‘The People’s Church’ of Denmark: Ceremony or Theology?

By Frederik Seidelin

This year, we are celebrating the fifth centenary of Martin Luther’s fateful writings in Wittenberg which started a movement that swept across the Christian world—particularly Northern Europe—and changed Christianity permanently and profoundly. To this day, the established Lutheran church in Denmark (‘Folkekirken’, which is Danish for ‘the People’s Church’) is deeply entrenched in Danish society.

Acts of the Danish parliament decide what the church can and cannot do. Vicars are employed by the state and salaried by the Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs. Members of the church pay for services and the upkeep of buildings through a surtax, which amounts to approximately 1% of their income. Membership numbers must be the envy of churches around the world: more than three-quarters of the Danish population are members.

However, this does not necessarily mean that religion takes up a large part of the lives of Danes; despite the impressive popular support, the church struggles with ever-dwindling service attendance. Indeed, most Danes use the state church almost exclusively for ceremony—particularly rites of passage. Thus, on Christmas Eve, churches across the country are packed to bursting point, with most churches in cities holding two, three, or more services. Although the rate of christening newborns has steadily decreased since the 1980s, more than 60% of the population are christened within a year of their birth. More than two-thirds of children are confirmed at the age of 13 or 14. Around 10,000 couples are married or blessed every year. More than 80% of funerals are conducted in state churches. In other words, the Danish established church is used by the vast majority of Danish citizens during times of joy and sorrow.

Despite the high level of popular support for the church, there has been significant tension between theological doctrine and societal norms. For instance, vicars can refuse to wed two people if one or both have previously been married on the grounds of theology.  Moreover, despite being the first country in the world to enact legislation for same-sex civil unions in 1989, Denmark did not introduce equal marriage until 2012, partly to avoid ruffling any feathers in the state church. As late as 2007, for instance, the Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs said that equal marriage would not be put on the statute books because Danish bishops had not explicitly requested a same-sex marriage ritual. As with divorcees, vicars can refuse to marry same-sex couples if they believe it conflicts with their personal theology, an opt-out which a third of vicars planned to use on the eve on the equal marriage bill in 2012.

These opt-out measures purportedly serve to respect the theology of vicars who believe that divorcees and same-sex couples violate their particular (selective) reading of the Bible. However, the rate of divorce in Denmark has consistently stayed above 40% since the 1980s, and public support for vicars being permitted to wed same-sex couples was 65% a year before it became legal. Clearly, vicars who refuse to marry these people on the grounds of theology are out of step with Danish life and public opinion.

To me, the fundamental question seems to be whether the church is primarily there to serve Danish society, or whether the personal theology of the individual vicars should be protected, irrespective of the views of the majority of their congregants. Can the Danish parliament afford to allow vicars to effectively exclude people from their congregations, given that the popularity of the church rests on its role in transitionary ceremonies, such as those mentioned above? Indeed, should vicars decide what is morally right when they are employed by the state?

Though membership numbers are high, there is a steady trickle of people leaving the state church, and the question of marriage equality fanned the flames of disestablishmentarianism. It seems unlikely that the Danish state church can sustain its widespread support without truly being the ‘people’s church’. One thing is certain, however: this is a situation without an easy solution.

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