Has the time come to separate church and state?

Norway has abolished the national church, and in light of recent arguments some argue it’s time Denmark did the same

The Norwegian parliament on Monday separated church and state by abolishing the Church of Norway through a constitutional amendment. Norway is now a secular nation, with no official religion, and the government will not interfere in the appointment of church officials. 

Many Danes have in the past called for the Danish government and the church to also go their separate ways. Currently, 48 MPs from the ruling S-R-SF government coalition and its support party, Enhedslisten, agree or partially agree with the idea that church and state should be separate.

The recent decision by the government to allow gay marriage and its proposal to trim some ostensibly religious holidays from the working calendar in an effort to raise revenue have once again raised questions about the wisdom of continuing a relationship that dates back to 1849.

The Danish National Church is the state church and largest denomination in Denmark and Greenland. The church is Evangelical Lutheran and has been regarded as the official national church since the establishment of the constitution in 1849. Manu Sareen (Radikale), the church and equality minister, is the highest administrative authority. 

According to Church Ministry figures, the membership of the national church has been steadily falling since the 1980s. Whereas in 1984, nearly 92 percent of the Danish population were members of the church, that number was down to just over 80 percent last year. In Copenhagen, just 60 percent are church members.

And while those are still high numbers, only around five percent of the national population regularly attend church services. 

The dwindling attendance has led to a wave of church closures across Denmark. In Copenhagen alone, 17 churches have been slated for closure. 

The church is financially supported by the state, with a portion of tax kroner allocated to churches and other religious groups.

Viborg bishop Karsten Nissen said the government’s decision to allow gay marriage – which was strongly supported by Sareen – overstepped what he called the “invisible line” between church and state, where politicians usually refrained from getting involved in church affairs.

“It is a key issue that was forced through,” Nissen told Politiken newspaper. “It creates a distrust of the political system and how it manages the church.”

A recent poll found that more than 60 percent of Danes are in favour of gay marriage, and church officials support it by a similar measure.

Nearly one third of the 523 members of the clergy recently surveyed by Berlingske Research said that they will not marry homosexual couples. Another seven percent say they are not sure if they will conduct the ceremonies.

Nissen said that he personally will not marry homosexuals. In his opinion, the unions are not in accordance with Christian teachings.

Sareen said that no minister will be forced to perform gay marriage rituals against their will.

Charlotte Chammon, the pastor of Nørre Herlev Church near the city of Hillerød, agreed that the situation could have been handled better.

“I personally have no problem with gays getting married, but it feels like the church is not being listened to,” Chammon told The Copenhagen Post.

Chammon said that some of the tension could have been avoided if the government had paid more attention to concerns the church raised about the use of the word ‘marriage’. She said that while many in the church have no objection to a ceremony uniting gay couples, they believe that the term ‘marriage’ should be reserved to describe the union between a man and a woman. She conceded that some may consider a debate over semantics a bit silly, but to her it pointed out that the government and the church often do a poor job listening to each other.

Proposals by the government to scrap two holidays that have their roots in the church calendar also have many wondering if the church and state can stay together.

Chammon wondered why the church isn’t being included in the discussions surrounding whether to eliminate the Great Prayer Day (Store Bededag, the fourth Friday after Easter) and either Maundy Thursday (skærtorsdag, the day before Good Friday) or Whit Monday (2. Pinsedag, the Monday after the seventh Sunday after Easter).

“Why isn’t the church being asked which days we think might be the best to cut?” she asked.

The director of the Church Council of Norway, Jens-Petter Johnsen, said that the tension between church and state is what led his country to separate the two.

“Today society consists of people with different beliefs and outlooks, and it is necessary that there is an equal treatment of faith and life communities,” Johnsen told Norwegian news agency NTB.

Chammon says the idea of separating the two in Denmark is a tough call.

“It is a difficult question and some days I think it would be better and some days I am not sure,” she said.

She pointed out that she believes that the constitution allows for the possibility of the church establishing its own governing body independent of the state.

“I think that may be the best solution,” said Chammon. “That way, we still have a solid faith with many ministers and individual churches sharing the same philosophy.”

If church and state do separate, Chammon said she hopes that the churches in Denmark do not fall prey to what she called the “American system” of too many denominations, with each one doing whatever it takes to attract members.

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