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Finngeir Hiorth Norway

Church and State in Norway (1997)

Finngeir Hiorth


The present Norwegian state church system goes back to 1536 when the Reformation in Europe led to the establishment of Lutheranism in Norway. The Norwegian Lutheran State Church, often simply called the Norwegian Church, is led by and largely financed by the state. In practice the state has for many years not really led the church and it has mostly only interfered in the management of the church in cases of unrest or irregularities. In such cases bishops or other clergy in the church have referred to existing regulations and have appealed to the state to interfere to put an end to the irregularities.

Apart from such cases, the state has mostly only served as a rich uncle to which the state clergy and other religious believers have appealed for financial assistance. The clergy and other representatives of the church have also many times stressed their wish to manage their own affairs within the framework of the state church system.

As the Norwegian state since the 1970s has become quite rich, the system has benefited the church and the religious believers, and as a result the resistance against the state church system has generally been quite weak from the part of the religious believers. Even atheists and other secularists have generally been quite indifferent with regard to the state church system. The main exceptions to this state of affair have been the two Norwegian organizations of secularists, Human-Etisk Forbund (HEF, Human-Ethical Society, founded 1956) and Det Norske Hedningsamfunn (Norwegian Pagan Society, founded 1974).

Both organizations have been and are strongly opposed to the state church system. Of these two organizations, HEF is incomparably the largest and most influential one, with about 50,000 paying members. The Pagan Society is much smaller and today has not more than about 300 members. It has never been any large organization, but it has been quite active and its activities have often been mentioned in the mass media, particularly when it was still quite new. HEF has, however, been much more mentioned in the mass media and its leading officers have not infrequently had access to the mass media. This includes what was formerly the state television and which continues to be the leading television company. It nowadays has two channels and it is still mainly financed by fees which owners of television sets have to pay to the company.

Even though the Norwegian state nowadays largely functions as a rich uncle distributing money to his poor relatives, it may be noticed that the state church today as a real estate owner is much poorer than it was about 150 years ago. At that time the Norwegian state church was a big real estate owner and also owned forests. After the second world war many of its possessions have been sold, and as a real estate owner the state church is much less important today than it was 150 years ago. Even so the number of state churches have increased slowly during the period after the second world war. On the other side, people sympathetic to the Norwegian Church tend to complain that the church does not get enough funds for a satisfactory maintenance of its houses and churches. It is also maintained from that side that the state clergy generally get a somewhat lower salary than people with a comparably long education.

The state continues to appoint the bishops and higher clergy. In the case of bishops the church is allowed to present its candidates, and from the list of candidates presented by the church, the state selects the new bishop. Often the state has followed the list slavishly, and when a person is proposed as number one on the list of candidates, the state has usually also appointed the person in question as bishop. Occasionally, however, the state deviates from the vote of the church and has appointed a person who has not been number one on the list. But the state has in recent years invariably taken a person from the list of the church.

The state does not interfere in the doctrinal conflicts which take place in the state church. These conflicts are handled by the church itself. From 1988 on the state church has had its own doctrinal council. This council consists of the eleven bishops, five other theologians, and four laypersons.

The state has sometimes, in the case of internal conflicts, interfered in the administration of the church. One such conflict has been the role of women in the church. Conservative forces within the church did not want to have women among the clergy. But liberal forces wanted to appoint women as clergy. In this case the state interfered and with the assistance of the liberal forces in the church appointed the first female priest in 1961. In the 1990s the first female bishop was appointed. Conservative forces in the church continue, however, to fight the equality of men and women in the church.

Another conflict relates to the attitude of the church to homosexuals. This remains a thorny issue in the church, and the clergy remain divided in this question. So far the conservative forces have had the upper hand and homosexuals who openly practice their homosexuality are not allowed to serve as clergy.

In 1984 the state established a new church council which meets every second year and which serves as an organ to discuss various questions, including doctrinal questions, especially if these have practical effects. The initiative toward the establishment of the church council was taken by the church. From 1998 on the church council has 85 members. These comprise at least 22 theologians (11 bishops and 11 other priests). Most of the members have so far been lay people. The members of the church council are elected through a process in which the congregations elect members of the councils of bishoprics, and these again elect the members of the national church council. The interest for these elections has been very small at the grass root level where only 2-3% of the supposed state church members have taken active part in the elections. The national church council therefore strictly speaking only represents 2-3% of its members. Church leaders, however, tend to speak as if they represent the majority of the church members.

From the side of the church, the church council has been intended as an organ to enable the church to handle its own affairs without interference from the state. From the side of some church members, the establishment of the church council has been intended as a step towards the abolishment of the state church system. But for other members of the church, the church council has been intended to make it easier for the church to accept the state church system and in that way prolong the existence of this system.

There are similar state church systems as the Norwegian one in the other Scandinavian countries. In Denmark and Finland the forces that want to abolish the state church system are still weak. In Sweden, where the independence of the state church has been more advanced than in Norway, the authorities have decided that the state church system will be abolished. The development in this field has not come as far in Norway, but there is hardly any doubt that the forces that want to abolish the state church system have become stronger in recent years. This applies both to forces inside as well as outside the state church.

As to forces that are against the state church system, these are in no way limited to the secularists. In fact, the resistance against the state church system has been strong from the side of dissenters and free churches. It has been possible to establish such free churches since the middle of the 19th century. Quantitatively and organizationally the free churches have, however, never become as important as the state church, and even today almost all Lutherans are members of the state church. Still, religious life in Norway during the last 20-30 years has become much more heterogeneous than it ever has been. This is not the least due to the influx of immigrants from Islamic and Catholic countries. Compared with many other countries, however, Norway remains a religiously and racially quite homogeneous country.

According -to official figures there were on 1 January 1996, 42,000 Muslims in Norway, whereas the number of Catholics was 35,000. In 1980 there were 1,000 Muslims in Norway and 14,000 Catholics. According to official figures Human-Etisk Forbund had 64,000 members on 1 January 1996, but this figure includes children and persons who have not paid their dues (about 8,000 persons). Protestant free churches had in January 1996 more than 130,000 members.

The number of persons belonging to the state church was at the same time estimated to be 3,8 million, that is about 88% of the population. It should be noted that the state church so far has not had any good register of its members. It has so far mostly used the national register of citizens as its "membership register". However, it has increasingly become unsatisfactory to use the national register of citizens as a membership register of the state church, even though only Norwegian citizens can be members of the state church. The state church is now at work to establish a satisfactory register of members, but it will take at least a few years before the list of members is up-to-date. The Norwegian state church has nowadays a total paid staff of about 6,000 persons, including about 1,250 priests.

Of children born in Norway, the last ten years about 80-83% have been baptized in the state church, whereas the percentage in 1960 was 97. About 75% of 14-years old youngsters are nowadays confirmed in the state church, as against 93% in 1960. Nowadays about 12% of the youngsters receive a secular confirmation. Secular confirmation has more than anything else been the "flagship" of Human-Etisk Forbund. Other kinds of ceremonies have also achieved increased importance in Human-Etisk Forbund in recent years, including ceremonies for newborn children and, so far quite tentatively, marriage ceremonies. As to secular funerals, these date from the first years after the establishment of Human-Etisk Forbund, but in 1995 still about 93% of the dead were buried in ceremonies led by state priests. In recent years about 5,000 persons have each year given up their membership of the state church. Many of them have joined other religious communities.

From an atheistic point of view it is quite remarkable with how much respect Norwegian clergy generally are met. Major Christian doctrines are quite absurd, still many people do not mind that such absurd doctrines are preached in the churches, not only every Sunday, but many weekdays too. There are also quite a number of religious programmes in radio and television, but most are still Christian. Secularists and non-Christian religious minorities do not have any comparable access to the mass media, although some of the mass media, particularly those of the political left, are quite positive in their attitude to secularists. On the other side the political left has never had any powerful press in Norway. Nowadays entertainment and popular material dominate the contents of most of the mass media which generally are quite conservative or politically neutral. The atmosphere is generally one of cosy conservatism.

Political parties generally remain quite positive to Christianity. In Norway there is a separate Christian People’s Party (Kristelig Folkeparti) which at the last elections, in September 1997, got 13.7% of the votes. This is the highest percentage of votes which this party has achieved since it was founded in 1933.

The largest Norwegian party is still the Norwegian Labour Party which at the last elections got 35% of the votes. The Norwegian Labour Party has been the largest Norwegian political party since the 1930s, quite a remarkable record. In the 1920s and 1930s it was quite radical and generally had a critical attitude to the state church and to religion in general. But nowadays the labour party is quite soft in its attitude to the state church and could almost deserve the name "Christian Norwegian Labour Party".

Before the elections of September 1997 the labour party declared that it would resign from power if it got less than 36.9% of the votes, the result at the preceding elections. As it achieved 35% of the votes, it resigned from power, and Kjell Magne Bondevik from the Christian People’s Party, a state priest, could in October 1997 assume power, heading a coalition of his own party, that of the Liberal Party (Venstre) and the Centre Party (Senterpartiet). The Liberal Party is a small but old party (its roots go back to 1859) and at the last elections it got 4.5% of the votes. The Centre Party (7.9% of the votes at the last elections) particularly caters to the interests of people outside the larger cities. Both parties are quite positive in their attitude to Christianity. As a politician the present prime minister, KjelI Magne Bondevik, rarely quotes from the Bible or refers to God. He speaks about values, particularly "Christian values". But even more he is concerned to speak about money or to solve practical problems. He is remarkably popular.

The Conservative Party (Hoyre) got 14.3% of the votes at the elections in September 1997. This was one of the weakest results ever for this party which in this century has been the leading conservative party in Norway. It is quite positive in its attitude to Christianity. The Conservative Party was dethroned by the Progressive Party (Fremskrittspartiet, founded 1973) which at the elections became the second largest party with 1 5.3% of the votes. The Progressive Party is the most conservative of the Norwegian parties. In economic affairs it is slightly more liberal than the other conservative party, H0yre. Again, it is quite positive to Christianity, but its strong vote at the last elections is probably mostly due to its anti-immigrant profile and to its interest for the older Norwegians.

In addition to the preceding parties, we can still mention the Red Election Alliance, a Marxist party. It got 1.7% of the votes and its only representative dropped out of Parliament. Another leftist party is that of the Left Socialists which is clearly in favour of a separation of state and church. It did not get more than 6% of the votes at the elections in September 1997, a setback as compared with an earlier result.

There is no important Norwegian political party with a clearly atheistic profile. Atheism is tabu or ignored in all important Norwegian political parties. At most the parties go as far as stressing humanist values. And as said earlier, most of them are, in fact, quite positive in their attitude to Christianity. In theory they are positive to all religions, but Islam is not popular in Norway. Almost all Muslims are persons from Islamic countries. There are not many ethnic Norwegians who have converted to Islam.

The number of secularists (atheists or agnostics) according to opinion surveys comprises about 30% of the population. The number of religious believers comprises about 70% of the population, but of these less than 30% are convinced Christians.

Nothing of what has been said excludes a separation of church and state in the longer run as a number of parties are in favour of a separation of church and state. But on the whole in this issue the parties follow a wait-and-see policy. They do not so much look at the attitude of the secularists in this question as at the attitude of the state church. The major political parties would almost certainly go for a separation of state and church if the state church itself would be in favour of such a policy. But so far the state church has preferred to get more influence within the present system rather than to rock its boat of privileges.

The state church system seems to be quite typical of the Scandinavian countries. But it may be noticed that in eastern Europe the orthodox churches have to some extent also served as a kind of state church. Orthodox churches tend to combine religion and nationalism. This combination of state church and nationalism is less pronounced in the Scandinavian countries.

As to Islamic countries, it is perhaps only in Iran that one has got a kind of state church system. But this system has only existed since 1979 when the Shah was toppled. In other Islamic countries the political and religious forces are more or less sharply divided, but in a number of cases Islam has been able to obtain a privileged position. In theory Islam does not admit of a separation of state and mosque, but practice is generally quite different. In Islamic countries secularists are generally not organized at all. An exception is found in Bangladesh where there is a small group of organized freethinkers. Democracy and the practice of human rights is in Islamic countries generally far from satisfactory.

The state church in Norway will exist at least 5-10 years more. One reason is that the state church is mentioned in the Norwegian constitution of 1814. The second paragraph of this constitution secures the freedom of religion of the Norwegian citizens, but it also declares that the evangelical-Lutheran religion is the religion of the state. The paragraphs of the constitution can only be changed by two thirds of two consecutive parliaments, thus quite an elaborate procedure. But to some extent the practical meaning of the constitution can also be changed through new interpretations, of which a number of examples could be given.

What would change if and when the state church is abolished? Not necessarily much. The present Norwegian state is a welfare state. It has financed large parts of the expenses of most religious groups, not only of the state church, but also of other Christians, of Muslims, of Jews, and of other religious denominations. It has in fact also, since 1981, financed about three fourths of the expenses of Human-Etisk Forbund. The Pagans have not, however, so far received any money from public funds. The future of religious and of secular life in Norway depends more on the future of the welfare state than on the state church system.


Finngeir Hiorth 19 November 1997

Kirkehaugsveien 3

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