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Seminaries in Peril

Government evaluation threatens training of Swedish pastors.

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.

Instead the agency has explicitly stated that proficiency in biblical exegesis will not suffice for accreditation. Theological education must include more courses in the history of religion taught by professors holding Ph.D.'s in the field. Wasserman regards this demand as onerous for a small school committed to training ministers.

Mellergård said this incident reminds school leaders that they may not be able to depend on the government. But he holds out hope that the political winds will turn in Örebro's favor.

Sweden's governing coalition includes the Christian Democratic Party and has the support of many Christians. Schools must accommodate government concerns by May 2010, shortly before the next national elections in September. Theological education could become a hot issue, Mellergård said.

"It is in fact unlikely that the government would be ready to offend Christian voters by closing down theological institutions," he said.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.

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