A Thousand Years of Christianity
The Church of Norway has represented the main, almost the only, expression of religious belief in Norway for a thousand years. It has belonged to the Evangelical Lutheran branch of the Christian church since the 16th century, and has been a state church since then. Around 86 per cent of the population are baptised members.
- Six hundred years of Roman Catholic faith (900-1537)
- Lutheran Reformation
- Changing relations between Church and State
- Reformation and State Church
- Democratisation and Church reform (1850 -)
SIX HUNDRED YEARS OF ROMAN CATHOLIC FAITH (900-1537)
Christianity started coming to Norway in the 9th century AD, from two directions: from the British Isles to western Norway and from Germany and Friesland over Denmark to eastern Norway. The missionaries were monks, Vikings who had been converted to Christianity abroad, and bishops accompanying their kings.
King Olav Haraldsson, who fell in the Battle of Stiklestad (near Nidaros, now Trondheim) in 1030, was central in bringing Christianity to Norway. Rather than his harsh methods of conversion, his death came to be seen as decisive in turning Norsemen away from their old beliefs.
Supernatural events surrounding Olav's death and burial soon led to his being declared a saint, and throughout the Middle Ages St. Olav's shrine on the high altar of Nidaros Cathedral was an important goal for pilgrims from all over Northern Europe.
In 1103 the first archbishopric for Scandinavia was established in Lund in southern Sweden. In 1153 the archbishopric of Nidaros was established by Cardinal Nicholas Brakespeare, not long before his election as Pope Adrian IV.
By the end of the 12th century the Christian church was firmly established in Norway, as in the other Nordic countries. The Archbishopric of Nidaros included present-day Norway, parts of present-day Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, Orkney, the Faroes, the Shetland Islands, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man.
St. Olav's life and death are commemorated in Trondheim and at Stiklestad on 29 July (Olav's Day) each year. His body is believed to rest somewhere under the floor of Nidaros Cathedral, which has been Lutheran since 1537.
FIVE HUNDRED YEARS OF EVANGELICAL-LUTHERAN FAITH (1537-)
The Reformation came to Norway mainly as a result of the conversion of King Christian III of Denmark-Norway, following the example of many of the North German princes. In 1537 he established the Evangelical-Lutheran faith as the official religion of Norway and Denmark.
The ideas of the Renaissance and Reformation had at this time only reached a very small segment of Norwegian society. The Lutheran Reformation had been initiated some decades earlier by Martin Luther, the German reformer.
The King's decision was based on political as well as personal grounds. A central political reason was his need to reinforce the already existing union between Denmark and Norway.
The Archbishop of Nidaros at the time, Olav Engelbrektsson, who had become a spokesman for national independence, fled the country in April 1537. His flight marked a turning point in Norwegian church history, and reinforced Norway's political dependence on Denmark.
Of the three other Norwegian bishops at the time two were imprisoned, while one chose to become Lutheran superintendent (later, the office reverted to bishop). The majority of priests gradually conformed to the new situation, performing their pastoral duties according to the new ritual and doctrine.
Monasteries and convents were dissolved. Apart from cases of violence, when individuals refused to abandon their religious customs, the transition was peaceful.
A central part of the new confession was a simpler liturgy, more concentration on the preaching of the Christian message in the vernacular, in this case to a large degree Danish, and the singing of hymns. Religious symbols, ways of thinking and customs of Roman Catholic origin were forbidden.
By 1600 Lutheranism was formally established, and had taken over the church structure of the whole country. In the course of the 17th century the change was carried out at the popular level. However, in some areas people continued to express their belief in more or less Roman Catholic terms until the 19th century.
From the early 18th century Pietism, the individually oriented Lutheran revival movement which emerged in Germany around 1670, made profound changes in Norwegian church life. The movement reached the country in the 1730"s, faded around 1750 and gained a more permanent foothold through the Pietist-inspired
Evangelical revival movements of the 19th century.
During Pietism's first spell in Norway the Lutheran confirmation was introduced (1736), Bishop Erik Pontoppidan's explanations to the Christian faith was published (1737) and the state school system was established (1739). They were all central instruments of Christian education.
As in other parts of Northern Europe, Pietism developed parallel to the general secularisation of society, caused by the ideas of the Enlightenment and democratisation.
One of the main initiators of the second phase of Norwegian Pietism was Hans Nielsen Hauge, a late 18th- century farmer's son who claimed that everyone had the right to preach the Gospel. According to current Norwegian law, this was restricted to ordained Church of Norway clergy, who were also civil servants.
Nineteenth-century Pietism thus combined opposition to the clergy, who were considered to be too lukewarm in their attitude, with democratic protest against the ruling class, which included the clergy.
Out of Hauge's efforts grew the present pattern of autonomous Church organisations for domestic and foreign mission. Since the 1850"s they have represented a strong challenge towards personal commitment to faith and service, in church and society.
The northern, partly Sami, areas of the country, were strongly influenced by the revivalist teaching of the Swedish pastor Lars L. Læstadius. Although more ascetic, this branch of Pietism has largely remained less anti-clerical than its southern counterpart.
CHANGING RELATIONS BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE
FROM THE INTRODUCTION OF CHRISTIANITY TO THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES (900-1537 AD)
Christianity reached Norwegian shores as local kings and nobles were struggling to unite the numerous petty kingdoms into a single state. The new faith gradually began to play an essential role in this process, and the death of King Olav Haraldsson in 1030 marked a decisive step in the growth of both Christianity and Norwegian national identity.
Kings and nobles of the 10th and 11th centuries had brought home Christian beliefs, habits and also priests from their voyages abroad. The link from pre-Christian times between spiritual and secular power was thus maintained.
This close relationship between two independent entities continued through the Middle Ages, but the balance of power was not always the same. At times the Church was above the state, at others the King held the greater power. But the Church in Norway never wavered in its allegiance to a central power beyond the changing national boundaries; the Church of Rome.
The internal structure of the Church extended from the priest in his parish to the bishop, the archbishop and the pope in Rome, but the relative influence of the groups within this structure was often affected by geographical, political and theological factors. Laymen had no formal influence.
As economic decline and pestilence, notably the Black Death, seriously weakened the state in the 14th century (gradually leading to Danish rule around 1400), the archbishops who wanted to retain a national church under the authority of Rome came to be regarded as the guardians of Norwegian national and cultural identity as well.
The introduction of Lutheranism in Denmark-Norway in 1537 severed church relations with Rome, placed the Church in Norway under the authority of the Danish King, and reinforced Denmark's political control over Norway.
REFORMATION AND STATE CHURCH (1537-1850)
By assuming leadership of the Church, King Christian III of Denmark-Norway laid the foundations in 1537 for the state church system that still prevails in Norway (and Denmark). The introduction of absolute monarchy, in 1660, completed the transfer of church authority to the state.
Although the King's absolute power gradually weakened, for the next 200 years Norwegian church affairs were administered by government bodies - central, regional and local - which were at the same time church offices. Bishops, deans and pastors were civil servants, appointed by the King.
Laymen - the King, his advisors and his representatives - thus took over some of the roles that had been played by church officials from priest to pope. Laymen in general, however, had little influence on church matters.
The Constitution of 1814, which marked the country's brief independence in the changeover from Danish to Swedish rule, states that the Evangelical-Lutheran faith shall be the religion of the Kingdom of Norway. During the next hundred years of Swedish-Norwegian union the life and structures of the newly independent church in Norway were not influenced by the Swedish (Lutheran) church.
Instead, following the rupture with the church authorities in the Danish-Norwegian capital of Copenhagen, a state office for church administration was established in Norway's new capital of Christiania (now Oslo), the Royal Ministry of Church and Education. The importance of the bishop of Christiania grew.
The 1814 Constitution embodied the principal democratic ideals, and initiated a process of church reform.
Democratisation and Church reform (1850-)
In the first decades after 1814 the principal church issues were lay preaching and freedom of religious expression. Around 1850 the focus shifted to the need for structural changes within the Church itself.
Seeing little hope of sufficient church reforms, certain groups decided to leave the state church. The majority, however, were encouraged when the Storting (parliament) supported a proposal to establish a certain degree of parish democracy. Parish synods, with limited influence, were introduced in 1873.
This development initiated a movement in favour of greater democracy within the formal structures of the Church. Unofficial diocesan synods were formed, and sent representatives to biennial national assemblies from 1873 to 1982.
Thus there were two movements for church reform: a slow official one and a more impatient unofficial one, but there were many links between the two.
The major church reform of the 20th century has been the legal establishment of parish councils (1920), diocesan councils (1933), the National Council (1969), diocesan synods (1984) and the General Synod (1984).
In 1981 the Storting voted to retain the state church, with the King as its constitutional head, while granting it more autonomy.
The Bishops' Conference, which had been an official body since 1934, also received legal status in 1984. The then existing Council on Foreign Relations, established by the bishops in 1971, was linked to the General Synod at this time. A Church of Norway doctrinal commission was established in 1987.
Since 1989 parish pastors, who had been appointed by the King since 1660, have once again been appointed by church bodies: the diocesan councils.
The thousand-year-old relationship between church and state has now, at the end of the 20th century, achieved a certain pragmatism.
The prevailing attitude is that the ties between church and people are strong, that the state church will continue as the formal framework of church life for the foreseeable future, and that the Church should be given a considerable degree of autonomy within this system.
The King is the constitutional head of the Church of Norway. He exercises this authority through the Council of State, or, more precisely, through those of the council who are baptised Church members.
The Church is thus formally governed not by a secular state, but by a head of state who is committed to the Evangelical-Lutheran faith, and by his equally committed government ministers.
Legislation concerning the Church has to go through the Storting. The Storting is not confessionally committed, even though the great majority of representatives are members of the Church of Norway.
While Sweden and Finland have retained the office of archbishop (primate) (although they now interpret it in Lutheran terms), no such office has existed in Norway since 1537.
The Bishop of Oslo was elected every year as moderator (praeces) of the Bishops' Conference, from its inception at the beginning of the 20th century until 1998. In 1998 the moderator started to be elected among the other Bishops for four-year periods. The role of praeces can best be described as first among equals.
Central functions are carried out by the Royal Ministry of Government Administration, Reform and Church Affairs, the Church of Norway General Synod, the National Council, the Council on Ecumenical and International Relations and the Bishops' Conference.
The financial responsibility for salaries and the maintenance of church buildings is shared by state and municipal authorities. Additional parish activity largely depends on offertory money and voluntary activities.
The General Synod has 115 members and consists of the 11 diocesan councils. Three members without voting rights represent the three theological faculties of the country. The General Synod meets once a year.
The main executive of the General Synod is the 15-member National Council, meeting four times a year. The 18-member Council on Ecumenical and International Relations, meeting at least twice a year, is the Synod's executive on ecumenical and international matters. The 8-member Sami Church Council (established 1992) meeting at least twice a year, i the Synod´s executive on matters concerning the Sami people, Norway´s ancient ethnic minority.
The three councils work through a number of expert commissions and through a staff of totally about 60 persons. Their main fields of work are theology, liturgy, diacony, education, ecumenism, social responsibility, international affairs, personnel matters and communication.
Unlike its Swedish and Finnish sister churches, the Church of Norway has elected lay leadership of the councils for domestic and foreign affairs. On major occasions the Church may thus be represented by two elected leaders: the moderator of the Bishops' Conference and the lay moderator of the National Council.
At all levels lay people hold the majority of seats in Church of Norway councils and synods. The overlapping of the roles of clergy and laity is an ongoing process.
There are thus two lines of authority linking together the local, regional and national levels of the Church: the traditional one of ordained clergy (Bishops' Conference/bishops - deans/rural deans - pastors), and the recent synodal one of elected laity and clergy (General Synod/central councils - diocesan synods/councils - parish synods/councils).
In 1993 the Church of Norway Research Foundation was established. The Foundation is a collaboration between educational institutions and the Church of Norway National Council. It will look into the state of affairs in piety among Norwegians and monitor the results of church activities.
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