Not Even Believing in Belonging: States and Churches in Five North-European (Post-) Lutheran Countries

Chapter 13
Not Even Believing in Belonging: States and Churches in Five North-European (Post-) Lutheran Countries1

Lisbet Christoffersen


Grace Davie, with her concepts of ‘believing without belonging’ and ‘vicarious religion’,2 came to the analytical centre of understanding how religion functions in the Nordic countries. Scandinavians belong to the State Churches without even believing in belonging, since faith is only partly the function of the Churches, alongside ensuring arrangements for the central institutions of life, the family, national heritage and nation-building.3

After an introduction to the region, my discussion of State–Church, and religion–law, relations in this context will present the key features of traditional understanding of State–Church relations, based on the deep historical intertwinement of State, law and (Lutheran) Christianity. Secondly, I will give an overview of the present situation, together with changes within the last decades (just after the Second World War; the impact of 1968 and changes after 2001 – of which we have not yet seen the last). Thirdly will follow a reflection on to what extent globalization and European integration are likely to affect the development of Church and State relations in the future, the question being to what extent the Nordic countries are European, mirrored through the lenses of Church–State relations.

The Nordic Countries

The Nordic countries fall in three groups based on geographical and historical distinctions stemming not least from differences through the Reformation. Sweden and Finland are thus East-Nordic countries; Denmark and Norway West-Nordic. Iceland is partly West-Nordic and partly North-Atlantic together with Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Sweden has at all times in its history been a monarchy, in some periods also ruling over parts of the Baltic countries, Northern Germany etc. It has nine million inhabitants, of which 75 per cent are members of the Church of Sweden (Lutheran since 1536), 10–15 per cent are members of other Christian communities, Jewish and Muslim groups, whereas also a notable group of 10–15 per cent are without religious affiliation. Sweden became a member of the EU in 1995. Finland was part of Sweden until 1809, then as a result of the Napoleonic wars became an area under Russian rule, gaining independence as a republic in 1917. Finland has 4.5 million inhabitants, of which more than 80 per cent are members of the Finnish Lutheran Church; 2–3 per cent members of the Finnish Orthodox Church (also understood as a State Church), 5–10 per cent members of other Christian Churches/ communities and again 5–10 per cent without religious affiliation. Finland also became a member of the EU in 1995.

The Danish monarchy also has very deep historical roots, in some periods ruling over parts of England, Northern Germany, Norway and Iceland. The constitution still also covers Greenland and the Faroe Islands (see p. 189). Denmark has 5.5 million inhabitants, 82 per cent are members of the Danish Peoples Church (officially translated as ‘the established Church’), 3–4 per cent are Muslims and another 3–4 per cent are members of other Christian and Jewish communities (including the Catholic Church) with about 10 per cent without religious affiliation. Denmark has been a member of NATO since the establishment of the organization and a member of the EU since 1972 (together with the UK).

Norway is a monarchy and was part of the Danish monarchy from late medieval times until 1814. From 1814 to 1905 Norway had a Personal Union with the Swedish monarchy and only in 1905 was the Kingdom of Norway re-established. There are 4.5 million inhabitants of whom 85 per cent are members of the Norwegian Church (Lutheran since the Reformation) and a very remarkable group are members of the Humanist Association, regarded as a belief-community on equal footing with the religious communities. Norway also has small Catholic, Jewish and Muslim populations as well as members of smaller Christian groups outside the Church of Norway. Norway is a member of NATO and associated with (not a member of) the EU, though implementing many of its regulations.

The three North-Atlantic countries/regions are either former or more or less still parts of Denmark. Iceland got its own constitution in 1874 and independence in 1944, protected by American bases until 2008. Iceland is not a member of NATO or the EU, but has applied for membership of the EU in 2010. In Iceland, 92 per cent of the population are members of the Icelandic Church (Lutheran since the Reformation), and there are notable free Churches and a Catholic presence. Greenland is the largest island in the world, a part of Denmark in medieval times and again since the seventeenth century, but under home rule in the last part of the twentieth century and from 2009 regarded as a people in relation to the United Nations, though still under the Danish constitution and in some sort of arrangements with Denmark. There are 45,000 inhabitants of which 90 per cent are members of the Church of Greenland, a part of the Danish national Church until 2010. Greenland is not a member of the EU or NATO, but has until recently been protected by the Thule Base arrangements. The Faroe Islands is a home-ruling community under the Danish constitution with 30,000 inhabitants of which 90 per cent are members of the Faroe Islands Church, still a part of the Danish national Church. There are notable groups of Presbyterians and a Catholic presence. The Faroe Islands is not a member of the EU.

Five small countries and two regions/nations with around 25 million people, with a common but almost forgotten history of war between them about dominion over the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic, as well as a common and also almost forgotten history of being the same nations within respectively the East-Nordic and the West-Nordic areas. Now more like sisters and brothers grown up in the same family, but all of them wishing to show the world precisely how independent she or he is of the elder or younger kin. One characteristic shows that these countries have a common family history which features the question of State–Church relations in the Nordic countries. That is the character of the relations they all (still) have between the national leadership and the national Church.

The context is the Baltic Sea with post-communist and post-atheistic Orthodox Russia; post-modern secular Baltic states; 98 per cent Catholic Poland; post-Lutheran, secularized north-Germany with down to 7 per cent membership of the Protestant Landeskirchen; Presbyterian Scottish national Church with around 25 per cent membership; and the UK establishment of a minority Anglican Church from which the idea of a Porvoo declaration arose as the basis of a closer collaboration. Thus the Baltic Sea Human Rights Commissioner in the 1990s, with his formulation of new criteria for post-atheist, pluralist, human-rights based constitutional frameworks for religious neutral States as well as for majority and minority Churches, broke with a traditional line: that of the State Churches.

Deep Historical Intertwinement: Nordic Nation-State-Building, Nordic Legal Traditions and Nordic State-Churches

Christianity as a missionary movement reached the region in the middle of the first millennium from West and East mingling with Viking traditions into some sort of independent equality (some say still visible among the peoples) and religious pluralism (still visible in the landscape). Top-down institutional Christianity came later from Central Europe, but the early second millennium conflicts between bishops and kings, extended to matters where parallel legal systems were acceptable, were never really settled in favour of the Churches, more often in favour of the kings. The decision of the Althing in Iceland in the year 1000 for Christianity to become the official religion of the land is symbolic for the whole area, not least for the argument that it is necessary for a country to have one common official religion on which to establish both a common legal understanding and the government of society. Here men first decide about the law and thus decide on the religion, not the other way round.

Christianity thus became a central part of nation-building in these countries. Kings with the ambition of ruling countries through the law became Christian and used the ability to read and write (learned from the missionaries and priests) in their nation-building. This history is common to all the Nordic countries. It is visible in the Cathedral of Uppsala where the first law school was established on seats in the upper left side, long before the first Nordic universities were established in the late fifteenth century. It is told as a story about Saint Michola, who gave the Finnish people the written language and thereby the ability to make laws for the future; it is the story about the influence of the monasteries, among others, on the ability to read and write – an ability used in the Nordic nation through making written law.

Also in the Nordic countries there is not much doubt about who made the law. Among the Germans north of the Rhine, the lawmaker was the king. He learned from a combination of the Christian Church and Roman structures how to use text in order to strengthen the framework of his kingdom. But he never gave up the power to rule this legal structure himself, neither to the bishops and the legal structure within the Church (Canon law) nor to the emperors who based their power on Roman law.

The Lutheran Reformation had a huge influence in the Nordic countries. It had four different dimensions: external break with the international Church structure and Canon law; internal change of theological understanding; a change in the understanding of law, from religious natural law concepts to the law as secular (the King’s sword); and internal change in the structure of the newly-established Lutheran national Churches. The Nordic countries went through a more or less common Reformation regarding the first three dimensions, whereas the fourth dimension, regarding internal post-Reformation Church structure differed in the East-Nordic versus the West-Nordic countries due to concrete historical factors.

In Sweden (and thereby also in Finland), the existing Church upheld an independent internal hierarchical structure within the national Church system, also in the centuries to come. When the Swedish people reached the Enlightenment, democracy, freedom of religion and a normative pluralism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Church of Sweden thus already had an internal structure distinctly different from the State apparatus (with a synod established in 1865) and there was an understanding of the Church of Sweden as a structure of its own. The same goes for the Finnish Lutheran Church, whose independent internal structure was established over the years as a minority Church in the Orthodox Tsarist regime, with a synod established in 1869.

In the West-Nordic countries the Reformation led not only to the change in the normative understanding of law as secular and to a break with the external jurisdiction of the Pope and the Church, transferring expected loyalty from the Pope to the king, but also to a change of theology. Moreover the Reformation in the Danish-Norwegian-Icelandic kingdom also brought about a change of internal