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Church Should be A Place to come to during Life's Greatest Events

03.11.02

- "I want people to feel that the church is present in their daily lives and that the local church is their church," says Laila Riksaasen Dahl, Norway's second Lutheran woman bishop.

The first female to head Church of Norway's Tunsberg Diocese, Dahl wants "people to feel that the church is a natural place to come to during life's greatest events," - those that help people to interpret their lives, she told Lutheran World Information (LWI) in an interview.

On 9 February 2003, Dahl, 55, will be consecrated as bishop of Tunsberg, covering the southeastern counties of Vestfold and Buskerud. The Church of Norway has eleven dioceses each headed by a bishop. In 1993 Rosemarie Kohn became the first woman bishop in the church.

Having two women in the bishops' collegium will represent a broader scale of viewpoints, according to Dahl. More people will understand that to be a woman pastor does not necessarily mean taking a radical theological position. "Many of our pastors ministers will have a church leader to identify with. In my own ministry I often have been missing a woman leader who could act as a model for me," says the bishop-elect, appointed to this position on September 20.

Today, about 15 percent of Church of Norway's pastors are women, but more than half of the theological students are female. Women make up 40 percent of the Church of Norway National Council, the General Synod's executive body.

Dahl has served as a parish priest since 1995. She has university degrees in mathematics and chemistry, and taught in upper secondary school before joining the Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology as a catechist and lecturer. During the last 15 years she has served on a number of national church committees and councils.

On the current debate on a possible separation between the church and state in Norway, Dahl is in favor of separation, but sees no need to rush. The king is the constitutional head of the church, exercising this authority through the state council. Legislation concerning the church goes through the Storting, Norway's parliament.

"It is for the good of the church if it takes a leading role in this debate. It is important to keep a broad national church when the ties to the state are loosened. We have a historical and cultural situation in Norway that makes it natural to have a close relation between church and state also in the future. But it will be seen as more and more unreasonable if one denomination or one religion should continue to have a privileged position in a multi-cultural society," she argues.

The newly appointed bishop is concerned about the decreasing number of church goers. According to Church of Norway statistics, the average church attendance is about 100 persons per service, corresponding to three per cent of the population. One of the church's main concerns is to encourage all believers to regard the weekly Sunday service as the center of their devotional life. To this end the church has initiated and supported changes such as revision and experimentation in the liturgy, the composition of new church music, new Bible translations and hymnals.

"Every congregation needs to have a core of people," Dahl says. And she feels that this central part is threatened in many places. But, she notes, "There is a lot of hidden belief among people that does not relate to the fellowship in a congregation. I would like to help people to focus more on this belief, and dare to bring it out in the open." Around 82 per cent of infants are baptized in the church and 70 per cent of the young people are confirmed. The majority of weddings take place in church, and the great majority of funerals are church funerals.

"When I talk to parents before their children's baptism or to family members before a funeral, I meet a lot of such hidden faith. I want to facilitate encounters with Christ so that people may find a living hope in their lives. God sent people who led me to my Savior. I want to be such a person to others," Dahl stresses.

Dahl succeeds Bishop Sigurd Osberg, who retires on December 1, after twelve years as head of Tunsberg.

The Church of Norway has 3.8 million members, representing around 86 percent of the Norwegian population. It has been a member church of the Lutheran World Federation since 1947.


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