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Swedish Full Communion

An important ecumenical outcome of this summer’s General Convention in Baltimore was ratification of a relationship of full communion with the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran body in contact with North American Anglicans since the middle 1600s and the short-lived colony of New Sweden. Resolution A137 accepts principles of exchange of clergy and mutual recognition between the two churches, making the Church of Sweden the Episcopal Church’s seventh current full communion partner.

Swedish colonization in North America led to the establishment of Lutheran churches in what are now the states of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Church of England mission agencies supported the parishes when Swedish state missionaries were no longer available after the end of the Swedish colony, and all of the old Swedes’ churches had been absorbed by the Episcopal Church by the 1840s. Discussions about full communion between the Episcopal Church and the state Church of Sweden began in the 1850s during the European travels of U.S. Senate Chaplain Clement Moore Butler.

Contacts between Episcopalians and Swedes intensified in the middle of the 19th century because of immigration that was not always matched by the provision of clergy and ecclesiastical structures from the home country. The first graduate of Nashotah House was a Swede, Gustaf Unonius.

The centers of Swedish Episcopal Church life by the 1870s had shifted away from the Delaware Valley to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New York City. In 1900 there were 45 Swedish parishes and missions of the Episcopal Church, with four churches in Minneapolis alone, Swedish-language services according to the Book of Common Prayer at churches throughout Manhattan, and approximately 40,000 Episcopalians had been baptized by Swedish-speaking clergy between 1880 and 1930. Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, contributed a chalice and the modern equivalent of about $60,000 for the work of St. Angarius, Chicago. The American Book of Common Prayer was translated into Swedish in 1879 and 1913 to serve these communities. The Diocese of Quincy licensed an English translation of the Lutheran High Mass for its parishioners.

International relations between Scandinavian Lutherans and Anglicans were formalized in the 1992 Porvoo Common Statement on ministry and polity, but this was limited to European participants. By 2009, the General Convention directed the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations to prepare a proposal for full communion in a move promoted by both Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and European Convocation Bishop Pierre Whalon. The visit of Uppsala Archbishop Anders Wejryd to the 2015 General Convention coincided with acceptance of a report on the historical and theological grounds for full communion; his successor Archbishop Antje Jackelén sent greetings to the 80th General Convention as well.

The Church of Sweden is the largest Lutheran church in Europe, with almost six million members and 13 dioceses. It retained the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon at the Reformation, and has about 5,000 clergy today in 1,300 parishes and seamen’s missions. Since 1960, women have been ordained as priests; marriage between persons of the same sex was accepted by the church’s synod in 2009. It has ecumenical relations with the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD), and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht. It is a member of the Lutheran World Federation, the World Council of Churches, and other multilateral bodies.

The full communion agreement will facilitate full mutual integration into church life for Episcopalians in Sweden and Swedes in the United States, in addition to simplifying aspects of both churches’ work with asylum seekers, refugee resettlement, maritime ministry, disaster response, and in international theological conversations. The Old Swedes’ Churches in the Episcopal Church remain robust parts of their dioceses, with the Lord’s Prayer in Swedish still featured every Sunday in several, more than 350 years after they were founded. Gloria Dei, the oldest church of any kind in Philadelphia and the site of one of Betsy Ross’s marriages, still hosts regular regional worship services for expat Lutherans from American Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Danish communities.

Photos of Some of Pennsylvania’s Old Swedes Churches

Christ Church, Upper Merion (Old Swedes) in Bridgeport (formerly Swedesburg), Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Swedish colonists arrived here in 1712 and the first church was built in 1760. The United Swedish Lutheran Churches dissolved in 1843 and were received into union with the convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1845.
Graves of Swedish Revolutionary War soldiers at Christ Church, Upper Merion are marked with three flags: the current American flag, the 13-star colonial flag, and the flag of the Kingdom of Sweden. (The municipal flag of Philadelphia is a variation on the Swedish flag with the seal of the city in its center.)

Gloria Dei Old Swedes’ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia is the oldest standing brick building in the city and the oldest church in Pennsylvania. The congregation was established in 1646, and the current building dates to 1698. The site of the first Lutheran ordination in the hemisphere, it has been an Episcopal church since 1845 and was designated a National Historic Site in 1942. The Father of New Sweden, Peter Rambo (1611-1698), is buried here. Betsy Ross married her second husband here in 1777.
Swedish colonial angels at Gloria Dei, Philadelphia. The biblical text is from Isaiah and St. Matthew: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
St. James Old Swedes’ Episcopal Church, Kingsessing, Philadelphia was a Swedish Lutheran missionary congregation of the Archbishop of Uppsala from 1762 to 1841 when the Wicaco Mission ended. Today the neighborhood is largely West African and Vietnamese, and the parish hosts a large Vacation Bible School.


Richard J. Mammana is a regular contributor to religious and historical periodicals who worships at the Church of St. Alban, Roxborough. He is the founder of anglicanhistory.org and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mammana’s compilation Our Aunt: Low Church Observations of American Anglo-Catholicism was reviewed on Covenant on April 25, 2022.



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