Norway prepares for 'biggest change to the church since Reformation'
On January 1st, the Church of Norway and the Norwegian government will formally divorce after nearly 500 years together.
But their relationship will remain close. Too close, some say.
When 2016 becomes 2017, Norway will formalize the separation of church and state that was set in motion eight years ago by parliament. As of January 1st, the Nordic nation’s 1,250 priests and bishops will no longer be government officials appointed by the king. And the Church of Norway will no longer be an agency of the state, but an independent business.
“We are facing the biggest organizational change of the church since the Reformation,” Jens-Petter Johnsen, the head of the Church’s National Council, said. “The changes will create a clear separation between church and state.”
Years of strife
Some believe, however, that the distinction will be neither clear nor evident.
“We will not be getting a real distinction. Parliament came part of the way this time, but not far enough,” said Kristin Mile, the secretary general of the Norwegian Humanist Association (Human-Etisk Forbund - NHA).
Mille and others point to one particular formulation that allowed parliamentary to reach its compromise eight years ago: “Norway’s national church”.
The bill that passed parliament resulted in extensive changes to the Constitution. Out went the phrase "The Evangelical-Lutheran religion will remain the state’s public religion”. In its place came the words "the Church of Norway, an Evangelical-Lutheran Church, will remain Norway's national church and will be supported as such by the state".
“As long as the Constitution says that the Church of Norway is Norway's national church, and that it should be supported by the state, we still have a state church,” said Mile.
She thinks the new “national church” concept is worrisome because it constitutionally connects the Norwegian people to a particular denomination.
“It is in some ways worse than connecting a particular religion to the state,” she said.
The "national church" wording has also caused misgivings within the Church itself.
“When we had a state church, the debate centred around the question of whether we had a church in which the state would decide everything. With a national church, the debate is now about whether it is the people in the church who should decide everything,” Jens-Petter Johnsen said.
“This is about that the church having a Biblical basis, that one can not vote their way out of,” he added.
The issue came to a head during last year’s church election, when the Open People’s Church (Åpen Folkekirke) won a huge victory in its fight to allow homosexuals to be married within the church.
Pål Ketil Botvar, a researcher at the Institute for Church, Religion, and Worldview Research (KIFO) said that a number of factors point to the fact that Norway will still have a state church, even after the formal split takes place on January 1st.
He points to the “national church” phrase in the Constitution and adds that the Church of Norway is almost solely funded by the government, that particular provisions are attached to the church in legislation and that the Church is still responsible for funerals in most places throughout the country.
“But the church is now an independent legal entity,” he said.
NHA’s Mille said the group would continue to fight for a full and unambiguous separation between church and state.
“Apparently the time is not yet ripe. The major political parties seem to have enormous majority anxiety in regard to this issue. But I cannot imagine that the current solution will survive 20 years,” she said.