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Baptism in Sweden

Baptism in Sweden

Development in baptism in the last two decades, by Karin Tillberg

1. Statistics

Among the 114.870 children that were born in 2015, 48.000 were baptised in the Church of Sweden. In 1995, 103.422 children were born, and 81.000 children were baptised in the Church of Sweden. This means that the population and number of births is increasing, while the number of baptisms is decreasing both in relative and absolute numbers.

Table 1.  From Dop i förändring - en studie av föräldrars aktiva val och församlingars strategiska doparbete. (Svenska kyrkans enhet för forskning och analys, 2019.)

Baptism is the main way of becoming a member in the Church of Sweden. Since January 1st, 1996, a child that is baptised simultaneously becomes a member, in the formal sense, in the Church of Sweden. Children born up until that year, 1995 or earlier, became members if one or two of its parents were members already. Accordingly, the Church of Sweden mainly recruits new members through infant or child baptism. During 2017, the Church of Sweden gained 54 000 new members, of which 45 000 – or 83 % - became members through baptism.


2. Practice

The most common practice in the Church of Sweden is to have your child baptised in a separate service, often on Saturdays, with family and friends present. This marks a shift from a focus on baptism as part of the main Sunday service among the rest of the congregation. As a result, while the number of children being baptised have decreased, the number of baptism services remains fairly consistent for the last several decades. There are variations among dioceses and parishes, but the general trend points in this direction.

Drop-in baptisms are becoming increasingly popular. The motivation for this, stated by employees in the parishes, is that both children and adults can become baptised and it does not crave money or lengthy preparations. Some priests describe drop-in baptisms as more fulfilling and more profound, since the focus is on the wish to become baptised, rather than on presents or meeting family and friends.

As a follow-up on baptism, and as part of the education on baptism, baptism trees have increased in popularity. Today, many parish churches have some sort of artefact on display that manifests the number of baptisms that have taken place during the year. In such a tree, porcelain angels, or leaves, or similar, are hung up as a symbol for each child. In certain parishes, this marks the first step in the education and follow-up on baptism, for example, the child will receive a porcelain angel on the first anniversary of the baptism, then at three or five of age receive a hymn book or a Children’s Bible.


3. Liturgy

The most important development on baptismal liturgy in the Church of Sweden is the revision of the new handbook, of which the baptismal liturgy is part. The committee working specifically on baptism writes: “While baptism remains a common choice for many, others need new explanations in order to understand the meaning of baptism. It is difficult to communicate such a meaning in a time when traditional religious terminology is not known and used in the same extent as it used to be. The committee has learned that the image of water – as life-giving and as chaos – is a meaningful symbol as communicative tool. The baptism service is often characterized by the local context.” Furthermore, several members of the participants often take an active role in the service, such as text reader. The participation of several individuals has resulted in positive developments on the baptismal liturgy. Because of this, the committee suggests a liturgy consisting of a basic structure, that divides the services into several sections.

Among the Bible readings in the order of service, one text has been added apart from the texts that are part of the handbook of 1986, namely, a text about the baptism of Jesus. The focus for the revision group has been to put the baptismal act, the use of water at the centre of the service. For this reason, the order of the creed and the question of the wish to be baptised has been changed, to now come before the pouring of water and the baptismal prayer.

Two central theological debates concerning baptism lies behind some of the revisions: the question of original sin and its expressions into the order and the question of anointing. Concerning the former, this was an issue that had bearings on the order already in the handbook of 1986, where it is merged with traditions on exorcism and renunciation, through a “prayer of liberation”. This has remained largely intact, but a new prayer has been written as an alternative. Anointing does not have a formal place in the order, however, even though it is in use in several parishes in the Church of Sweden.


4. Communication

Approximately half of the dioceses have had major campaigns on baptism in the last twenty years. Among them, the diocese of Lund stands out; Lund focused on a baptism project spanning over a decade, with several sub-projects connected to it. The overarching project focused on all aspects of baptism; theological reflections, communication strategies, statistics, baptismal education for all ages et cetera. The diocese of Västerås have initiated a project with a similar aim and focus. Several other dioceses have had campaigns spanning over a two- or three-year period, focusing on theology, liturgy, and communication. The diocese of Skara had a project on baptism that resulted in the use of a new baptismal liturgy.

On a national level, several various kinds of brochures and leaflets have been produced and distributed among parishes.


5. Education

This issue mainly concerns the local parishes, who are the primary actors in this field as well and the best performers of this task as well. On a general level, it could be noted that each parish are supposed to write a manual—a baptism pastoral—on how the work on baptism at the local level should be done, including in what ways the parish work with baptismal education. Furthermore, the programme on teaching and education initiated at the national level in the Church of Sweden will produce material on different issues of Christian theology and faith, including material about baptism (forthcoming).

In addition to this, there are short books on baptism, aimed at parish employees and parishioners. In the latter category, children are the primary target group. The Central Church office have also produced an app – “The Church” – for children, which include material on baptism. Furthermore, education on baptism for adults, or “adult confirmation” is being developed in several parishes, both in the form of the Catechumenate and in relation to converts, primary target group asylum seekers.


6. Social science and empirical theology

The most important aspects concerning social science and empirical theology in relation to baptism are described in the report from The Central Church office, the Department of Research and Analysis; Dop i förändring (The Ever-changing Baptism) from 2019.

This report aims at investigating socioeconomic and geographical patterns in the attitudes towards baptism and the decision to have your child baptised. The material for analysis is made up of statistics, surveys, and interviews. The authors conclude that the context of baptism has changed; earlier it was an indisputable custom whereas now baptism is an expression of the active choice of the individual. The service of baptism as traditional ritual counts as the most common reason for having your child baptised. To allow one’s child to be raised as a Christian is less common in Sweden, compared to other Nordic countries. 

The reasons for this are discussed in the report. The importance of income and level of education among parents, whether they are married or single parents, and their geographic location play vital roles. Among the answers given, the authors find that families consisting of two parents with a three-year long high school education is the group most likely to have their children baptised. The least likely group is single mothers in larger cities. A baptism occurs to a higher degree in families where a female relative has been allowed to influence the choice, such as the mother or grandmother. Furthermore, the authors examine how baptism as custom and ritual has changed over the centuries and reach the conclusion that the present form of having a special service of baptism, separate from the main Sunday service, is a rather late phenomenon. Lastly, the study examines the way that baptism is communicated and performed in the parish setting, using two parishes as case studies, which stresses the importance of conscious strategy for baptism.

What is lacking in the report, which the LWF project can contribute to, and thereby contributing to the national discussion on baptism in the Church of Sweden is the theological implications of the results, primarily ecclesiological and social. The class perspective – although not named as such in the report – as well as the results concerning ethnic identity and to a lesser degree gender are all important factors in the self-understanding of the identity of the church.


7. Theological Studies

There are a few main theological issues that have been the source of some debate in the Church of Sweden, that are addressed in the material as well. Some are of a dogmatic character while others concern ecumenical aspects and societal issues.

One central issue is the meaning of infant baptism – why to baptise children as the prevailing norm, rather than adults. Several of the studies in the material address this question, but there are no unanimous answers. The main reason rests on the fact that in the New testament, it is described that entire households were baptised, among them children, but mainly the tradition from the Church fathers and onwards give the reason for why infants should be baptised. One of the main reasons for this concerns the matter of original sin, and the view of the child as sinful or free from sin. There are no clear answers given to this in the Swedish context, and there are no specifically Swedish ways of dealing with it, other than possibly the dread that it will scare people away to address sin too bluntly, which is why it is not mentioned – along with renunciation – in the order of baptism.

Another important discussion concerns baptism as exclusive and excluding or as inclusive. This debate has probably increased in size as a result of society’s focus on the rights of the individual, openness and justice – issues that have taken on at times literal meanings in the form of access and similar treatment of all, rather than equal treatment. For the church, the question has deeper theological roots as well and targets the central question of what baptism does to an individual, whether something changes or happens at baptism, that was not there before.

Ecumenically, the main issue concerns the blessing of children as opposed to baptising them. The bishops address this in their letter on baptism, and their unanimous answer is that the blessing of children lies outside of dogma and practice in the Church of Sweden and should therefore not be performed. Concerning re-baptism, the Church of Sweden takes great care in recognising the baptism of other churches and there is no praxis of the conditional baptism formula present in other churches, such as “if you are not baptised, I now baptise you…”. Rather, the word of the parishioner is taken at face value (in the case of teens preparing for confirmation, for example). This issue has primarily been discussed in reference to migrants and asylum seekers who wish to be baptised or take part in baptism education.

Because of the transformation of practice – to have a separate service on Saturdays – the number of attendees has increased along with cost and preparations. The focus of the service is the child, and family and friends are there to celebrate and give thanks for the child rather than celebrating the sacrament and mystery of baptism, of dying and resurrect with Christ in the midst of the congregations. This has theological implications as well.