goal of the project is to have a church for and with everyone; if you had complete freedom to decide what support you need now and, in the future, what would that be?

Assessing the results opened up many different issues - as one would expect in any country and institution embarking on such a wide-ranging project. As a result of the findings of this preliminary work it was agreed that the diocese needed to provide stronger support to encourage the development of parishes, including that of leadership.

A Project Report was drawn up and a conference, ‘Norm Breaking’, was held in 2016. A concise and clear Plan of Action was created which identified the core aims of the project. It was also of crucial importance that the full engagement of all pilot project employees was necessary in order to ensure the successful implementation of the Plan. A key document was drawn up outlining the theological reasoning outlining why it is everyone’s responsibility for the inclusion of the world’s diversity.

By the time we arrived, the project was three years into action. Our visits included two of the churches involved. The first, the church of Fisksätra in the suburbs, was carrying out what was described as ‘unique interfaith work’. When we arrived, we went to the community centre attached to the church where supper was available for all who wished to come. Food was free and in abundance. Guests came from the wide range of nationalities and cultures that made up the community. Their pastor Pia-Sophia, with the church workers, Pernilla and Tina, told us there were 70 different nationalities and around 200 languages, many of the community were vulnerable through poverty and unemployment, with a range of different needs. A social worker is an essential member of the staff. They all work closely together with Catholics and Muslims with the aim of creating a peaceful, friendly, integrated, positive and harmonious society for the inhabitants of the suburb. There is at present no one from the Jewish community as there are very few living in the locality, ‘but if there were we would welcome their inclusion too’.

A high number of the population belong to different Islamic traditions with whom an open dialogue is kept. The Imam and a number from the Muslim community were present and joined in with the meal and activities. A plan to build a mosque behind the church with a linking glass tunnel is proposed. ‘We come together for those things with which we agree and join in activities’ said Pia. ‘We are supported in the work we do by our diocesan bishop and archbishop. Pastors who are studying come here’. An annual festival of cultures takes place and prayers for world peace. National Swedish TV transmits programmes from Fisksätra conveying the spirit of collaborative co-existence they all work so hard to maintain. Among our discussions we talked of the issue of extremist parties that are arising in Sweden, as they are in many European countries, and the opposition they show to this kind of collaborative love. I asked who might oppose and why; the answer was, ‘They hate because so much love comes from this place’. This we all saw, felt and were moved by.

The next day we were taken to the parish of Högalid to meet the staff and some young members of the parish who attend the many integrated activities taking place there. The building is huge with twin spires that dominate the surrounding area of Södermain and contains the highest pulpit I have ever seen.

Again, by UK standards the churches are well staffed with qualified colleagues who work in a highly integrated way with a wide variety of groups and individuals. Gunilla, their pastor, with other staff members, talked us through their philosophy of inclusion and the work they do. Two of the younger members talked about what they feel about the community and the activities that are available to all those who wish to join in. They showed us, for example, the cards to help members learn sign language; we joined in the art activities. Youth camps take place during the holidays which, among many things, focus on preparation for Confirmation. We attended a Eucharist conducted by Gunilla in supportive sign language, which is the norm for the service. The Hȫgalid staff and community recently received an award from the City of Stockholm for their work on inclusion.

In the evening, Bishop Eva Brunne welcomed us to her home and gave us time to exchange views and talk about the differences and similarities between the Swedish church and that of the Church of England over an extremely delicious meal.

On the third day we attended a conference at Värfrukyrkan entitled, ‘Who is missing at the Table?’ Delegates came from many parts of Stockholm who are part of the project or had an interest in it. It was good to discuss, with a wide range of people from different disciplines, the feelings they have about inclusion and their contribution towards it, and how expertise is shared between churches and groups.

Each of us as IC delegates had been given a slot in which to talk about our own experiences and why we were part of IC. Nick Bundock, Rector of St James and Emmanuel, Didsbury, Manchester, was a key speaker on ‘The Congregation - obstacle or opportunity’. The Swedish delegation, when they visited us last year, went to his parish and heard the story of how the church community changed and developed after the tragedy of a young parishioner who took her own life because she did not know how to be a Christian and gay. At the conference Nick (with her parents’ permission) took everyone through the sequence of events. He talked about the stages they all went through; how it changed the way they thought of what their faith was about and how they now read the Bible differently. Through their soul-searching and discussions, they lost a few members who went elsewhere, but he talked about how his church has grown and broadened out though the inclusion of the acceptance and welcome of gay members of the community and other groups who had previously felt left on the margins or that the church was not for them. Nick’s sensitive, straight-forward, honest and direct way of relating this story was deeply moving and had a profound effect. 

Next, Stephen Edwards, Team Rector of Wythenshawe and Area Dean in Manchester, talked of the stages his deanery went through on their way to becoming what is now the first inclusive deanery in the country. He talked of the steps they took and the work they carried out in different ways according to the needs each church had identified. They were keen to learn from each other and took many approaches; some through day workshops, others with speakers and discussions, before they all felt ready to sign up to the IC statement.

I talked about Women and the Church (WATCH), its aims and my long involvement of working with others towards the full inclusion of women, ordained and lay, at every level in the Church. Interest was shown in the journey we had taken and still are taking. While in many ways Sweden has been way ahead of us regarding women’s ordination it still is not without its own issues, examples of which we were told about during our stay. I also took the opportunity to talk about the Anglican-Lutheran Society, of which I am a trustee, on what we do and what our aims are.

Jonathan Draper talked of his role as General Secretary of Modern Church. He gave an overview of the history of the organisation, now in its 120th year, formed to encourage non-dogmatic approaches to Christianity, support liberal voices in our churches and work ecumenically though regular publications and yearly conferences. Then Ruth Wilde, the newly appointed national co-ordinator of Inclusive Church, spoke similarly of her role, in the context of her background as a Quaker formerly with SCM and her involvement in many social justice activities.

This was followed by a session directed by the diocese consulent, Eva von Eckermann, on ‘What do we do now’, relating to the project, how it was progressing and hopes for the next stage, which gave people time to share their views with each other.

On our final day we visited the Diocesan office for a round-up of the week, discussing what we had experienced and felt about what we had seen. We could see that the work of the project was impressive. It was so valuable to all those who were taking part, not to mention those who were benefitting from their participation. It was clearly making a difference. The experience of the original five pilot churches will be invaluable to and supportive of those who will be joining in the future. The fact that it was instigated by colleagues from the diocese who had had the vision and laid careful ground work in preparation was a major factor; so was being funded by the Church of Sweden who saw the importance of financially supporting the difference gifts, insights and expertise of those involved.

We had the impression that in many ways Sweden was way ahead of us, and in some ways, they are. But we had also heard during our visits of the negative experiences of some women pastors for example, that women can be silently ignored and / or rejected, that there is still repression and a non-acceptance of their gifts in some parishes - all very familiar to us. It was said that in these cases, as in any case of discrimination, it is necessary to point out the norms and behaviours that are excluding individuals and groups that diminish the Church.

‘If you don’t accept everyone who comes you are denying the gifts of God. What does that mean when you are made in the image of God’ was a comment that we could all affirm. Both Churches in our different ways still have a long way to go but go and get there we will.

The main impressions we were left with were the sheer determination, endeavour and faith shown by those involved who are working in partnership and mutual support of each other; all carried out in the full hope that what is taking place will develop beyond the pilot so that the Church in Sweden will truly become ‘A Church for and with everyone’.

A fuller version of this article is on the Inclusive Church website.