The Church of Sweden’s “middle way”

Bo Giertz is a familiar name to many Lutherans, thanks to his novel The Hammer of God. I’m reading one of Bishop Giertz’s other books at the moment, Christ’s Church: Her Biblical Roots, Her Dramatic History, Her Saving Presence, Her Glorious Future, first published in 1939, but not translated into English until 2010.

Bp Giertz’s focus in this book is mostly on the Church of Sweden, and I suspect that many readers of The Hammer of God will be surprised at how strong an emphasis Giertz places on the Church of Sweden as the catholic church in Sweden, standing in continuity with the pre-Reformation church.

He quotes on more than one occasion the Augsburg Confession’s claim that:

Our churches dissent from the catholic church in no article of faith but only omit a few abuses which are new and contrary to the canons.

He goes on to cite with approval the terminology used by Archbishop Söderblom (1866-1931), who:

used to designate our branch of the Church [as] the Evangelical-Catholic, as distinguished from the Greek-Catholic and the Roman-Catholic.

Bp Giertz describes how this claim to catholic continuity is asserted by the Church of Sweden’s Church Ordinance of 1571, which describes how the Church had retained many practices “which have been in use not only under the Pope but elsewhere in all Christendom”:

first of all our holy days and our churches, our bishops, priests and deacons, our masses with their firm rituals, our churchly acts and ceremonies and much more, which we by no means must “reject just because they were used also under the Pope.” […] Thus we retain paintings and sculptures, the prayer hours and vestments, altars, paraments, chalice and paten; likewise we call the Lord’s Supper the mass “as it was always called in Christendom.”

This same continuity can be found at a parish level, where (in contrast to many English parish churches) it is usually impossible to work out from the list of pastors when the break between pre- and post-Reformation ministry occurred:

Often the parish itself could not tell. The change was so gradual, and when it was completed, one still worshipped in the same church, the priest kneeled at the same altar with the same antependium, the same crucifix, and the same candlesticks. The priest wore the same chasuble, the same bells summoned the parishioners to the high mass, and just as in the past the same church wardens served in the Lord’s House. The difference was that the people could understand the whole liturgy since it was now in Swedish, that there was always a sermon, that congregational hymn singing had been introduced, that the laity received the chalice as well, and that people more frequently partook of the sacrament of the altar.

The Church Ordinance even Bo Giertz (see this comment) describes this approach in that term later beloved of Anglicans, a “Via Media” between “the erroneous doctrines of the papists and the Calvinists” – though it seems to me it could also be described as a Via Media between Anglicanism and German Lutheranism.

I don’t know much about the Church of Sweden – though enough to realise that it has changed a great deal since Bp Giertz wrote Christ’s Church, and mostly not in ways of which he approved in the later years of his long career (just as he criticises many of the changes it underwent between the Reformation and the early 20th century). But it is interesting to see a version of Lutheranism that is more visibly in continuity with its pre-Reformation past, and perhaps less bathed in anti-Roman Catholic polemic, than some other flavours of “Evangelical Catholicism”.

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11 thoughts on “The Church of Sweden’s “middle way””

  1. I think to a certain extent Giertz did romanticize the Church as what she should have been instead of what she was— even in his own day. But it is a beautiful bit of writing, that book, and really does describe Lutheranism as it should be.

  2. Just to clarify: The Church Order of 1571 did not use the actual term “Via media,” but Giertz uses the later term to designate the Order’s description of the character of the Church of Sweden.

  3. Thanks for the tip–I look forward to reading the book. But I can’t help but think, when I look around, that Hermann Sasse was really right when he flagged “Apostolic Succession” and self-consciously “high” churchmanship as actively pernicious to Augsburg Evangelicalism (see his Selected Letters and Essays vol. 2).

    1. I oscillate to and fro on that one, but overall I suspect that what I think is my tendency towards “high churchmanship” is really just wanting the liturgy to be executed competently. I don’t actually need all the other fussing about once that bar’s been cleared.

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