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Commission proposes to loosen ties between church and state in Norway
The Same Church - A New Church Structure

10.09.02

- All Churches and Religious Communities in Norway should be treated equally. - The Norwegian state should have an active policy to support Churches and Religious Communities. - Members of the Church of Norway must take full responsibility for their Church, both financially and with regard to practical leadership.

On March 7 2002, a Church of Norway Commission on Church-State relations presented its report, after four years’ work. The (Lutheran) Church of Norway is one of the few remaining official "state churches" in the world. The report "The Same Church - A New Church Structure" concludes that the strong ties between the Church and the State must be loosened, and a new “order” established for their future relationship.

The King is the constitutional head of the Church of Norway. He exercises his authority through the Government Council of State, or, more precisely, through those representatives of the Council who are baptised Church members. Legislation and finances concerning the Church are passed by the Parliament (Storting).

Article 2 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Norway declares that:
All inhabitants of the Realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion.
The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State. The inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children in the same.

A great majority of the Commission, 16 of 17 members, proposes that the Constitution must be changed to be in accordance with the multicultural and multi-religious Norwegian society. All passages in the Constitution that specifically mention the Church of Norway or the evangelical-lutheran belief should be amended.

Dean Dr. Trond Bakkevig has been the Moderator of the Commission. He emphasises that the report from the Church/State Commission aims at a new government policy on matters of Religion. This new policy should provide freedom of religion for individuals and religious communities, as well as active government support to religious communities on an equal basis.

The majority of the Commission proposes that a membership fee be introduced to finance the Church of Norway. This membership fee should be met by a corresponding reduction in taxes, so that there will be no dramatic increase in expenses for the Church members. Today the Church is financed by public grants allocated by the politicians of the Municipality Councils and the Parliament (Storting).

Approximately 86 percent of the Norwegian population are members of the Church of Norway. In 2000 almost 82 percent of all infants were baptised in the Church of Norway. The 1300 parishes are served by 9.200 elected council members, 1.200 clergy and over 5.000 lay people.

Today the Church of Norway parish councils are elected by all church members. All members have the right to vote, but only 3 percent participate. Only members of the parish councils are electing the 85 representatives to the General Synod. A majority in the Commission supports a change to give all members of the Church of Norway the right to participate directly in all church elections.

Since 1989 parish pastors (who had been appointed by the King (since 1660)) have been appointed by diocesan councils. Bishops and deans are still appointed by those ministers of the Government Council of State who are church members. As a consequence of the reforms proposed by the Commission the right to appoint Bishops and deans will have to be transferred to a church body, composed by the diocesan council and by the General Synod.

The report from the Church/State Commission, appointed by the Church of Norway National Council, may enhance the recent change of attitude among politicians in the Norwegian Parliament (Storting) on the Church/State issue. Observers both within the Church and in the media seem to agree that the strong ties in the Norwegian Church/State relationship will be loosened ten to fifteen years from now. The necessary changes in the Constitution will have to be made by the Parliament in the course of two mandatory periods.

During the spring and summer of 2002 all parish councils in the Church of Norway are invited to express their opinion on the issue of the new Church/State relations. The report "The Same Church - A New Church Structure" has been distributed in 9000 copies and a comprehensive public debate is currently taking place. September 2, 2002 is the deadline of the public hearing.

In November 2002 the Church of Norway General Synod will discuss the proposals from the Church/State Commission after a thorough review of the comments from the parish councils. After this year’s session of the General Synod, it is expected that the Norwegian Government will appoint a governmental commission to follow up.

More than a Debate on the New Structure
Trond Bakkevigs concern is that the Church/State debate becomes more than a discussion focused on the Church Structure:

- The report of the Commission addresses the issue of defining a church and how should the frame conditions be changed so that the Church can perform its functions better, says Bakkevig.

The need for a revision of the present laws and regulations of the church structure is based on the following recommendation:

- The Church of Norway is partly governed by a state that administrates pluralism, freedom of religion and equality between religious and life stance communities. The State government is responsible for securing the rights and interests of its citizens, while at the same time ensuring the Church of Norway as the official religion. These two tasks may or may not lead to a conflict of interest for the Government.

Membership Fee
The cost of running a church is high. The Commission points out that at present a percentage of the taxes goes towards financing the Church. The Commission feels that it must be stressed that the church members are the main source of income for the Church of Norway. A majority of the Commission is in favour of a membership fee imposed on the members of the Church of Norway. It is recommended that the fee be collected over the tax bill, with the assumption that other religious communities will be allowed to do the same, as well as The Norwegian Humanist Association. A minority are in favour of a fee that is to be collected from all tax payers, and will be distributed by the public authorities to the communities based on membership counts. Those who are not members of the above-mentioned groups will pay a fee to a public beneficiary fund.

The Commission proposes that all such communities receive a defined financial contribution from the State, based on the membership counts. In addition, they will receive allocations to buildings for public worship and religious education.

Employment – the Responsibility of the Employer
The Commission emphasises the need for a co-ordinated administration of both financial and personnel resources. The Commission members are of different opinions when it comes to where the responsibility for employment of church positions at the local level should be placed. Some members feel that the employment authority should be placed on the diocesan level for all local church positions, whereas others feel that this authority should be placed on the local level, the parish level.

Need for a Clarification of the Division of Responsibility
The Commission is of the opinion that there are considerable problems related to the present division of employer responsibility in the local church:

- There are several sources of conflict in this system. Some of these conflicts may have worsened as a result of the Church Law of 1996 that gave the joint parish councils independent employer responsibility. The joint parishes act as administrative bodies financed by the municipalities. This arrangement makes equalisation and strategic work across the geographic boundaries of the joint parish councils impossible.

The Commission suggests several areas of revision if the Church’s relationship to the State alters. Present public assignments and authorities must be transferred to the church bodies. The General Synod should have an overall responsibility for the Church structures. The Commission emphasises the need for the diocesan councils to act as strategic and co-ordinating bodies in the new Church structure.

The Municipal Responsibility for grave yards
In the Church/State Commission’s opinion the grave yards should be a municipal responsibility, whereas the burial ceremonies are the responsibility of the religious and life stance communities.

The Government’s Religious Politics
A new structure for the relationship between the Church of Norway and the State will serve several purposes: The State shall ensure its responsibility for the religious politics by ensuring freedom of religion and facilitating for all religious and life stance communities including the Church of Norway. In addition the Church of Norway shall continue to be an open folk church, in which the members are to assume responsibility for their own church.

The State and the Church of Norway share a long and common history, however, the Church has gradually acquired more independence and responsibility for its own activities. The current situation in the society is different from the situation when the constitutional laws of the Church were outlined. The state church system has been important for the positive engagement of the State and has over time opened up for the principle of freedom of religion. However, the church structure was based on the precondition that Norway was one nation with one public religion. In a multireligious and multicultural communion one must find other structures for the religious politics where the public authorities still assume an active political, economic and judiciary responsibility.

Important Public Hearing presently going on
Director General Mr. Erling J. Pettersen in the Church of Norway National Council which appointed the Church/State Commission, says that it is important that the parishes, in their role as basic units of our Church, are allowed to express their opinion and give direction to the continued work. The discussions at this year’s General Synod taking place on November 4 – 9 will be based on the feedback from the relevant bodies entitled to comment the recommendation, the responses to the main conclusion of the recommendation will have to be taken into consideration in the continuation of the work. The topic will have to be treated further in State commissions as well as Church commissions.

The letter accompanying the recommendation states that ”at this time of the process it is particularly the main lines of policy in the relationship between the Church and the State that are on the agenda. If a new order is arranged for, more specific questions regarding the changes in the Church Order will have to be addressed at a later stage no matter what happens”. And further: “The Church of Norway National Council is of the opinion that it is too early to ask the relevant bodies of the public hearing entitled to comment the recommendation, to make a decision on all the questions treated in the recommendation related to how to organise the Church in the future”.

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