The Church of Norway is, or rather was, the state church of the Kingdom of Norway, much like the Church of England is here. However thanks to decades of campaigning by pressure groups such as the Norwegian Humanist Association (Human-Etisk Forbund) and the general decline in Church attendance and belief, the first step towards a true separation of church and state has been at last taken.
The process of separating church and state in Norway started with an historic vote in Norway’s Parliament the Storting in May 2012 which saw parliamentarians vote overwhelmingly in favour of separating the protestant Lutheran Church of Norway from the state. In effect this meant that the Church was now free to appoint its own bishops and deans whilst the provision for half of government ministers to be members of the state church was ended. Next last year further measures were made amending the Norwegian constitution to make the Church of Norway a completely separate legal entity with Lutheran clergy no longer being counted as state employees and neither the state nor the church having any say over the other.
However though the changes have been seen as a good step towards a truly secular state they have been derided by some Humanists for not going far enough. The Constitution will still specify that the Church of Norway is the “national church” and thus receives state “support”. Furthermore all Norwegian monarchs are still required to profess a Lutheran faith in order to qualify. Kristin Mile, secretary-general of the Norwegian Humanist Association said “As long as the constitution says that the Church of Norway is Norway’s national church and that it should be supported by the state, we still have a state church”.
Commentators in Norway don’t think this current constitutional settlement will last long due to the ambiguity of the term “national church” and parliament’s previous commitment to separating church and state.
Much like the Church of England in the UK, the Church of Norway is a rapidly declining institution. Whilst figures suggest 72.9% are members of the Church of Norway, these figures only reflect people who are baptised or confirmed not people who regularly attend Church or believe in god. Other surveys show that barely 2% actually go to church on a regular basis and only 22% say they believe in god. Indeed Norway, like other Scandinavian countries, ranks highly as among the most atheist or irreligious countries in the world.
The Church of England is in a similar situation however unlike Norway we see no moves in parliament to end the archaic merger of church and state here. Indeed our current Prime Minister is an outspoken supporter for the Anglican Church having claimed a “profound” Christian faith. The situation here is far worse than it ever was in Norway as we have clergy imbedded in our legislature. The 26 Lords Spiritual who hold guaranteed places in the House of Lords, our upper chamber, are a damming and archaic relic of medieval politics. The UK is the only western democracy to have clergy guaranteed spots in its legislature and the only other state in Europe that does so is the Vatican City.
The Church of England supports its role in parliament by claiming that it represents a significant proportion of the population however the census shows only 59.5% identify as Christians and the British Social Attitudes survey shows that the Anglican Church only represents 17% of Christians.
Naturally campaigners such as the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society have called for the abolition of the Lords Spiritual as part of wider reform of the House of Lords. We can only hope that in future we have similar if not better success than Norway.