Unique time series of customs in the Church of Sweden

(Published 2012-08-13)
One of the long time series available at SND is the Swedish church customs, a study that has mapped the changes among customs in the Church of Sweden since 1962. Using the unique material, it is possible to analyze variation both regionally and over time in celebration, church service and ceremonies of all kinds.

Responsible for the Swedish church customs is the Lund University Church History Archive (LUKA), founded in 1942. One of the archive’s tasks is to study changes in the customs and traditions of the Church. Initially the survey was done through interviews, to capture individual stories and oral tradition.

– The first studies revolved much around talking to "the old", to portray a more popular perspective on the church. These interviews are in some cases reaching back to what it was like in the 1840s. We get examples of archaic customs in church life, such as, regardless of where you were, you lifted your hat when you heard the church bell ring, says Anders Jarlert, professor of church history and director of LUKA.

Since the 1960s, the mapping of Swedish church customs has been done through nationwide question lists. LUKA has distributed around 30 different questionnaires over the years. Among these, there are eight lists that have a special status because they aim to capture a variety of aspects of the customs of all churches in the Church of Sweden. It is these eight studies that are available through SND.

Swedish church customs contains many details on how churches around Sweden deal with, for example, christenings, Christmas, Easter worship, communion, funerals and weddings. Many customs have changed over time, but many of the more local customs are very stable. When "new" traditions spread across the country, it can be done in a variety of ways. There may be a local custom that is picked up by other churches and spread that way. There may also be customs that come from abroad, for example from southern Europe.

– Lights for a deceased, for example, is a custom that came from the south, from Catholicism, and was spread thanks to our tourist trips. The same thing with the custom to light candles at the scene of accidents. This is new in Sweden, says Anders Jarlert.

It is also relatively common that there are parallel developments in terms of customs in the Church of Sweden. Jarlert mentions the increase in the number of Christmas cribs in churches as one example (see figure below).

– Here you can see three lines running parallel in the Church of Sweden. A Catholic school, a theatrical line with the focus on Christmas plays and a child educational line. It is very interesting to see the variations in local churches concerning the meaning and the use of cribs.

For some customs that are relatively stable, Anders Jarlert calls for more flexibility from the local churches. He mentions the christening as an example where he thinks the churches should be more willing to adjust the ceremonies according to the needs of the families.

– Of course, one cannot be as flexible as with weddings, it's impossible to drag a small child out into the wilderness for example. But I still think the church could offer more variety in terms of time and place for christenings, especially in big cities. Now you are often directed to a specific worship service for christening, the ceremony is more suited to the church than to the family and their friends and relatives.

The data collected in the Swedish church customs have unfortunately not been widely used. Only a few researchers, mainly ethnologists, have examined individual phenomena in the data. A more comprehensive overview or more extensive scientific studies of the material have not yet been conducted. The data can be of interest to several scientific disciplines such as church history, ethnology, theology and sociology of religion. Anders Jarlert gives some examples of research questions he would like to see more illuminated in the future:

– It is always interesting to study the introduction of new objects, how they are being disseminated, used and interpreted in different contexts. It would also be interesting to see studies that combine large, general conclusions with local details and data. Initially, you can see the underlying, general patterns over time with the help of the statistics in our question lists and then follow up with in-depth interview studies locally to gain access to the interpretations and meanings of the different customs.

A longitudinal panel study

In eight occasions starting in 1962, the church custom in Sweden has been inventoried by the Lund University Church History Archive. The material consists of survey data from parishes (surveys from 1962 to 2002) and benefices (survey 2008/2009) in the Church of Sweden. Sample procedure: total universe.

Data from the surveys are freely available at SND. The processing of the recent studies is ongoing, but this autumn they are expected to be ready for delivery to researchers, students and others. Earlier material in the series can be ordered through SND’s online form.




(Figures on the left show the results from two of the questions asked in the surveys since the 1960's.)