Vaxjo Trip

Hello, or, as they say in Sweden, Hey hey

About six weeks ago I got an email from the Oxford Diocesan Environment Group asking if I might be free to go on an a trip to Sweden for three days, at very short notice, to learn about how the Swedish church does green stuff. Strictly speaking the answer was 'no' but I figured that's the kind of offer you don't say no to – so I just said yes and figured out the details afterwards. It turned out that Christine was going on the very same trip. We had an amazing three days so we really wanted to share with you what we experienced
Until that email arrived, I had no idea that the diocese of Oxford is twinned with a diocese in Sweden, called Vaxjo. Nor indeed did I know that the Church of Sweden, in common with many of the Lutheran churches of northern Europe, operate in communion with the Anglican churches, known as the Porvoo communion. This recognises each others baptism and ministry – so our ministers can operate in each other's. By contrast, Christine and Richard, whose daughter happens to live in Vaxjo diocese, were well aware of the connection and as a result Christine is part of the diocese link committee – so it was that St John's had two representatives among the six English visitors on this link trip to Vaxjo. - there were two other link committee reps (both priests from Oxford) and two other greenies – one an amateur church rep like me, the other a lecturer who teaches environmental theology.

So, we arrived very late on a Sunday night and were driven to a local church-run higher education college. I had rather expected we'd be accommodated in church-goers houses, but apparently that sort of hospitality really isn't the Swedish way. Instead we had cosy student accommodation. Next morning we awoke to find snow on the ground  and being English we quickly started taking photos in case it disappeared – we needn't have done that. Our day began with morning prayer – fortunately in English. This was followed by an introductory seminar on the Swedish church and green politics from one of our hosts who is a priest but has also been a local green party councillor – the Swedish church's heritage as an organisation largely paid for from state taxes makes its relationship with politicians rather different from ours. One snippet about the church year that particularly struck me is that environmental issues are most likely to be raised in Swedish churches in the services for Midsummer, harvest and Judgement Sunday – Judgement Sunday is the feast they have instead of Christ the King – it's a service especially for saying sorry.

With our first lesson over - we were introduced to an important Swedish institution – Fika – or morning coffee – apparently everyone stops and meets up to chat (mostly to discuss the American election when we were there) – this isn't merely a cup of coffee and a fiddly biscuit – one of our hosts called it 'second breakfast – like hobbits have'. I've been trying to keep up that habit since we got home. The next part of the programme made me think of Nick Benson (who left our church over a year ago now) – if any of you have ever been in a home group with Nick you will understand – we had a Bible Study – sadly, unlike Nick's Swedish Bible studies, there were no daggers or candles involved (if this makes no sense at all, I'll explain afterwards). There was a passage from Dostoevsky and a large chunk from last year's papal encyclical on the environment. I came away enthused to read that encyclical in detail – although admittedly I still haven't yet.

After lunch we had our first excursion - to a biogas plant.  The church of Sweden is a large landowner. One of the farmers renting from them in Vaxjo decided to get involved with this biogas plant and so the church has now become a permanent partner in the scheme – it's a pretty neat set up every day five lorries each bring in 35 tonnes of waste – mostly manure from the twelve farms that own it but also food waste from restaurants and food processing as well as slaughter-house waste – it all gets stirred up in something they compared with a giant icecream maker  – and yes it is somewhat pungent. The waste mix has to be pasteurised and it's then poured into a sort of mechanical equivalent of a cow's stomach. Over 40 days and nights it emits the gas that is siphoned off and cleaned for use in running cars. Waste is constantly going in at the bottom of these drums. Off the top they take out a manure that is now much more nitrogen rich than the stuff that originally arrived and the same lorries then take this away for fertilising the fields of the original farms. The whole place is basically run by just one guy, called Johan, who can call on others for help if need be. Wood pellets are burnt to provide the electricity needed to make the whole process happen. Every day 6000 m³ of gas comes out – which is the equivalent of 8,000 l of petrol.

Our next stop was the city of Vaxjo. I have to admit, I was completely unaware, that Vaxjo is reputedly Europe's greenest city. - The BBC made this judgement in 2007 and the city authorities seized on it with enthusiasm. We were given a very detailed presentation on this by a lady from their city council – I will resist the temptation to share all the details of their population, economy and industry that I noted at the time. I will tell you that the name Vaxjo means the road by the lake and there are in fact some 200 lakes throughout the city – by the 1960s these lakes were all too polluted to swim in and it was then that the city authorities decided to start cleaning up their city's act – their ultimate goal is that every citizen should live only 5 minutes’ walk from a lake that they can swim in. Returning in summer feels like a good idea.

They are of course blessed with vast resources of woodland so wood-burning provides the city's heating system – all properties are linked up to this heating network – the wood burnt for this is the branches from the trees whose trunks are being used for buildings and furniture. They now build a quarter of their houses in wood and are experimenting with amazing heat conserving passive houses. Until recently fire safety meant wooden houses could only be two storeys high, but new technology in plaster has changed that – the technology was developed at the city's university Linnaeus University – named, as you might guess, for a former resident, the eighteenth century botanist Carl Linnaeus. There was more to learn about biogas here too – the city's sewage plant provides the fuel for their buses.

Our final stop of the day was dinner with the bishop of Vaxjo and his area deans at Villa Gransholm - luckily there was an opportunity to change out of the thermals and jeans that had been essential at the biogas plant. Here we were treated to the finest traditional Swedish food – Christine and I did both allow curiosity to override our usual vegetarian habits – it turns out reindeer is pretty delicious. So are cloudberries. These chandeliers there are an example of the local glass making industry just over a century ago and  the place we were eating in had once been the home of the local papermill owner – wood-based industry again.

Tuesday morning the Oxford team contributed morning prayer and a talk about Green Christian activity in Britain. After the important break for fika – we had a talk from the national church officer on sustainable development who is also a member of the European Christian Environmental Network. It was that network that first came up with the idea of a season of Creation that we have adopted here at St John's –he gave us a broad overview of the international state of affairs, he explained Sweden's version of EcoChurch – which does seem rather more stringent than ours and he gave us a copy of a letter on climate change written by Sweden's bishops in 2013 – by the way, their primate is the archbishop of Uppsala and she is their first female archbishop– the link to the online version of the bishop's letter is here
it's a very easy read but also a very useful one. A particular issue for Sweden is the fate of those peoples who live in the Arctic region (the bottom picture is from a conference on Future Life in the Arctic) – an average worldwide rise of 2 degrees C would mean a rise of 6 degrees at the poles – a massive threat to indigenous people's way of life. Consequently the Swedish church has now completely disinvested from fossil fuels. The talk ended with a couple of images –the three empty chairs that should be in every room of decision makers – for the poor, for children and coming generations, and for the Creation – those who have no voice in these rooms yet are most affected.  And an image of our planet lit up by its millions of lights - it shows the tiny thin layer of precious atmosphere that protects all life on earth but is under threat and the blaze of light that cuts out our vision of the stars, makes our cosmos seem smaller. He suggested that the church's role is to put people under the stars – to make them ask where are we coming from and going to.

After lunch, we took a very long minibus ride through mile on mile of Christmas card landscape, thick snows and fir trees, to the city of Kalmar and their rapeseed oil powered crematorium – if anyone wants to know, I can tell you in full detail exactly how the process works. In Sweden the church is responsible for dealing with the bodies of all the dead, no matter what their religion, so they have to be able to provide all sorts of options. Just over a bridge from Kalmar is the island of Oland where a local churchwarden introduced us to a brilliant system which enables him to control the heating, dehumidifying, locking and unlocking of the church buildings and even the ringing of their bells all at long distance.

Wednesday morning was when I got to tell our hosts what's been happening at St John's and other churches around Reading and Christine talked about Joy in Enough, after coffee I was disconcerted to find myself in the workshop group with three eminent theologians designated to come up with the sermon for our farewell communion (my contribution to that was brief). En route home we just had time to visit Vaxjo cathedral – like the college we were staying in it is dedicated to St Sigfrid – an eleventh century English missionary to Sweden. Much of the artwork there is inspired by the local glass making and ironwork industries.

And so we said our farewells, minds buzzing from all our new experiences and ideas, and caught the train back to Copenhagen airport.