Speech by Alice Bah Kuhnke at the Nordic Lutheran Bishops Summit
Visby, 28 June 2016.
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Dear Bishops, ladies and gentlemen. It is very inspiring for me to meet you all. In many perspectives you represent tradition, faith, and, not the least, future.
In your hands lie such great possibilities to shape our Nordic Countries, and, with these possibilities, also a great responsibility. The way you, and every priest and welfare worker within your parishes, speak and act, both at a national level and in the local communities, has a great impact on our common way forward. Actually, in many cases, you are the ones who have the best possibility to find and create this common path, where everyone can be included, listened to and inspired to share the political, cultural and religious space in our part of the World.
As in all the Nordic countries, Government and Church have walked a long path together in Sweden. In some way you could say that we were married – at least we lived intimately together for over 400 years. But then, as in many relationships, we came to the conclusion that we were better of separated. The separation in the year 2000 is often referred to as the "divorce" between State and Church.
But actually our separation is not definite, as in many relationships that has been we have ways to take responsibility together, even when we are apart. The Church of Sweden still has public responsibilities in some areas, ruled by laws and contracts between the Church and the government. One of them really matters two us all, sooner or later, namely funerals. Another is the sacred cultural heritage.
Since the separation, the Church of Sweden is the owner and the manager of the sacred cultural heritage. But still, the sacred cultural heritage belongs to us all, whether we are members of the Church of Sweden or not. That's why we think it is important that the Church of Sweden receives a monetary compensation from the state with the aim to make it possible for the Church to preserve the sacred cultural heritage in accordance with the Heritage Conservation Act.
I must say the Church of Sweden is doing a very good job concerning the sacred cultural heritage. The Church is taking a great responsibility not only in preserving it; As the Government, the Church is also focusing on how to use and to develop the cultural heritage and how to make it accessible and relevant for more people with different backgrounds.
The sacred cultural heritage is a great resource in making an including society. The Swedish government wants to see a Sweden with many stories to be told and different voices to be heard – an including use of cultural heritage. The sacred cultural heritage houses the common heritage in many ways - more ways than many of the secular Swedish recognise. 400 years of marriage between state and church have had an substantial impact. There is a lot to learn and recapture from this history.
People from other parts of the world sometimes know our past better than ourselves.
I've heard of a person from from the Middle East, a refugee, that could tell the guide at a Swedish museum the meaning of the biblical paintings they were looking at. For her it was a living story being told on the painitng. To the many secular Swedish people this was definitely not a living cultural heritage. The common cultural heritage is not static, it is developing as people use it, and as we share stories with each other it will be enriched, as will the society.
However, the Swedish Church and the government work together in other areas as well, areas where we share values and objectives, and where the Swedish Church has gained a position of major civil society stakeholder.
As an independent voice, the Swedish Church has taken a stand for equal rights and the equal value of everyone, both by campaigns and debate, in media, in the streets and in the face to face talks to uncountable people in our society.
One matter, crucial to the Swedish society and close to my heart, is the way we welcome and care for people who come to our country in need and vulnerability. People who have sacrificed everything to escape civil war, persecution and oppression.
As you all know, the world is experiencing the greatest migration since the end of World War II. A year ago, this became more and more visible also to us in the Nordic countries. Last year, 163 000 people applied for an asylum in Sweden. That's more than twice as much as in 2014.
70 000 of these were children. We actually know that even more people came to us, people that didn't seek asylum but still needed our help when they arrived.
The situation was the most intense in October and November, when nearly 80 000 asylum seekers sought a safe haven in our country. The capacity of Swedish authorities was at the point of exhaustion, and there was an acute need for beds, blankets, food and human care.
I have talked of this many times, but it still moves me and fills me with great pride to think of the way the civil society organisations in Sweden gathered forces and stepped in, quickly and with impressive strength. Thousands of people from all parts of Swedish society volunteered and were mobilised, both by long time established organisations and by new initiatives responding to the situation. In all this, the Swedish Church stood out as one of the bravest, strongest and most dedicated helper we ever have witnessed.
Like no other organisation I can think of, The Swedish Church reaches out to all parts of Sweden. Parishes all over the country engaged in assisting the refugees, by distributing food and clothes, offering temporary housing in parish buildings, supporting people by listening and giving advice.
In many places, The Swedish Church coordinated the local efforts and cooperated with other civil society organisations. In some parts of Sweden, the town church became the local centre for help and contacts.
The whole of The Swedish Church is flourishing with many admirable initiatives, such as language cafés, choirs and sport activities, spreading hope and meaning amongst asylum seekers. And much of this is still going on today. Cooperation has included people and organisations from all parts of society, regardless of religious affiliation, and many new contacts all over our society have added to mutual understanding and respect.
To contribute to their achievements, the Swedish government last December granted extra funds to NOG:s, educational associations, the sports movement and faith communities for their efforts for migrants. The Swedish Church received the largest sum amongst faith communities.
I remember very well a visit to the church of Saint Catherine in Stockholm in November. Together with the Mosque of Stockholm, the parish offered food, clothes, a shower and a place to sleep, to several hundred people, day after day, for months. Volunteers from the church and the mosque worked side by side. This great tragedy also brought people together, from different parts of Europe and from different parts of our own society.
This was by no means a unique example. Parishes of The Swedish Church all over the country have initiated interfaith networks and activities, both before, under and after the refugee situation last year. As Minister for issues regarding faith communities, my top priority is to enhance interfaith dialogue.
I believe in the good forces created when people meet face to face and get to know each other. The Swedish government is doing all that we can for a Sweden that keeps together. I see interfaith cooperation as a key element to that aim, and I see The Swedish Church as a key partner in making this possible.
We are indeed officially divorced, and even if more can be done with our relationship we work together better than ever!