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11.30  The Heritagization of Religion: Heritagization Processes in Swedish Policies on the Built Heritage of the Church of Sweden since 1920

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Cultural heritage has been defined as “culture named and projected into the past, and simultaneously, the past congealed into culture.” This is certainly true of how religious heritage has been approached by many governments and other actors. In projecting the present into the past and congealing the past into culture, a selection process takes place where objects from the past are chosen, with references to certain values and in support of narratives. In the case of the heritagization of religious objects and built heritage, it could be argued that the values ascribed to them changes in a “migration of the holy,” from religious veneration to the veneration of history, identity and aesthetic values, transforming religious buildings and religious spaces into heritage spaces.  

The case of the government protection for the built heritage of the Church of Sweden is an example of the complexity of this kind of project. During most of this process (until 2000), the Church of Sweden remained a state church and was thus one of the main actors in the formation of government heritage policies. The aim of this paper is to describe and understand the values ascribed to Church of Sweden church buildings in Swedish government heritage policies since 1920 (but focusing on the present situation) by analyzing this process as one of heritagization and secularization.  

The values ascribed to churches in Swedish heritage policy has been remarkably constant since the 1920s, but changes in emphasis can be noted. Identity values, and especially connections to local identity, have remained strong throughout the period. However, in the early decades of the twentieth century, local identity was understood as a component of national identity, whereas today it is more often presented as something that provides stability in a changing word. Churches have also, during the entire period, been understood as a part of the heritage of an agrarian past, closely associated to the processes of secularization, industrialization, and modernization. As society and church architecture modernized, priority shifted from Church of Sweden churches in general to focus on churches built before 1940. The primary value explicitly ascribed to churches in the policy documents has, throughout the period, been as a source of information about the past.  

Especially during the process leading up to the separation of Church and state, the role of church buildings as spaces for reflection and tranquility was emphasized, together with the right of citizens, not only the members of the Church of Sweden, to retain access to historical church buildings. Access to churches both as heritage and as sacred spaces was thus considered a responsibility of the state, even though the state was now to be neutral in relation to religious denominations, but positive to religion as such.  

The clearest remaining result of the long-standing close relationship between the state and the Church of Sweden is the automatic legal protection of its pre-1940 churches. Today, the Church of Sweden receives government funding from the officially secular state for maintaining the buildings and for being responsible for cemeteries. While the preservation of and public access to these churches remain government-funded tasks, the choice of the Church of Sweden to act as civil society actor rather than just as guardian of a cultural heritage has often become controversial, for example when it opened its buildings as shelters for refugees. This paper will suggest that the churches of the Church of Sweden can be seen as symbolic representations of the Swedish nation, whether seen as secularized heritage, bastions of Christianity, or symbols of Sweden’s openness.

Tobias Harding


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