In year 2000 The Church of Sweden and the state separated. The resolution of a separation was adopted in 1995 in large consensus between the political parties. It was then established by the government that the ecclesiastical cultural heritage was a common national heritage of great importance to all Swedish citizens. This is the basic motif of the tax-funded subsidy, The Church Antiquarian Compensation Act, to the Church of Sweden (460 million SKR/ per year). Formally, the state subsidy is intended to compensate the Church of Swedish Church for ‘the antiquarian over costs’ arising from the heritage law. The law stipulates that protected church buildings may not be modified, moved, dismantled, painted, rebuilt, or otherwise changed without the permission of The County Administrative Board (the national government representative office). The Church of Sweden’s parishes own nearly 3000 churches protected by the law.
Contemporary changes, including rapidly falling membership, have diminished the ecclesiastical need for churches. An ‘ecclesiastical overcapacity’ of about twenty percent has been identified. The responsibility for legally protected but redundant churches is formally a matter for their owners, the local parishes. About 20 churches have so far been sold, some are closed, and one, Malgarp’s New Church (built in 1908; closed in 1976) was demolished 2007, after 30 years of discussion and negotiation. The demolition caused intense media debate and many local protests. In addition, The National Heritage Board condemned the parish’s decision. The archaeologist Jes Wienberg commented these reactions as follows:
It is not a new phenomenon, that churches acquire new functions, are left to decline or demolished. This can be documented as long as churches have been built. More than one third of the medieval churches disappeared in Skåne in the 1700-1800′s, a period when many new churches were built in neo-Classical, neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic style. To recognize redundant churches as an antiquarian problem is, however, a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. It is the idea of the Church as a cultural heritage that is bold, not the decision to pull them down.[i]
Aesthetic standards and perceptions of what is historically and culturally valuable change, and so do professional principles. The Swedish architect and art historian Sigurd Curman, head of the Swedish National Heritage Board between 1923 and 1946, considered churches built in neo-Gothic style disgusting. In the beginning of the 20th century Curman participated in the restoration of the earlier abandoned medieval church Balingsta in Uppland. The new parish church, built in 1872 in neo-Gothic style, was now instead abandoned, and soon demolished. Curman did not object to this decision, quite contrary, he praised it. Today, the Church of Sweden and its individual parishes are in practice subordinate to a secular law which enforces extensive restrictions on the use and transformation of a large number of churches.
Hence, a distinction is made between secular cultural historical values and religious values in church buildings and in religious objects. This distinction is difficult to uphold in daily practice.
The state subsidy, according to The Church Antiquarian Compensation Act, should be used for the protection and preservation of church buildings and their inventory of significant cultural historical value. The compensation must not be used for religious activities or regular maintenance. The Swedish state has a duty to support the Swedish Church as the owner of an important national cultural heritage, but should not support the church as a religious community. Hence, a distinction is made between secular cultural historical values and religious values in church buildings and in religious objects. This distinction is difficult to uphold in daily practice. In a longer historical perspective it is hardly possible to draw. In a society still dominated by a religious worldview, and where the social order had its definite religious significance, such a distinction between religious and secular, or sacred and profane, could not be articulated.
The separation in 2000 forced the government to make clear, that the state is not promoting the Church of Sweden as a religious community, only as an owner/manager of a national heritage consisting of church buildings and objects of great cultural historical value.
This distinction between religious and cultural historical values in churches is a result of complex modernization processes that involves the many facetted ‘heritagization’ of church buildings and religious objects. In Sweden, this process started in the early 19th century but gained force in the beginning of the 20th century, a period when the theology of the Church of Sweden was nationalized. Leading art historians and church leaders collaborated in defining the Church of Sweden as a national heritage. They all favored the mediaeval church building. The historicity of the church became, in short, a central aspect of the church’s sacredness. The intertwining of secular and religious values and practices was unproblematic as long as the bond between state and church remained. The separation in 2000 forced the government to make clear, that the state is not promoting the Church of Sweden as a religious community, only as an owner/manager of a national heritage consisting of church buildings and objects of great cultural historical value. It is tempting to interpret the state subsidy to the Church of Sweden differently. Ending in year 2000 the old symbiosis between church and state seemed necessary in a post-modern and multicultural situation. The enthusiasm, however, for this divorce was notably moderate in both parties. However deep or tactical, the enthusiasm for the national ecclesiastical heritage, the Church Antiquarian Compensation Act, was an efficient means of preserving a strong bond between church and state, and the longstanding identity of Sweden as a Lutheran Evangelical society.
Department of Culture Studies
Linköping University, Sweden.
Ongoing research projects: “How was the Church of Sweden transformed into a National Cultural Heritage?” and “Old Churches, New Values? Use and Management of Churches in a Changing Society”
[i] Jes Wienberg, ”När Gud flyttar ut – ödekyrkor förr och nu”. In: Markus Dahlberg et al (red.). Maglarp: kyrkan som försvann. Stockholm: Riksantikvarieämbetet, p. 60. My translation.