Christmas is just around the corner and churches nationwide will most likely be standing room only for holiday services. And yet the Church of Denmark (folkekirken) will look back on 2012 as a year in which it lost an historic number of members.
More than 17,000 people quit the church in the first three quarters of 2012, and that number is expected to rise to 20,000 by the year’s end.
Experts pointed at three main reasons for the exodus: the debate over allowing gay marriages, the economic crisis, and the shrinking desire on the part of the overall population to be a part of religious communities in general.
For the former church minister Per Stig Møller (Konservative), the blame for falling church membership lays squarely at the feet of the current church minister, Manu Sareen (Radkale). Møller said that he warned Sareen that church membership would drop if homosexuals were allowed to marry in the church. After a long and often heated debate, gays were given the right to be married in state churches in June of this year.
Møller said that homosexual couples should have been allowed to be joined as “life companions” in a different ceremony and not use the same ecclesiastical rituals as traditional male/female couples.
“If the current government would have followed our proposal, it would not have gone so wrong and the debate would not have been so extreme,” Møller told Berlingske newspaper.
Møller agreed that the sour economy did deserve some of the blame for dwindling church membership, but remained firm in his assertion that homosexual marriage was the primary cause of the massive flight from the church.
Reverend Charlotte Chammon of the Nørre Herlev parish church near Hillerød said she believes that a lot of the debate about empty pews is media-driven and that the press is partially to blame for members leaving the church.
“I read an article a while ago that said church membership had fallen from 80 percent of the population to 78 percent – that doesn’t strike me as the ‘dramatic decrease’ that the media is reporting,” Chammon told The Copenhagen Post. “I have not seen a steep decrease in membership in my parish – less than ten out of 2,000 members have left this year, and only two said it was due to gay marriage.”
Chammon said that she believed that the economic crisis has contributed more than any other factor to people leaving the church – people have to decide where to cut back during tough times, she said, and trimming the contribution to the church seems like a logical place to start to some.
“When people are trying to decide, and there is already so much talk in the media about people leaving the church, they think it may be a good time for them to leave as well,” she said.
University of Copenhagen theology professor Hans Raun Iversen said that the people’s relationship with the church is merely evolving.
“The withdrawals are an expression of an underlying societal development in which everything is being re-evaluated,” he told Berlingske. “We do not view the church in the same way as former lifetime members may have.”
Sørine Gotfredsen and Kathrine Lilleør are also priests in the state church. They blame declining membership on ecclesiastical rather than political issues.
“We do a bad job,” they said in an interview in Berlingske. “Too many people associate the state church with heavy, woeful worship services. We need to focus on music and messages that hit people in the heart and make them think.”
They said that the church must become a place where everyone feels welcome worshipping together regardless of their appearance, status and differences.