States and Churches in Northern Europe: Achieving Freedom and Equality through Establishment

Chapter 12
States and Churches in Northern Europe: Achieving Freedom and Equality through Establishment

Marco Ventura

Northern Europe is usually perceived as a contented region in terms of church and state relationships. In particular, Nordic countries and the United Kingdom are social, political and legal systems widely acknowledged as the most developed in the world in protecting the religious freedom of individuals and groups alike. The US Department of State Annual Report on Religious Freedom in the world regularly classifies the area as one of the most respectful of freedom of faith and belief. Where they still exist, as in England and Denmark, established churches are not an obstacle to the widespread recognition of the rights and equality of religious minorities. On the contrary, mainstream churches play a fundamental role in facilitating public policies aimed at social integration and cohesion. Individual and collective rights concerning the practice of religion are well recognized; and co-operation between faith communities and state agencies is successful and productive (see for example the document of the UK Home Office Faith Communities Unit, Working Together: Cooperation between Government and Faith Communities, February 2004).

As widely experienced in Southern Europe, the presence of strong mainstream churches supported by states resulted in societies profoundly hostile to religious freedom as well as in legal frameworks which heavily restrict rights and freedoms in the field of religion. The striking feature of Northern Europe is precisely the coexistence of two apparently contradictory elements: a wide experience in the area of the establishment of national churches on one hand and a high degree of protection of religious freedom, religious minorities, neutrality and equality on the other. The main question is thus: how and why was it possible in Northern Europe to combine the two dimensions of establishment and freedom which in other parts of the world happened to contradict each other?

The two chapters by Mark Hill and Lisbet Christoffersen offer the key to answering the question (Chapters 13 and 14). I will leave aside the many interesting aspects specific to this or that national case and will rather sketch the basic steps which led to such an extraordinary laboratory of the fruitful combination of establishment and freedom. Of course the whole picture of church and state in the relevant countries is far from idyllic as far as past and present divisions and conflicts are concerned. Just think of the dramatic issues arising from British rule in Ireland and in the colonies. This is why both chapters deal with the most heated challenges of the past and of the present alike. I will refer to this in my last paragraph.

The Superiority of the King over Religion

The starting point for both Hill’s and Christoffersen’s overviews is the emergence in Northern Europe of independent kingdoms based on the primacy of the king as sole lawmaker. The association of one specific religion, namely Christianity, with the land was not meant to weaken or limit the power of the king. On the contrary, religion was associated with the kingdom as a means of strengthening the latter. As Christoffersen makes clear by referring to the decision of the Althing in Iceland at the dawn of the second millennium to embrace Christianity as the official religion of the land, one common official religion was needed in order to achieve an effective ‘common legal understanding and ruling of the society’. Yet, the land and not religion was to prevail. Again with Christoffersen, ‘men decide over the law and therefore they decide the religion, not the opposite way round’.

Reformation and the Ousting of Papal Sovereignty