Seminaries in Peril
A recent evaluation by the Swedish government threatens theological education throughout the Scandinavian country.
The Swedish National Agency for Higher Education reported in June that state-supported schools must favor religious studies over theological education. Schools that aim to train ministers for church service must shift resources toward general religious studies. This move may leave prospective pastors unprepared for church ministry.
This shift in focus means several theological schools currently training pastors fail to meet the new standards for accreditation.
These demands were not clearly stated before government inspections this past March, according to Pekka Mellergård, president of Örebro School of Theology. Should Örebro fail to placate the agency, it will lose the right to grant recognized bachelor's degrees in theology.
Örebro, which educates 200 full-time and 160 part-time students from a variety of denominations, has already halted efforts to earn accreditation for a master's degree in exegesis. Students could ultimately lose government allowances, a necessity in the Swedish system of higher education. Nor would they be able to seek advanced education in schools that recognize only accredited degrees.
"The actual report was a serious blow against all theological education in Sweden," said Stefan Gustavsson, general secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance. "The underpinning perspective seems to be old-fashioned Enlightenment thinking that theology is not real science and therefore eventually should not be part of the university."
Before 1994, only state-owned universities delivered formal theological education in Sweden. That year, the government allowed three denominationally owned theological seminaries, including Örebro, to grant recognized degrees.
According to Örebro officials, previous government inspections produced respectful dialogue, so this recent report was a surprising setback. Mellergård suspects the sudden tension stems from the new realities of disestablishment and pluralism.
The Church of Sweden broke away from the state in 2000. Yet the bulk of prospective ministers still train in theological schools at major Swedish universities. According to Mellergård, the national education agency worries about the implications of confessional education at Sweden's most prominent schools, including Uppsala and Lund. Now the growing Muslim population is asking for equal recognition in state universities.
Additionally, the growing number of elementary and high schools started by Christians, Muslims, and Jews has upset the traditional order in Sweden. A short time ago, Sweden remained homogeneous and optimistic about the possibilities that science and secularism could build a model society. Then religion became a sensitive subject, prone to misunderstanding. Still, the recent report caught the educational community by surprise.
"The present situation is completely new, since it is no longer only the free theological schools that are questioned," Mellergård said. "For the first time since the foundation of higher education in Sweden, the very presence of theology at Swedish universities is seriously questioned by government sources."
Örebro professor Tommy Wasserman said the last government inspection was tense because new agents did not prepare by learning enough about the school beforehand. This oversight resulted in outright errors in their report, he said. Nor has the government supplied a clear definition of theology.