Bilda Conference

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Bilda Conference
Södertälje, Sweden
26 October - 2 November, 2006


Immediately following a meeting of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the OCA, I departed from Newark airport for Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, 26 October. Although there were complications with the ticket at the beginning, other elements of the voyage were peaceful. I arrived on Friday morning, 27 October, and I was met by Father Mikael and Iris Liljeström. Father Mikael and Iris had previously spent some time at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, as students. Autumn was unusually late in arriving in Scandinavia. On my arrival, trees were still more green than coloured. Then, as the weekend progressed, the temperature dropped significantly, frost came, and people began to talk about winter. In Stockholm, however, snow does not usually fall to stay until late December. Much earlier in the year, I had been asked to make a presentation to this Bilda Conference, and I had not thought about the implications of travel at this time of year. Stockholm’s name comes from the submerged, sharp stakes that had been put in place in Viking times, and which surrounded the original island (Stockholm now covers 14 islands). This kept invading boats from approaching this island. Because of the amount of water, peninsulæ, islands and bridges, Stockholm is often called a northern Venice.

After drinking coffee, we drove to the Ecumenical Centre, also called the Christian Council, in Söderbyberg (a Stockholm suburb), and there met Father Misha Iaksic, the main Orthodox representative there. It is an interesting place, occupying the whole second floor of an office building. There are offices of persons representing various aspects of the ecumenical conversations, chaplaincies, education ministries, and other such services of those not belonging to the main Lutheran Church of Sweden. The Lutheran Church has now been formally disestablished for 5 years, but there are many remaining characteristics of its former state-church status still to be adjusted. One of these is the remaining involvement by political parties in parish councils. This involvement appears odd to us.

In Sweden, there are several strong Orthodox presences. The Syrian Oriental Orthodox (Jakobite) are very numerous, estimating about 100,000 persons (the Antiochian Orthodox do not at this time have an established presence in Sweden). The Serbian Orthodox are the next largest, and it is they who provide the several parishes that are primarily using the Swedish language. The Patriarchate of Constantinople is historically very present, officially numbering about 20,000 Greek-speakers ; but for a long time, it has not been very connected with Sweden itself, as compared to the Serbs. The Moscow Patriarchate has a much greater presence than previously, primarily because of immigration. There is also the “Paris Jurisdiction” (the popular name for the Russian Exarchate of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Western Europe) which has served some of the Russian-speakers since the Bolshevik Revolution. The Romanian Orthodox have a slowly increasing presence (mostly through immigration), and there are some Bulgarians also. The Finnish Orthodox previously had a very strong presence, but that is now greatly reduced, with a Finnish priest visiting only once monthly. In the north of Sweden, however, there are very many Finnish and Sami speakers. There is still also an Estonian presence. There is also a noticeable presence of people from Egypt and Eritrea. In the civil context, there is a problem for immigrants, in that finding work is very difficult. It is also significant that (particularly in the Serbian diocese) persons of the Oriental Orthodox are received at the Chalice, if there is no availability of services from their own Church. In the course of this visit, Father Heikki Huttunen also arrived from Helsinki, Finland. He is now on leave-of-absence from his parish, in order to head the Ecumenical Relations office in Helsinki. He arrived to participate in the Bilda Conference, and also to attend the ordination of a priest in the Syrian Diocese.

We then drove to the Serbian Cathedral of Saint Sava, where we met Bishop Dositej, and had coffee. A close friend of Bishop Georgije in Canada, Bishop Dositej has served for more than 15 years in Stockholm, and he has been a very formative person in representing Orthodoxy as the immigration has developed its impact in Sweden. Saint Sava’s Cathedral is the largest representation of “Byzantine” architecture in northern Europe. We then drove to the Hagaberg Conference Centre in Södertälje, a Lutheran-related Centre, and began the programme at 1500 hrs. Michael Ellnemyr opened the conference with a presentation on the renewal of the structure of Bilda, a Study-centre concerned with relationships between church and society, and in connexion with this study, relationships between the Orthodox and other Christians. This was followed by a series of “workshops” on five subjects (all workshops were repeated 45 minutes later) : Ecumenical relations ; Sexuality and homosexuality ; Monastic life ; Böneskola/prayer-school ; Youth leadership/unga ledare. Then, after supper, there was a summary.

On Saturday, 28 October, after morning prayers and breakfast, there was a summary of the coming day, followed by my presentation (“Developing and Maturing the Understanding of the Orthodox Tradition”). This was followed by a series of questions and answers about the content. After coffee, there was a presentation on the renewal of Bilda, and the meaning of learning for leading. After dinner, there was an introduction to the next series of “workshops” : Women in Orthodox tradition ; Christology ; Iconography ; Orthodox Church music. The conference then came to a close at 1645 hrs.

Michael Ellnemyr and Joachim Främberg are both actively involved in Orthodox, inter-Orthodox, and inter-Christian relations, and they are employed as such with Bilda. Michael is a patristics scholar, who has long taught in the Theological Faculty of the Stockholm University, and who is currently writing a dissertation on Father Alexander Schmemann, with regard to his teaching methodology.

After the close of the conference, Father Heikki Huttunen, Joachim Främberg, and I drove about 20 km from Stockholm, to a suburb which now has a majority of Syrian Orthodox Christians in its population. There, we went to one of the Syrian Diocesan headquarters and its cathedral, in order to meet Archbishop Benjamin and various other persons (principally young people), some of whom had participated in the conference. The complex of these headquarters is situated in an industrial park, the only area in which it proved possible to build in the Stockholm area. The building was also required to harmonise with the appearance of the other industrial buildings. As a result, the cathedral is box-like in appearance, but with decorative cupolas above the front entrance, and in the middle of the flat roof. Inside, they have a combined worship and social space, in a very large area. The cathedral portion itself is very large, and it looks very much like a cathedral of the Jakobite style. Archbishop Benjamin estimated that they could seat over 2,000 persons. To the rear, there are various tables and chairs (on 2 levels) for post-Liturgy coffee time ; and to the rear of this there are various offices of the cathedral and diocese. It is very well organised. Next to this building, to its east, is a large building used for wedding-parties and other similar social occasions. There is yet another building next east to this, a former office building, which is being converted into a television station. This station (which they describe as smallish) appears to me to be very generous in size, and it contains the most advanced communication technology in Scandinavia. They plan to provide communications for the Syrian diaspora in Europe, North America, and Australia. Indeed, some telecasting is already in process, since I saw some evidence of the recent Synod Meeting in Damascus being prepared.

It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 Syrians in Sweden, and even more in Western Europe (Germany, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland). Far more Syrian Christians now live outside their traditional territory than within. Also, it is notable that in Turkey, only about 3,000 Oriental Orthodox remain. They say that Syria itself is, at the present time, a much more friendly territory for Orthodox Christians than is Turkey, and that the numbers there are over 300,000 believers ; but this is still much less than formerly. The tour ended in the same town in characteristic Orthodox style, at a restaurant operated by a Syrian. The menu was mixed in nature between Syrian and Swedish, a characteristic I found both new to me, and similar to other experiences : Sweden has become rather cosmopolitan compared to before. This meal had its share of serious conversation, mixed with humour, as usual. This is one of two episcopal administrations of the Syrians in Sweden, and the junior of them. Archbishop Benjamin is a “patriarchal vicar”, whereas the other hierarch, Archbishop Julius (of longer standing) has another, more locally focussed administration. Because of a confusion in hotel arrangements, I spent the night in the home of Joachim Främberg.

On Sunday morning, 29 October, I was taken early to Saint Sava’s Cathedral, where I was greeted by Bishop Dositej. He had to leave for Serbia, so he remained on the kliros until the Trisagion (when he made his departure), and I served the Divine Liturgy with 2 priests, Fathers Arseny and Mikael. The service was bilingual (Swedish and Slavonic), and responses were partly by Serbian cantors, and partly by a Swedish mixed choir. The cathedral is spacious, and its wall-iconography is in process. At the end of the Liturgy, there was coffee served in Bishop Dositej’s quarters, and then I went to the lower hall, where some of the faithful yet remained from their coffee time. Bishop Dositej has organised an exterior glassed atrium, which includes a reproduction of the tower of Saint Basil of Ostrog. This covered area makes a connexion to the bishop’s offices and private quarters, and also the parish hall. There are very many windows, and plenty of plants and flowers, another characteristic of the bishop’s disposition. Bishop Dositej’s secretary, Zorica Salijevic, is apparently the first female secretary of a Serbian bishop, although she had previously worked briefly also for Toronto’s Bishop Georgije in a different capacity. After much talking over more coffee, a large group walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner ; and after that, late in the afternoon, I was taken to the Sjöfartshotell (part of the Hilton American chain, I believe), where I stayed through until Monday afternoon.

On Monday afternoon, 30 October, I was collected, and I was taken to the home of Michael Ellnemyr, an active senior member of the Serbian diocesan personnel. There, there was a dinner for many of the people I had met before, and other members of the Swedish Christian Council, also.

On Tuesday, 31 October, we departed early for a meeting with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sweden, Anders Arborelius, a former Carmelite monk in Sweden. He is the first Swedish and Swedish-born Roman Catholic bishop since the Reformation. Because Bishop Dositej is also from monastic formation, it is said that meetings between the two bishops usually consist not so much of dialogue as such, but of drinking coffee together. The Roman Catholic population of Sweden is quite large and growing, and numbers in the several tens of thousands. It is served by 145 priests, many of other nationalities (primarily from the Middle-east). This visit was very generous in its length, and it included Michael Ellnemyr, Joachim Främberg, Father Mikael Liljeström, and Father Frederick OMI (the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Officer, who has spent time in the USA), and me. There was quite a good discussion about the present and historical roles of both Roman Catholics and Orthodox in Scandinavia, and of the state of relationships with the Lutheran Church in Sweden. There are many ways in which the Lutheran Church behaves as if it were still established. Now, however, as in Finland, it is not only the Lutherans that are funded through state taxes, but it is also all religious groups. Only those citizens who cannot afford the tax do not pay. Since the Lutherans are officially in the majority (85% still declare themselves so, and are even baptised, although only 5% ever go to church), they control most of the available church buildings (even if they are under-used), and also all of the cemeteries. Both the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox have difficulty finding suitable, stable places for their communities for worship. Of course, finance remains some sort of problem for both.

I was informed that it is only 5 years since the Roman Catholic diocese has no longer been greatly subsidised from Germany. One of the obstacles faced by both the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox is the fact that for Swedes (and for the Lutherans of Sweden) the Lutheran Church is considered to be the church for the Swedes, and where the Swedes belong. Nevertheless, there have always been, are, and are continuing to be, conversions to both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. There was previously a controversy over the ordination of women by the Lutherans, but this controversy was greatly increased by the approval and blessing of same-sex marriages by the same Lutherans. There seems also to have been more recently an emphasising of the very Protestant perception of ministry and sacraments, so that any former sense of residual “apostolic succession” in the Swedish Lutheran Church must be considered long disappeared (especially from the Orthodox perspective). It seems to me that even those who espouse the so-called pipeline theory would be hard-pressed to recognise that anything at all remains.

After this, we went to visit the Temple of Saint Sergius of the Moscow Patriarchate, and its priest, Vladimir Alexandrov. He was formerly the Editor of the Moscow Patriarchate Journal, and a disciple of Metropolitan Pitirim (of blessed memory). The quarters are very, very small, considering how many Russian immigrants must be served (it is said that there are about 50,000, and mostly secularised). They hope that Metropolitan Kirill will be able to help them find financial support in order to buy a proper church building that seems to be available. Should this be possible, the Saint Anna’s Swedish Mission (Serbian diocese) would be able to inherit their former quarters, and have a long-sought-for permanent place. This tiny Moscow Patriarchate community is very active, with frequent services. It meets in a structure that was formerly stables for horses, and the rooms have been completely renovated by the faithful themselves. This is a new community (only 15 years old), as compared to the parish of the “Paris Jurisdiction”. This parish of the Russian Exarchate has a history which goes back to the 15th century, when the chapel served an embassy, and it served businessmen as well.

After these visits, I was taken by Father Mikael Liljeström and Joachim Främberg to visit the Museum of the Warship Vasa (a sixteenth-century sunken warship which had been raised from the harbour several decades ago). Then we went to the Army Museum, which focussed on Swedish military activity, mostly from the 16th century. After this, we all went to supper in old Stockholm, with Michael Ellnemyr. Always, in these discussions, there is fond talk of Patriarch Pavle, and of Bishop Dositej. This day had been quite rainy and rather mild, turning dry and chilly in the evening.

On Wednesday morning, 1 November, we rose to some light snow flurries (which is not to indicate staying snow, only a product of a cold front). Michael Ellnemyr departed for Serbia and Damascus for various meetings, since he is employed by the Serbian Patriarchate in some diplomatic capacities. I was taken by Joachim Främberg and Father Mikael Liljeström (whose family has lived for several hundred years in the Stockholm area) to visit Metropolitan Paulos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Metropolitan Paulos has been in Sweden for about 33 years, and he is a canonical scholar. The visit was pleasant, although very formal, and the conversation was in a mixture of French, Swedish, and English. We were given coffee, and then a small tour of the facilities. The rather large church is a building which was received about 30 years ago from the dying Catholic-Apostolic Church, and it can contain around a thousand seated persons. It includes office space, and the Greek community has added a social hall that seats 100 persons. There are only 4 Greek-speaking communities under Metropolitan Paulos in Scandinavia (including one in Oslo).

We then walked down the street one block to visit the Transfiguration Temple of the Russian Exarchate of Western Europe, which serves Russian-speakers. This is a basement Temple (not very large). It is in an apartment building which the parish owns, and it has been there for nearly a century. As a community , however, the parish dates from about 1617. After the Swedes lost a war with Russia, as a part of the treaty, the Russian merchants were granted the right to have a chapel. This chapel has existed in one form or other since that time. As a result, this parish is the first one to have been established outside Russian territory. Father Angel, Bulgarian immigrant (a graduate from the Institut Saint-Serge in Paris), is only the fourth pastor in a century. It seems that 25 years’ service is not uncommon. This community has mostly a good relationship on all levels with the Moscow Patriarchate parish, which has much less space. It is the same with Metropolitan Paulos and the Greek metropolis. Recently, Archbishop Gabriel (de Vylder) had visited this parish, in connexion with having celebrated in Oslo, Norway, the 75th anniversary of the parish there.

After this visit, we went to visit Archbishop Julius, the other bishop of the Syrian Orthodox in Sweden, together with his cor-episcopus. He is a Member of the Holy Synod of Syria, and he had just returned from Damascus. He has lived in Sweden for many years. The quarters of his administration are much more modest in every way than those of Archbishop Benjamin, but the hospitality and frankness of speech was equal. We talked over more coffee and tea for some time, mostly about the very difficult situation of the Syrian Christians in their homelands, and about the fact that there is a steady, and large exodus of Orthodox Christians from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. We also discussed the very difficult environment in Sweden, in connexion with the Lutheran Church. It seems that this church has been secularised in many more severe ways, and at a far earlier time, than I had ever imagined. Regardless of theories about the so-called “catholic” nature of the Swedish Lutheran Church, it seems that Protestant ideas, attitudes and perceptions are very much at the root of its interior mentality, together with a great loss of a sense of many basic Christian elements such as I once knew in Lutheranism, and such as one might therefore expect. The way of life in society for Lutherans seems now to be expressed as “this is how Swedes do things”. It would previously have been said that ”we behave this way because we are a Christian people”. Many Swedes have reduced what was formerly a Christian society formed by the Gospel to philosophical and personal choices about how to live. It was pointed out to me that in Kosovo, the Swedish parts of KFOR (the NATO armed forces in Kosovo) do not have any apparent care for Serbian monasteries and churches and their protection, whereas the Italians and French forces do. There is, nevertheless, recognition and acknowledgment by some Swedes that the Syrians are very numerous, that they have a very low unemployment rate, and also a very low crime rate amongst them in Sweden.

By the time we had finished our conversation, the temperature had fallen ; it had snowed considerably, and the roads had become very icy. It took a long time to return to Stockholm, to have supper, and to retire in view of an early morning departure. It seems that in the Baltic areas, there is usually some sort of cold-snap like this (at about this time of year) which is then succeeded by milder weather again for a month or so. The forecast at the time of my departure reflected this.

On all levels, it seems that there was an appreciation of a visit from North America, and there were repetitions of comments about how much the example of the OCA means to the Orthodox Swedes in particular, who are trying to bring Orthodoxy to their people, and to make it approachable. Those who are working on the necessary translation projects involving any of the Scandinavian languages seem to be taking note of the way in which translations are undertaken in our Church. Every bishop expressed particular appreciation for the courtesy visits, and for the conversations. They assure us of their prayers, and ask for ours for them.

On Thursday morning, 2 November, well before dawn, I was taken to the aeroport, in advance of a 0900 hrs departure from Stockholm to Newark, and then on to Ottawa. It was still quite cold, but quite clear. As it happened, there was a very long repair delay in departure, and the flight arrived in Newark over five hours late. Then, in addition, there was over an hour of waiting in Newark for the next departure, but by God’s Grace, arrival was safe, albeit very late.

On Thursday morning, 2 November, well before dawn, I was taken to the aeroport, in advance of a 0900 hrs departure from Stockholm to Newark, and then on to Ottawa. It was still quite cold, but quite clear. As it happened, there was a very long repair delay in departure, and the flight arrived in Newark over five hours late. Then, in addition, there was over an hour of waiting in Newark for the next departure, but by God’s Grace, arrival was safe, albeit very late.