Not long after retiring to Reading we discovered that our diocese of Oxford is linked with the same diocese in Sweden where our daughter Anna had recently settled with her Swedish husband. This led to my joining the link committee and going with them this month on a visit to our counterparts in Växjö (pronounced ’Vaykwur’ or ’Vaykshur’, depending on where you live), Småland, southern Sweden.
The theme for our meeting was the environment and how our respective dioceses are responding to climate issues.
We arrived in snow and sub zero temperatures, apparently unusual so early in the winter. It generally starts snowing after Christmas. The preceding months had been exceptionally dry, resulting in low water levels in the many lakes and, for those living in rural areas, the drying up of their wells. We knew something of this already as Anna’s sister in law had been without water for some weeks and was having to collect it from her parents’ home. So, we were immediately in the middle of climate issues.
Dealing with extreme cold is part of the Swedish way of life. Their homes and public buildings are exceptionally well insulated and have triple or even quadruple glazing. Given the amount of heat needed in winter, they continue to explore alternative sources of energy. Växjö, with a population of 89,000, has a huge power plant fuelled by wood waste (that part of Sweden is covered by forest). This provides 90% of Växjö’s heating and 20% of its electricity.
They are also building what is called passive housing where the construction is designed to retain body heat from the inhabitants and their activities. These too are wooden and our guide explained that it is only recently that the law has changed to allow blocks of flats and not just houses to be built in this way. Their buses run on biofuel generated by the sewage works. They aim to be fossil free by 2030 and already their carbon emissions are amongst the lowest in Europe. Members of the town council, of whatever party, are united in supporting the green agenda.
In nearby Alvesta the church has invested in a biofuel plant that converts cow dung into biofuel and manure. The biofuel is used mainly by lorries and buses. Its use in cars is less popular because the cars cost more. Our hosts felt that the government could offer incentives to drivers wanting to switch to biofuel. It was noted that in Norway the government has made plug in electric cars such an attractive option that they are driven by the majority.
The church of Sweden is responsible for all funerals, whether or not they are Christian. Everyone pays a funeral tax to the government which then pays the church. The majority of funerals require cremation. In Kalmar, a big city, we visited a beautiful woodland cemetery where the heating and the furnace in the crematorium are powered by rape seed oil, from crops grown north of Växjö. Coffins are much plainer than here, their lack of polished wood and trimmings hidden by an attractive cloth and flowers. Urns for ashes are made of biodegradable material.
In the residential church college where we stayed I saw some of our LOAF principles being practised. There are many farms and smallholdings in Småland. Much of the meat, dairy products, bread and vegetables we ate were produced locally. There were plenty of local apples too. We did, however, also try reindeer meat which is from the far north!
On our side we spoke about the Creation season which is now a regular feature of the liturgical year for many Anglican churches.
Dr Martin Hodson, director of the Christian Rural and Environmental Studies (CRES) course based at Cuddesdon theological college, demonstrated how equipping even a small number of practitioners on this course can effect significant change at local level.
Dr Joanna Laynesmith from my own church in Reading described how our church had become an eco church, and pointed to Reading’s impressive green network and our even more impressive buses which are mainly hybrid diesel or gas powered.
I shared information about Green Christian’s Joy in Enough project with its focus on encouraging Christians to draw on deeper spiritual and theological roots as they form a movement for a new, more sustainable economy.
Our Swedish colleagues were particularly interested in our Creation season and in the importance we attach to equipping our members spiritually for tackling climate change. There is no tradition of spiritual accompaniment (spiritual direction) in their diocese nor does Småland seem to have convents or monasteries where church members can go on retreats or Quiet Days.
The aim of the link is to enable mutual learning. We noted the practical engagement in green issues at local level by the church of Sweden. We were also impressed by the theological lead given at national level by their bishops – see especially A Bishops Letter about the Climate, chapter 4, for a beautifully clear account of creation theology.
Our link committees meet annually. Next year Sweden comes to Oxford and the theme will be Refugees.
Christine Bainbridge, November 2016