Editorial | A moment of doubt about change

May 24th, 2012

This article is more than 11 years old.

Freeing the church from its ties to the state could be the best thing that happened to religion in Denmark since the Reformation

With declining membership, the planned closures of churches in Copenhagen and, an emerging gap in attitudes over same-sex marriages, the last thing the Church of Denmark needed right now was a discussion about whether it should lose its status as the state church.

But after a decision by Norway this week left Denmark the last of the three Scandinavian countries with a constitutional bond between the church and state (Sweden enacted such a reform in 1996), the Folkekirken appears to be moving headlong into just such a debate. 

In a land where public holidays are literally ‘holy days’, it should come as no surprise that there is apprehension among the clergy and traditionalists in the population at large about taking away the special status held by the church. But for a population whose formal religious activity is restricted mostly to the occasional wedding and the odd funeral, the change would have little impact. 

That isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be carried out without a sense of emotional resignation. Particularly for Danes living outside Denmark, the church and its characteristic square-towered buildings, is intrinsically linked to nationality. But, in Norway, the constitutional change saw the original wording, “the Evangelical-Lutheran religion is the state’s official religion”, replaced with “our values will remain our Christian and humanistic heritage”, and that slight alteration also reflects the de facto status of Christianity here.

For the church, losing its vaunted status would be understandably traumatic, but if Danish reforms were to resemble those in Sweden and Norway, the change would only be skin deep. And although it would invariably leave the church with a smaller congregation, reducing the ranks could serve as the impetus for it to dust off its tired image.

While the change would probably only have an inconsequential impact for the church and its members, for Catholics, Muslims, Jews or anyone else from a minority religion, it would signify that their faiths, even though they don’t occupy the same space in Denmark’s past and culture as the Folkekirken, are accepted as part of the fabric of Denmark’s present.


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