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No longer joined to the State

05 July 2024

Radical changes in the Church of Norway should interest Anglicans, writes Christopher Hill


The Crown Prince and Princess of Norway after a celebraton service on 1 June

The Crown Prince and Princess of Norway after a celebraton service on 1 June

THE Church Times of 7 June included a picture caption of the Archbishop of York alongside the Presiding Bishop of Norway, Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, at a celebration of 1000 years of Christian law in Norway (News, 7 June). On the same page, with more coverage, it was reported that St Swithin, or rather his relics, had been discovered in Stavanger Cathedral (News, 7 June).

The two are connected, because the evangelisation of Norway was a largely English achievement from about the middle of the tenth century. Christianity became established under St Olav in 1030, and dioceses were established, often with English bishops. For a time, the diocese of Sodor & Man came under Norway, Sodor meaning the islands around Scotland.

The first Norwegian liturgical books were also of English influence. A separate Norwegian Province was established in 1153. The instrumental Papal Legate, visiting for the purpose, was Cardinal Nicholas Breakspear, who became the one English-born Pope, Adrian IV. Lutheranism came to Denmark and Norway (a single country then) in 1537, under the authority of the Danish King, and, later, under Sweden.

This was, as in all the Nordic countries, a relatively “conservative” reformation, with a Lutheran liturgy, and the continuation of the historic sees and cathedrals, although with some break in episcopal succession.

During the German occupation, the resistance of the Bishop of Oslo, Eivind Berggrav, was notable. He had studied in Oxford and Cambridge, and took an active part in opposing the then Quisling Government of Norway; he suffered solitary imprisonment for his pains. After the war, he was active in the foundation of the World Council of Churches.

THEOLOGICAL discussions between the Church of England and the Nordic Churches, including Norway, began just before the First World War. The Lambeth Conference of 1948 invited the Archbishop of Canterbury to confer with the Churches of Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, following an informal meeting in Chichester which included Bishop George Bell.

Professor, as he then was, Michael Ramsey became the Anglican chairman in 1951, and Bishop Berggrav led the Norwegian delegation. Its recommendations were accepted, in a guarded way, by the Convocations in 1953 and 1954, and our two Churches came into what, in fact, was an agreement of mutual eucharistic hospitality.

With the later Porvoo discussions, themselves building on the work of successive Anglo-Scandinavian theological conferences, the Nordic and Baltic Churches came into an official dialogue with all the British and Irish Anglican Churches.

The Porvoo Agreement was accepted by the Church of England (after going to diocesan synods) and the other Anglican Churches in 1994-95. The Common Statement describes the relationship between the particular Churches as moving forward “towards the goal of visible unity”.

The Archbishop of York is a member of the Porvoo Primates Meeting, and a Contact Group is tasked with monitoring and implementing the agreement. Since the Porvoo Agreement, the sign of apostolic succession in the historic episcopate has been restored, understood as sign though not guarantee.

Relations between the Church of Norway and the Church of England have always been good. In the UK, the Norwegian Seamans’ Mission Churches in the larger ports have consistently exhibited good local relations with their Anglican neighbours. In the diocese of Southwark, St Olav’s Norwegian Church is integrated with the Deanery Synod and Chapter. A Norwegian bishop attended the Lambeth Conference as a member from a Church in Communion for the first time in 1998, although before that, one had been a member of a delegation from the Lutheran World Federation as an observer.

WHAT of developments in the Norwegian Church today? It remains self-described as a “folk church”; but, in the past few years, it has changed its relationship to the State dramatically. In 2012, the Church of England Year Book stated: “The King of Norway remains the Church’s constitutional head, and the government retains powers over the Church.”

Since then, there have been radical changes, of real interest to Anglicans with our different relationships to the State in the British Isles and Ireland. From 2012 onwards, and especially since 2016, responsibility for church affairs has been transferred from ministry to ministry. This has caused some frustration from time to time. I suspect that this reflects the widespread religious illiteracy among the European intelligentsia, not only in Norway. (Compare the changes in description and government offices for our own minister for faiths with a similar problem of knowing where to locate “faith”!).

In Norway now, this rests with a ministry responsible for “faith and life stance affairs” under a Minister for Children and Families. It includes humanism. In terms of power, the Government was previously responsible for the administration of the Church, for the budget, and for the employment of priests and bishops, and it issued all the relevant ecclesiastical rules and regulations. This is all now done by the Church, although the Government still continues to provide ecclesiastical funding.

In 2022, a Norwegian friend of mine, Andreas Aarflot, completed an LLM dissertation at Cardiff University, entitled “The Church of Norway: Before and after separation from the State.” He is a layman, working in the legal office of the national Church in Oslo (and is, incidentally, the grandson of the former Bishop of Oslo, also Andreas Aarflot, who was a member of the Porvoo Commission and who also spent some time studying the Church of England in the 1970s and has represented the Church of Norway at the Lambeth Conference). Mr Aarflot describes the change in the Church of Norway as “fundamental”. It is still a “folk church”, but no longer a “state church”.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford and a former President of the European Conference of Churches.

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