Mass exodus from the state church

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The Norwegian government made it much easier for Norwegians to cancel their membership in the state evangelical Lutheran church this week. That prompted thousands to check out within the first four days, while 549 people joined.

Churches in Norway like this stavkirke in Vågå can be quite spectacular, but they're often empty. A vast majority view them more as historical landmarks that dot the landscape instead of a religious force in their lives. PHOTO: Berglund

Many churches in Norway like this stavkirke in Vågå are carefully preserved and can be quite spectacular, but they’re often empty on Sundays. A vast majority view them more as historical landmarks that dot the landscape than a religious force in their lives. PHOTO: Berglund

By late Thursday, fully 15,053 people had reported that they wanted to withdraw from Den norske kirke, which has been loosening its ties to the state but remains mostly state-funded. The church is also under the auspices of the state ministry of cultural affairs and sports.

“We were prepared that there would a considerable number of people cancelling their membership, and we have great respect for each individual’s personal choice,” Archbishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday. She said the church’s bishops were not surprised by the mass exodus.

“We’re taking the signals this sends seriously,” Byfuglien added. “Our job from here on is to further the Christian message and carry on the important roles the church can have in many people’s lives.”

Jens Petter Johnsen, director of the state church council (Kirkerådet), thinks many people had already decided to leave the church but had simply never gotten around to actually contacting their local parish and filing the appropriate papers.

“It’s never been difficult to report yourself out of the church,” Johnsen claimed, “but many hadn’t bothered to send in the papers or correct mistakes in the church register.”

When an Internet-based solution finally debuted on Monday, making it possible to withdraw from the church with a few clicks, the response was huge. “This self-service solution makes it much simpler to cancel membership,” Johnsen told NRK.

Linda Hofstad Helleland, the government member in charge of church issues, said it was about time the system was changed and simplified. “I have been very keen that the Norwegian Church should get an electronic system in place,” Helleland told NRK. There have been complaints that even though people have cancelled their membership, their names still wound up on register rolls. Berglund