Eager yet humble bishop candidates

June 21, 2010

A new doctoral thesis in history from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, concludes that a person interested in becoming a Swedish bishop in the 1900s had to be careful not to appear too anxious. Instead, candidates had to express an attitude of humility and a desire to serve others.

'Behind the veil of humility and unselfishness, there was an informal competition for power void of references to the concepts of career, power, elite and strategy. Most people who took on the challenge were extremely motivated, but still had to clearly communicate awe and a sense of calling with respect to the office', says author of the thesis Ulrika Lagerlöf Nilsson, who has studied all bishops within the Church of Sweden in the 20th century.

Lagerlöf Nilsson's research shows that a candidate had to have several assets in place to be able to advance in the church hierarchy and become part of the elite. The environment in which one grew up, support from the 'right' people and education seem to have been very important. While bishops were technically recruited from all social classes, most of them evidently belonged to a relatively high social stratum. Moreover, several of the bishops grew up in a pastor's family.

'I expected to find a broadening of the recruitment base in 1963 when the electorate was expanded, but did not', says Lagerlöf Nilsson.

Highly educated

There were generally three possible paths to the office of bishop: via clergy leadership, via academia and theological research, and via administrative leadership at a church institution. This means that all available career paths were church related in one way or another. The group of bishops was therefore very homogenous, consisting of only people with a solid church background. In other words, candidates had better start planning a winning strategy far in advance.

'Many bishops-to-be were encouraged to further their education as part of their careers, since this was necessary to have a fair shot at the top positions. The group of bishops is characterised by a very high level of education compared to other elite groups. In fact, most of them were doctors of theology', says Lagerlöf Nilsson.

By combining studies of correspondence and interviews, Lagerlöf Nilsson has been able to show that unofficial contacts were crucial to one's career within the Church of Sweden - no connections, no office of bishop.

The ideal bishop changed with gender

In the 20th century, all male bishops were married while the two female ones were not. Lagerlöf Nilsson concludes that the description of an ideal bishop differed and that for long the role, which implied spiritual authority, was reserved for males. A male bishop was expected to have a woman by his side, while having a husband and a family was seen as a professional obstacle for female bishops.

'Studying the problem complex of church, power and gender has turned out to be both important and fruitful. There is plenty of reason to continue exploring the recruitment pattern after the separation between the Church of Sweden and the State of Sweden at the turn of the millennium. All aspects of society must be willing to accept critical investigation in order to remain trustworthy. This is also why our country's elite must always be subject to scrutiny', says Lagerlöf Nilsson.

University of Gothenburg

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