State church slow to integrate

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Norway’s state church faces major reforms as it continues to see its membership shrink. Now a new study reveals that its leadership remains as ethnically white as many of the churches themselves, despite lofty claims about the importance of integration and inclusion.

This classic, white Norwegian church reflects the composition of local parish councils nationwide. PHOTO: Views and News

Last week’s new government ministerial line-up included a significant change for administration of the Norwegian state church. Responsibility for church issues was moved from the Ministry of Culture to the relatively new ministry dealing with administration and renewal issues. It’s now called Fornyings- og kirkedepartementet and headed by a state government newcomer but Labour Party veteran Rigmor Aasrud from Hadeland.
Aasrud thus becomes in practice Norway’s acting “kirkeminister” (literally, church minister) and it’s likely she’ll be the last one. The parliament earlier this year made a historic decision to give the state church increased autonomy, meaning it among other things can name its own bishops as long as they’re elected democratically. There will no longer be a need for a government minister in charge of church issues, and an amendment to Norway’s constitution will also remove a requirement that at least half of the ministers in any given government must be members of the state church.

Norway’s current Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, is not a member of the state church, nor are four other members of Stoltenberg’s 19-member cabinet.

The state will continue to finance the church through tax revenues, however, and be the official employer of all pastors, bishops and other church officials. Instead of being called “statskirken” (state church), the new term expected to be used from 2013 is “folkekirken” (people’s church).The church long has claimed, meanwhile, that it aims to be “an integrated community that actively works for an inclusive society.” A new study conducted for the church cultural magazine Strek suggests the church is nowhere near practicing what it preaches.

Of the 12,050 newly elected members of the church’s local parish councils, only 83 have non-ethnic Norwegian names. The councils are “lily-white,” noted the study, despite plenty of candidates with non-white immigrant backgrounds.

An estimated 250,000 of the immigrants in Norway come from countries with Christianity is the largest religion. Yet immigrants say they get passed over for jobs and council posts in the state church.

Lemma Desta from Ethiopia, for example, has a master’s degree in theology, taught pastors in Ethiopia and speaks good Norwegian. He reportedly has applied for many jobs in the state church over the past two years, but never been called in for an interview.

“I’m sure the church could use someone like me,” he told Strek . “We could turn all the nice thoughts about how we’re all equal … into action.”

Many others reportedly have given up after job applications are repeatedly rejected. “There’s a lot of fear of foreigners out there,” Oddvar Hatlehol of the Stovner congregation told Strek . “But it’s silent. It’s not correct for Christians to talk about it.”

The bishop for Sør-Hålogaland told newspaper Vårt Land that he’s ashamed of Norwegians’ views on immigrants and “the lack of ability to accept and integrate those who need a better life.”

The state church council, Kirkerådet , is taking up the issue at its meeting in November, council leader Nils-Tore Andersen told newspaper Aftenposten . The council has proposed setting quotas, in an effort to get more non-ethnically Norwegians involved in a church that is struggling to maintain members.

“We need to do something about this,” Andersen said.