On Monday, May 21, an overwhelming majority of the members of the Norwegian Parliament decided to separate the Lutheran Church from the state. During another voting session on Thursday, the earlier decision of the chamber was reaffirmed. This is certainly one of the more important developments in the last few decades in Norway, and it poses serious questions about the future of this country.
In accordance with the recent amendments to its Constitution, Norway adopted a constitutional rule that separates church and state. The groundwork was laid in 2008, when all of the political parties signed an agreement with the Church. This agreement marked the beginning of reforms within the Church that were eventually supposed to lead to its complete separation from the state. The amendments passed in May led to eliminating the official religion in Norway, losing parliamentary control over the Church, and abolishing the rule established during the Reformation that considered the king to be the head of the Church.
After gaining independence in 1814, the Norwegians recognized Lutheranism as their official religion which was reflected in the Constitution that still binds them today. Among other things, it regulates the role of a monarch within the institutional structure of the Church along with his responsibilities that, until recently, came down to being the head of this institution and managing all of the public holidays and religious practices as well as defending and supporting religion within the state. For the Norwegian Church, the parliament, which had to be at least half-Lutheran, was equally important as it appointed bishops and clergy and its legislation, including the budget, was binding for the Church authorities. Conforming to last week’s amendments, all these functions performed by the public officers were transferred to the Church authorities. It was stated, however, that the most important national values are still going to be based on the Christian legacy. The state control is not going to involve the Church of Norway anymore. However, some issues will not be subject to change for the time being. Church holidays will be work-free, clergy will still be hired and paid by the state, and the church tax, which is virtually a form of gratuity for participating in the life of Church, will remain intact.
In this case, ideological change is as important as the institutional one. That is, one official religion indicated by law was replaced by the rule of equality of all religions and philosophical beliefs of the Norwegian nation. Once the amendments are enacted into law on June 15, the Norwegian government will be obliged to equally support all of their citizens’ beliefs and the Lutheran Church will become a completely independent institution.
There are a few possible reasons why the Norwegian authorities took such a radical step. Although Lutheran values, such as the common good, equality, and modesty are deeply rooted in the daily lives of Norwegians and the majority of Scandinavians, the secularization process reached these countries as well. In the last seven years, the number of registered followers of the Norwegian Church decreased by 0.2%, which in absolute numbers equals more than hundred thousand citizens. According to the survey carried out by the Gallup Institute, only 20% of Norwegian citizens declare that religion plays an important role in their lives. Considering the data above, it seems that both public and Church authorities responded to the signals from the society, acknowledging at the same time that the Church and its structure require significant reforms. By respecting the equality of other religions, Norwegians appear to be manifesting their tolerance and openness which stand in contrast to developments taking place behind closed doors in Oslo, where the authorities are prosecuting a madman who almost tarnished the image of liberal and citizen-friendly Norway. They want to stress the fact that, regardless of his background, the Norwegian citizen and his religion are equally respected in Norway and that the terrorist attacks in Oslo and on the island of Utoya were tragedies which happened only once and will never happen again.
The majority of Norwegian society, which is considered to be peaceful and understanding, accepts the amendments concerning the separation of church and state. Only a small part of it decided to protest, arguing that Norwegians will partially lose access to the values represented by the Church. However, these values have undoubtedly become such a crucial element of Norwegian culture that we can be certain they will be carefully preserved in the Norwegian public space for as long as the Norwegians deem them necessary. The crisis of faith in Europe makes the new challenges for the modern institutional Churches even more serious and the recent developments in Norway only prove this statement true.
Translation: Paweł Szczepkowski