STOCKHOLM -- For more than four centuries, to be Swedish was to be Lutheran. Every newborn here was automatically registered as a member of the Church of Sweden, the official Lutheran denomination. The marriage between church and state was so strong that it took an act of parliament to change the prayer book and bishops were chosen by the Cabinet.
But Sweden, like the rest of Western Europe, has been transformed in recent decades by a wave of immigration. The Stockholm phone book is still full of Larsons and Ericssons, but there are also listings now for al-Ghusan, Ng and Singh. Many of these newcomers have brought their own religions. To the Swedes, who have an unbending commitment to egalitarianism, it no longer seemed fair to give official favor to one faith over the others.
"We were using tax money to support one church, and that was fine when everybody belonged to one church," said Minister of Culture Marita Ulvskog, whose portfolio includes religious affairs. "But in a multicultural society, there was no justification for unequal treatment. So we made the leap."
The leap of faith the Swedish government made last New Year's day was to "disestablish" the Church of Sweden, pulling the plug on guaranteed public subsidies and government control over a faith that maintains a church in virtually every city and hamlet.
Also dispensed with: an official religion in the palace. The Swedish monarch was not the head of the church but was required to be a member. Now the monarch may be of any faith.
A year later, church leaders say that the separation they feared has been a blessing. "I think we all see a stronger sense of commitment now," said Pastor David Olson of St. Jacob's Church in Stockholm. "People realize it's up to them to maintain our churches, not the government.
"Leading up to this," Olson continued, "everybody said, 'People are going to leave the church in droves.' But just about everybody who was a church member stayed with us."
This is not to say that lots of people show up at church on Sunday morning; that's not the Swedish way. "It's a secular society," shrugged Olson, who routinely preaches before three dozen people in an imposing old church that seats 900. "People don't go to Mass. They don't even know how to go. They call me up and say, 'Do I need to reserve a seat for Sunday morning?' "
Still, the church has traditionally played a key role in Swedish life. "People go at the special times: Advent Sunday, Christmas, Easter and baptisms, weddings, funerals," said the Rev. Christina Berglund, the church's director of parish development. "The Church of Sweden is strongly rooted in people's consciousness. They feel an attachment to the church building itself in their hometown, and to its graves."
Particularly in smaller towns, the church building tends to be a community center, serving as meeting hall, theater, nursery school and finish line for the ski races that fill the dark winters of rural Scandinavia.
A major concern about the disestablishment was how to maintain these key local facilities after the cutoff of a mandatory "church tax" that had been funneling about $500 million annually to the church. To solve this problem, the government has agreed to continue collecting from individual taxpayers the annual payment that has always gone to the church. But now the tax will be an optional checkoff box on the tax return.
And the government will allocate the money collected to Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and other faiths as well as the Lutherans, with each taxpayer directing where his or her taxes should go.
"The key point is that the Church of Sweden no longer has the legal power to tax," said Carl-Einar Nordling of the Ministry of Culture. "The state is now merely helping the church collect voluntary contributions, and (for) other faiths as well."
About 85 percent of the 9 million Swedes still call themselves members of the Church of Sweden, but there are also more than 200,000 Muslim citizens or residents, about 160,000... Catholics, about 100,000 members of Orthodox Christian churches and about 16,000 Jews.
By delaying the change until 2000, Sweden was one of the last countries in Western Europe to sever the connection between the state and an officially sanctioned church. Although many European countries subsidize churches and religious schools, most long ago did away with the concept of an "established church."