Many people within Lutheran churches in Scandinavia are seeking ways to cut all formal ties linking the state with the church.
But, ironically, many of the citizens of these countries, in which Lutheran churches are the biggest denominations, are happy for church-state links to be retained.
"There is growing impatience in ecclesiastical circles, while the general population is more conservative and reserved when it comes to changing the relationship between state and church," Erling Pettersen, head of the national council of the (Lutheran) Church of Norway, told ENI.
A recent opinion poll showed that 40 percent of Norwegians favored cutting all ties between the state and the Lutheran church, a steady increase in recent years. However, 50 percent of the population still want to keep the status quo, and about 10 percent of the public have not made up their minds.
But at the Norwegian church's recent general synod almost all delegates present wanted the church to be independent of the state.
While there is full freedom of religion across Scandinavia, the dominant Lutheran churches in Sweden, Norway and Denmark have long been connected toﾗand hold special status withﾗthe state. Lutheran priests have their salary and pension guaranteed by the state, the head of state is a member of the Lutheran church, and Lutheran bishops are formally appointed by the state after nomination by the church, although in the past this recommendation has not always been respected.
But these traditional relationships are becoming more and more problematic in a society where a growing percentage of Scandinavians are not Lutherans and, in significant numbers, not even Christians.
The Lutheran Church in Norway has set up a committee to study the matter. It has already published several reports and is expected to finalize its work next year when the problem will be brought before the Storting, Norway's parliament. Parties favoring a state-church split hold a majority in the Storting, but the debate is expected to take several years.
In Sweden, all legal ties between the state and the Church of Sweden, the Lutheran majority church, were cut on January 1, 2000. Commentators have since said the change has proved "very undramatic."
"The ordinary churchgoer has hardly noticed the difference, and, theologically, nothing has been changed," Lars Friedner, head of the Church of Sweden's legal department, told ENI. Friedner was secretary for the joint state-church committee which studied the relationship. In the 1990s, Friedner played a key role in preparations for the cutting of church-state ties and then oversaw the transition on behalf of his church.
"Of course we had a lot of practical problems to solve, but the transition has been very smooth, and we are seeing no signs of any dramatic changes in the attitude toward the church or any slip in the support for the church," he said.
He pointed out that after the change took place there had not been a great amount of public debate. All political parties in Sweden had supported the carefully-planned separation, and now the church was just an "ordinary" church in line with other denominations.
"For me the most important argument [for cutting the links] is that our society is changing rapidly," Friedner told ENI. He pointed out that many Swedes were not Lutherans, and that for ecumenical dialogue "it is important for all parties involved to be at equal footing."
Pettersen, in Norway, agreed. "The role of the Norwegian church has to change in a multi-cultural society. The issue is becoming a major focus of political debate, and we have to handle the problem seriously." He added that what he described as old-fashioned thinking, with the majority church doing what it wanted without taking minorities into consideration, was outdated.
Some Norwegians fear that the expected debate will be derailed by right-wing politicians claiming that a change will mean giving in to "the Islamic threat." Similar fears have already been expressed in Denmark where the state-church debate has barely begun.
Unlike its sister churches in Norway and Sweden, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark does not have a synod. All ecclesiastical matters are dealt with by the government's Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs or by the Folketing, the parliament, making it more difficult for the church to initiate a debate.
Recently some Danish newspapers have got involved in the issue. But Niels Henrik Arendt, a leading Lutheran bishop, does not believe the time is ripe for a general debate or for a committee to be set up to study the matter:
"Unlike Norway and Sweden, we have managed to make several adjustments along the way, so that we have reached a good balance with a certain degree of freedom for the church. It is still a mixed relationship, yes, but the ties are not so tight that it is a major problem," he told ENI.
However, Denmark has hesitated to sign a new amendment to the European Convention on Human Rights, fearing that it will eventually force the country to change the clauses of the constitution which give the Lutheran Church special status. (Similar action by Great Britain has opened the way to challenge aspects of the state-church relationship.)
"With this special status, the Lutheran Church must always be in the forefront fighting for the maximum degree of religious freedom for all other churches and religions," Bishop Arendt said. "If not, we will not be able to maintain the status as most favored son."
Copyright © 2000 ENI
The Church of Sweden cuts ties with the state in 2000. Read Christianity Today's "Lutheran Church, State Divide" about the break.
Information about Christianity in Norway is available from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Learn more about the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark at its Web site.
One of the most controversial issues for the state churches has been homosexuality. Read about the appointment of gay clergyman in Norway or read about the State Church of Denmark affirming gay marriage.