At first religion does not seem to have a central role in Norwegian peoples’ lives. One hears church bells ring in the background once in a while, but it is seldom anyone talks about God, faith, or even Christianity. In big cities, gyms have a higher attendance rate then churches, and Sunday mornings are used to recover from hungovers or enjoy family time in a park rather than at Sunday mass.
But then recently I learned that the Norwegian Church (which is mainly protestant Lutheran) started its separation from the state only 3 years ago, and that as much as 75% of the Norwegian population is a baptised member of the Norwegian church (note that this number is noticeably higher on the English version of the Norwegian church’s website). So I started being intrigued by the relationship between the Norwegian people and the Church. How can a country so liberal as Norway embrace widely a religion that used to burn witches?
1- Norwegians go to Church dressed like they are going to the forest
So I went to a Sunday mass, in Norwegian it is not called a mass but “the service of God” (gudstjeneste). After all everyone is allowed to enter the house of God (I hope so otherwise I committed a blasphemy already). Many surprising aspects of Norwegian mass: In France everyone has to be well dressed to go to Church, but there I saw people in Norrøna trousers and hiking shoes. I did not hear a single “shush” from a parent to his children to tell them to be quiet. In Norway children can be as noisy and distracted as they like in Church as much as in public transportation. Also, most people there were above 70 years old. There were a few round baby faces with their parents, but so few that I could not help wonder what this same Church will look like in 30 years.
2- The Norwegian church is more liberal than most countries in the world…
As a French my first idea was that having a state religion is necessarily bad. For us any link of the state with religion and especially Christianity makes our skin crawl. If democracies have a separation between the executive, legislative and judiciary powers it is not to be influenced by a state religion whose dogmas have not been voted by citizens. Those have been based on a book written and interpreted by White men in robes, hence having little legitimacy for any modern democracy.
I was therefore very surprised to see that during the Church election (yes in Norway even the Church has a democratic process) elected politicians in power such as Siv Jensen (Minister of Finance) and Erna Solberg (Prime Minister) were on the Church’s website calling for members to vote and being named “election ambassadors”. Solberg represents all the Norwegian citizens, including the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Hindus etc. out there. She does not represent the members of the Church. In France it would be completely illegitimate for any politician to be the face of a religious insitution. And France is too a country with deep Christian (in this case Catholic) roots. Another Norwegian oddity.
But then I learnt that the Norwegian church has female bishops, lesbian priests, elections where its members can vote for its leaders, and even for the direction of the Church. And recently it was decided that in 2018 same-sex partners will even be able to get a Christian marriage. They push for Norway to receive more refugees, and are even following the green agenda, engaging in political debates such as the creation of national parks around Oslo and climate change mitigation. The Norwegian Church is more liberal than most states in the world.
3- …when it doesn’t call for evangelisation.
In the most recent election (last week) two movements with different views of the leadership and future of the Church were in opposition. One movement called itself the “open peoples’ church” (Åpen folkekirke) and the other was called the “living peoples’ church” (Levende folkekirke), as opposed to the dead one? The Norwegian media put a big focus on what they saw as the biggest difference: whether the Church should accept that its bishops have a marriage liturgy for same-sex partners, i.e. Christian gay marriage. I don’t personally expect so much liberalism from any monotheist religion.
The real scandal for me in this election was that the levendefolkekirke “wishes that the Norwegian Church should be a clear and evangelical national church, confessional, open, ministering and evangelizing “. If tax money is spent on evangelisation and per diem for missionaries I believe it is not just up to the Church members to vote, but also to regular citizens to have a debate on whether public money should be funding such actions. But it’s not happening (because they lost), so I can relax.
4- In Norway you can believe in anything as long as it is registered as a “trossamfunn”
When I was a kid my dad used to tell us that if we wanted to become very rich we should become the guru of a sect. He had met some in his hippy years and had seen living proofs of their wealth based, after all, on a high dose of charisma and patchouli-flavoured incense sticks. We rapidly concluded our dad was a bit out there, but when I see how Norway funds religions and basically any “belief community” I am starting to think he was right after all.
In Norway it is the State (i.e. your tax money) that funds all registered “belief communities” (tro-og livssynssamfunn in Norwegian). These trossamfunn are not necessarily faith-based, so the belief does not need to be in God, it can be in anything from humanism to everything there is (yes that is the name of another belief community). The first one (Human-Etisk forbund) has as many ceremonies than the Church, but just does not ask you to expiate your sins in between. The latter (Alt som er) collects the tax money linked to your membership and sends it back to you. Those are just two examples of non faith-based belief communities, but there are many more. Basically as long as you register it and it is based on some belief, anything, it’s fine (and legal). Every belief community in Norway gets an amount of money for each registered member, roughly 800 NOK per member.
So I thought of funding my own belief community, called “In Frog We Trust”. I would gather all my family, friends, and readers and we would believe in frogs and in saving the world. Come on, I cannot be the first one to think about this!
Just to show how much money is involved here, some years ago the Catholic Church of Norway was involved in a scandal because it had automatically registered immigrants from Catholic nations such as Spain or Poland as members. Without their consent. Yes that is called a fraud.
5- To be a member of the Church without believing in God
Until I came to Norway I could not imagine people would be a member of a Church without even believing. In Norway not only some members of the Church don’t believe in God, but many don’t even know whether they are members of the Church or not. In the olden days (actually not that long ago) everyone was automatically registered as a member, as the Norwegian state Church was, well, a state religion. A large part of the 75% of the population that the Church claims as its members are ghost members. Otherwise why would the Church be so happy about having 16% of participation in their last vote? That’s not a lot to be happy about for any democratic process.
Some others are not sure they believe in God, but most still come to Church for baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals. They also go there on Christmas Eve, and are so happy when Easter comes and they can go to their hytte without feeling guilty. And more importantly without remembering why they have free during Easter. Norwegians believe less and less in God, but they would not give up any of their Christian holidays for anything in the world.
6- Today’s Norwegians are more influenced by protestantism than they are by Viking heritage
Sometimes Norwegian society is confusing. Many here claim their Viking roots to anyone who asks, saying how much it influences today’s Norwegian society. Norwegian mythology inspires parents to find names for their newborns. Every time an immigrant asks how come Norwegian society is so gender equal, the answer is that women had a lot of power in the Viking times. They don’t often talk about how much the Church influenced their society.
But come on, do you think a Viking have given his left cheek if anyone had slapped him on the right? No, he would have put his sword into your guts and sent you right to Valhalla. I believe that today’s Norwegians are much more a product of their protestant heritage than they are influenced by their Viking heritage. Another example: Look at the Norwegian Pensiun fund (where Norwegians invest their immense wealth from oil to secure future generations) and how it is managed. Do you think a Viking king used to raid villages who would have found the equivalent in wealth of the Ekofisk oil, would he have invested it and saved it for future generations or would he have spent all that money on banquets and mjød? Exactly.
I heard that Scandinavia was one of the hardest place for missionaries to convert the people. There was so much opposition between what the “pagan” Viking religion believed in and the Church that it had to be imposed by force. Now all the Scandinavian flags are big crosses in different colours (Danish, Norwegian, Iceland, Sweden and even Finland), and Christianity is commonly accepted as the roots of these societies. Like someone famous once said, a religion is just a sect that made it. Well done Church!
This article appeared in VG’s printed and online newspaper under the title Nordmenns merkelige forhold til kirken on the 27.09.2015.