Churches struggle with membership

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Oslo’s Catholic churches remained packed during the Easter holiday week, despite ongoing controversy over alleged membership fraud. Questionable member registration practices have spread to the Swedish Church, while the Norwegian Church faces some alarming facts about its own members.

Catholics are still streaming to St Olav's Church in Oslo, despite all the controversy over its state funding based on membership. Masses are held in a wide variety of languages, to accommodate Catholics who have moved to Norway from many different countries.. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Catholics are still streaming to St Olav’s Cathedral in Oslo, despite all the controversy over its state funding based on membership. Masses are held in a wide variety of languages, to accommodate Catholics who have moved to Norway from many different countries.. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Actual attendance at the services conducted by the churches varies widely. While many of the Norwegian Lutheran churches attract only a handful of people, it’s standing-room-only at most of the masses held, for example, at St Olav’s Cathedral in downtown Oslo.

Catholic Priest Pål Bratbak agreed with the observation that while Lutheran Norwegians flee to mountain hotels and cabins during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, Catholics living in and around the Oslo area stream into church.

“There are surely Catholics who also leave town, but there are plenty left to fill the 71 masses and around 30 other services held at St Olav’s and St Joseph’s this week,” Bratbak told newspaper Aftenposten. In addition to the actual services, hundreds gather for a midnight event leading into Easter Sunday that literally lights up a darkened church, while some hardy church members, many of them Polish workers in Norway, hiked from St Olavs to Sandvika and Bekkestua in Bærum and then through Nordmarka to signify Jesus’ journey to the cross and suffering. The numbers of the Catholic masses, special events and those attending them are impressive.

Bratbak said that around 3,000 attend Catholic mass every Sunday, with more turning out for services tied to Easter. Norway’s growing population of immigrants from Catholic countries has left the church facing a space squeeze for years: Bratbak said masses are now conducted in Norwegian, Polish, English, the two Filipino languages Tagalog and Cebuano, Croatian, French, Spanish, Armenian, Vietnamese and even Arabic.

Membership funding trouble
It’s the immigration wave, however, that also has landed the Catholic church in trouble, and recently raised questions around the Swedish Church in Oslo. All faiths receive state funding in Norway, part of efforts aimed at religious tolerance and treating religions equally. The funding, however, is tied to membership numbers. The more members a church has, the more funding it receives. The actual amount of Norwegian taxpayers’ money provided to more than 700 religious organizations in Norway is calculated at around NOK 900 per year per member, the estimated cost of running Norway’s own state church.

The practice has led to charges filed by public prosecutors that the Catholic Church for years has registered newly arrived immigrants from Catholic countries without the actual immigrants’ knowledge. In other cases, unwitting members allegedly were registered when their names were plucked out of local phone catalogues because they were Polish, Spanish or seemed tied to other Catholic countries.

The Catholic Church has thus been ordered to pay back NOK 40.5 million in state funding that it allegedly received under fraudulent means. The church has appealed, insists it has not broken any laws and is preparing a countersuit, while police continue to investigate the alleged fraud that has upset many members, also over how church leaders have reacted to it. Aftenposten has reported how Bishop Bernt Eidsvig, who is personally charged in the case along with the church’s finance chief Pham Cong Thuan, has been accused by some priests and church members of at the very least acting “immorally” by allowing members to be registered without their consent and then failing to accept criticism for the practice. “They have their own version of reality,” Ingrid Joys, the church’s community contact, told Aftenposten, while Tromsø Bishop Berislav Grgic has written that the charges have created “considerable unrest” and division within the Catholic Church in Norway. Grgic reportedly has already arranged repayment of his diocese’s portion of the allegedly fraudulent state funding, claiming that “we who preach the truth” must demand it of themselves as well.

Swedes face questions, too
Now the Swedish Church in Oslo is facing similar questions about its membership practices, after years of heavy migration of young Swedes to Norway in search of jobs. Newspaper Vårt Land has reported that the state church in Sweden, Den svenska kyrkan, tracked its members when they reported a move to Norway. They were then automatically made members of Den svenska kyrkan in Norway and notified, but without being asked first, according to Vårt Land.

One Swedish woman told Aftenposten that after being notified, she tried three times to cancel a membership she didn’t want because she’s not Christian. It wasn’t easy. Even though she received confirmation of her online membership cancellation, the church apparently failed to notify Norwegian authorities of her withdrawal. They still had her listed in the Swedish Church. Two more attempts failed and she said she then gave up. Church officials couldn’t explain why her withdrawal hadn’t been registered, suspecting it was a result of poor communication.

As one of the allegedly fastest-growing congregations in Norway, the Swedish Church has received steadily more funding from both state and local treasuries in Norway. After reporting membership of more than 22,000, Aftenposten reported last week that the Swedish Church has received around NOK 20 million of Norwegian taxpayers’ money despite relatively scant attendance at the Lutheran services conducted at Margaretakyrkan in Oslo. Asked how many people frequent the church, Pastor Per Anders Sandgren said it was “difficult to estimate,” but the numbers were likely around 300-400 per week.

Loosening state ties
Norway’s support program that currently provides funding for 749 religious organizations, at a cost of more than NOK 500 million (USD 60 million) a year, is up for reevaluation next year. That’s when bonds will have been fully loosened between the state and its own Lutheran church (Den norske kirke), which will become a folkekirke (people’s church) governed by itself and no longer answerable to state politicians or the monarch.

It will still receive state funding, as will all other religious organizations in Norway, at least until 2019 when the Parliament is expected to decide on future financing methods. Calls are already going out for Norway to drop its admittedly generous and expensive religious funding plan and for the organizations to finance themselves through their own membership offerings or international administration.

“The program we have in Norway is very generous,” Bård Folke Fredriksen, state secretary for the Conservative Party in the ministry that’s charged with cultural issues, told Aftenposten. “It’s based on a desire to treat faiths equally, so we intend to go through it next year, after the state and the church are separated.” Financial support will continue, at least in the immediate future, but efforts will be made to protect the support from being exploited. “It’s important that we have rules that are clear, so that we’re objective about who gets support,” Fredriksen said.

Meanwhile, Norwegian church officials were digesting new survey results from state statistics bureau SSB showing that just 48 percent of church members view themselves as Christian. Fully 33 percent of state church members say they’re “non-believers” but either haven’t bothered to withdraw as a member or remain a member for cultural reasons. While attendance at Sunday services is generally low on a nationwide basis, also during Easter, 90 percent of Norwegians still turn to the church for funerals, for example. Church buildings are widely viewed as part of Norway’s “cultural landscape” and often used for concerts and other secular events.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

  • inquisitor

    God. He always seems to be short on money.

  • inquisitor

    A truly Protestant church preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ should never be financially tied to the government or the monarchy.