The National Church in Iceland

Little over a month ago I was asked to write a short overview of the National Church in Iceland and the theological landscape in “a historical light”. Well, this is it.

The National Church in Iceland, or The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iceland, was a State Church until (at least) 1997. Today it can be argued that it still shows strong signs of a state run religious entity. Salaries for priests are paid by the government as a part of an agreement between the church and state, which involves a complicated land swap deal from 1907. According to a recent supreme court ruling in Iceland, priest are considered government workers with all rights and obligations of such employees.

There is not a tradition of tithing or offering in the National Church. The government allocates money through the tax system to all religious groups, based on number of registered members.

A short history of Christianity in Iceland starts with a decision by the Icelandic Parliament (Alþingi) in the year 1000 to become a Christian Community/Nation. A decision that contained a clause allowing people to practice heathenism in private. During the reformation in Europe, the King of Denmark (and at the time king of Iceland), published a law, forcing churches in Iceland to become Lutheran. The Roman Catholic Bishop in the northern part of Iceland protested but was beheaded along with his sons. Due to vacancy in the Cathedral in the southern part, no heads were cut off to take control of that Synod.

The reformation in Iceland did not involve parishoners as perhaps somewhere else, and today Lutheran pastors in Iceland are still refered to as priests (prestur), leading some less relevant church history buffs (me included) to claim that the reformation in Iceland was never about theological differences or understanding of grace. It was almost solely about ownership of land and property. There to say, the former monesteries and some church land became the property of the Danish king as he wisely took a stand with Luther’s understanding of grace by faith alone.

In the 19th century theological focus in the Icelandic Church was at least partly unitarian* in nature, but pietistic movements in Scandinavia and/or fundamental movements from the US did not get a foothold in the country. It is worth mentioning that Icelandic migrants to Canada, who had belonged to the Lutheran State Church, were instrumental in forming Unitarian congregations in Manitoba. This unitarian emphasis can also be seen in the Icelandic National Anthem, written by a popular Lutheran priest.

Religious freedom came with a Constitution in 1874, written by the Danish king, creating an opportunity for mormons to recruit people to Utah. In the beginning of the 20th century a small pentacostal group formed, and in 1930’s the Scandinavian Pietistic Movement (inner mission) made a landfall and situated itself as a theological reformation movement inside the National Church. The Pietistic movement in Iceland had a strong understanding of personal salvation and behavior, it formed a foreign mission society, but ignored most religious aspects of social justice.

Since the 2nd World War more theological streams have arrived in Iceland. The liturgical movement gained a momentum for a while (and has still some). The charismatic movement broke out from the pietistic movement and the Women’s Church which formed (perhaps strangely) from the pietistic movement, evolved into a movement with a strong focus on social justice.

Having described this theological diversity, it is probably accurate to say that the prevailing theological understanding in Iceland is still of a distant creator god, Bette Middler’s god, who watches from a distance. It is the unitarian god of the 19th and the early 20th century, the God on the dollar bill. An aspect of this image of God, is a very positive understanding of human nature and an attempt to reject any theological notion of suffering, sin, hell or the evil.

The church in Iceland has historically been seen as a symbol of unity, along with the language, genealogy (we are all descendants of the last Roman Catholic Bishop in Iceland), the flag, the National Radio, the Icelandic Sagas, and the nature, along with unclear ideology concerning our independence. The church, along with our understanding of god watching from a distance, have in this context played a crucial role in our civil religion and our understanding of what is is to be Icelandic.

Until very recently this meant that all children were baptized. We all went through confirmation. Marriages took place in church and priests presided at funerals. Even though people did not attend worship services regularily (or ever), they understood themself to be part of the church.

The church operates formally in parishes. Church members are supposed to belong to the congregation in your neighborhood. This works almost solely for confirmants that go to confirmation with their school mates. However, it is meaningless for most people who are regularly in the pews (they go to listen to a priest they like), and people don’t necessarily go to their parish priest for marriage, baptisms, or funerals.

An impolite student from Wartburg Seminary a Lutheran Seminary in Iowa, USA, asked when this was explained to him: “Is [picking a priest] like picking a clown for a birthday party?” In short the answer would be yes, and yes, some of the priests are also quite scary and can leave kids traumatized.

In line with this it is worth mentioning that infant baptisms traditionally take place in the comfort of the child’s own home with only the priest and close relatives in the attendence.

Roles of priests in Iceland are twofold. They are officials of the government officiating at life events as representatives of the civil religion. They are also simultaneously Lutheran pastors often with a very small congregation that might or might not belong to their parish.

Finally, the elephant in the room.

In 1997, over 90% of the population in Iceland belonged to the National Church. Today around 73% are registered members. This change has taken place mostly in the Reykjavik area. On the country side the church is still operating as the keeper of all Icelandic.

In some suburbs of Reykjavik less then 50% of males belong to the National Church and the downward trend does not seem to be slowing down. Everyone in the National Church has their favorite explaination for this trend, and some of them might be valid (others are not).

This trend has changed the financial status of the National Church drastically, and not only due to fewer members and therefore less money through the tax system. The government has also been lowering the amount they pay to religious groups per member, believing that religious groups and the church especially have lost their standing and are not able to fight back.

This means that all called staff, employees and volunteers in the church are working for a church which is in a downward spiral. As they are trying to find ways to make the Good News of Ressurection and New Beginnings relevant in their current context, they have different ideas, not only of the meaning of the Good News, but of the validity and future of the structure that they belong to. Some of them might believe in the parish model, other might have given up on it. Some of them are working on the country side, might still operate effectively in Constantine’s Emperical Church and seem almost oblivious to the situation the church is in, while others might be struggling to understand why the local public school is not willing to allow them to come into class rooms with announcements about the youth ministry.

Above is a rumbling overview by one theologian that doesn’t even life in Iceland anymore. I think I am honest in my assessment but acknowledge that not all in the church or even outside the church might agree with me on all/any points.

* When talking about unitarian beliefs I am not refering to the current openness of  UUA to everything and anything, but to a 19th and early 20th century notion of a distant creator God, losely based on the Abrahamic faiths.

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