National Church in Iceland (revision)

Nine years ago, I was asked to write a short overview of the National Church in Iceland and the theological landscape in “a historical light”. The original post can be found at The National Church in Iceland | ( Since then, a lot has changed. So, I decided to revise the text a bit.

The National Church in Iceland, or The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iceland, was a State Church until 1997 or perhaps rather 2021. Until 2021, salaries for pastors were paid directly by the government. It was a part of an agreement between the church and state. The agreement involved a complicated land swap deal from 1907. According to a supreme court ruling in Iceland around 2015, pastors were considered government employees with all rights and obligations of such employees.

In 2021, the parliament introduced laws regarding the National Church, that changed the relationship between the church and the state drastically. The government stopped paying pastor’s salary directly, pays instead a fixed amount of money to the church based on the land swap deal from 1907. This means that pastors are not government employees, and their rights and obligations have changed quite a bit. What is probably more important about the 2021 change is that the structure of the church is not bound in national laws anymore but is voted upon by the newly empowered Church Parliament.

It is still a bit uncertain what these changes in structure will mean for the church in Iceland, and there is a conflict inside the church parliament about the future.

There is not a tradition of tithing or offering in the National Church. In addition to the payment for the land swap deal, the government allocates money through the tax system to all registered religious and humanistic entities, 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. And all of Iceland became Lutheran, without any theological debate or even discussion, the King just said so.

The reformation in Iceland did not involve any input from parishoners , 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 an understanding of grace. It was almost solely about ownership of land and property. There to say, the former monasteries 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 pastor in 19th century.

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. 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 pastors presided at nearly all funerals. Even though people did not attend worship services regularly (or ever), they understood themself to be part of the church, and came to the church for some milestone events.

The church operates formally in parishes. Church members are supposed to belong to the congregation in their neighborhood. This works almost solely for confirmands who go to confirmation with their school mates. However, it is meaningless in the Reykjavik area for those who are regularly in the pews (they go to listen to a pastor they like), and people don’t necessarily go to their parish pastor 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 pastor] like picking a clown for a birthday party?” In short, the answer would be yes, and yes, some of the pastors 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 pastor and close relatives in the attendance.

Role of pastors in Iceland is twofold. They are still seen as 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 in the pews 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 60% are registered members. This change has taken place mostly in the Reykjavik area. On the countryside the church is still operating as the keeper of all Icelandic.

This drastic decline has two large factors, immigration into Iceland was nearly non-existent until this century, but are now nearly 20% of the population. The church has a strong national flavor and has not managed to reach out to new Icelanders. Another change concerns registration practices. Until recently, a newborn was automatically registered into the religious entity of their mother. This automatic registration has stopped. In addition, many people have de-registered from the church, due to a variety of reasons, some good, other less so.

These changes have affected 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 societal 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 in a downward spiral. As they are trying to find ways to make the Good News of Resurrection 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 countryside and might still operate effectively in Constantine’s Imperial Church and 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 classrooms 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 referring to the current openness of UUA to everything and anything, but to a 19th and early 20th century notion of a distant creator God, loosely based on the Abrahamic faiths.

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