Results of a national election held last week to select new delegates to the governing body of The Norwegian Church have been streaming in, and setting off cheers among gay rights advocates. A majority has emerged among those keen to allow the church to perform gay marriages.
Newspaper Vårt Land reported earlier this week that 61 of the 116 delegates elected to take part in the next national meeting, where church issues will be decided, favour church marriages between people of the same sex. Only 32 of those elected oppose the church’s involvement in gay marriages, which have long been legal in Norway through the state civilian partnership law. The meeting to be held next spring, effectively the church’s governing body known as the Kirkemøte, seemed assured of a majority that will allow gay church marriages when results of yet another bispedømme (diocese) ticked in on Thursday.
That means the meeting will likely approve creation of a new liturgy for homosexuals, clearing the way for gay church marriages from 2017.
The election marked the first time that a majority of the meeting’s delegates were to be chosen directly by members of the Norwegian Church, which recently loosened its ties to the state. Fully 77 of the 116 delegates are to be layfolk who are not employed by the church, and 65 of them can now be voted in directly by the public.
‘Public revolt’ against ‘church elite’
A campaign called Åpen folkekirke (Open People’s Church), which favoured gay marriage, mobilized voters and ended up with the largest voter turnout ever in a church election. Nearly 17 percent of all church members cast a ballot, double the amount in previous elections. That prompted one supporter of gay marriage, millionaire businessman Stein Erik Hagen, to call the election “a public revolt” against the bishops and “church elite” who held sway in earlier years.
“This pleases me enormously,” Hagen told newspaper VG. “The results so far from several of the country’s largest cities show there’s been a revolt in favour of humanity and benevolence. The voters have clearly said that the church should welcome everyone, like Jesus did.”
Several other high-profile Norwegians who advocated gay marriage were also jubilant. “I think it’s great that those who have voted, voted in favour of benevolence,” said attorney Alexandra Bech Gjørv, who headed the state commission investigating the emergency response to the attacks on Norway in 2011. Jazz singer Solveig Slettahjell was pleased as well: “It’s about time this issues is settled in the best possible way for everyone”
Others hailed the vote as a sign of how the Norwegian Church, known as an evangelical Lutheran church, has become more democratic. “I’m so happy about the large turnout (double the average in many cities) and its support for the Open People’s Church,” Sturla Stålsett, son of former Oslo Biship Gunnar Stålsett and a pastor himself, told Aftenposten. Stålsett headed the Open People’s Church campaign.
The vote, Stålsett claimed, “sends a clear signal that members of The Norwegian Church over the entire country want an open and inclusive church, that also has room for gays and lesbians.”
‘Powerful mobilization … unfortunate’
Opponents of gay church marriage like Espen Ottosen of a Norwegian Lutheran missionary group was disappointed the Open People’s Church movement prevailed, and attributed it to “a powerful mobilization effort before the church election.” Ottosen said he thought it was “unfortunate” if many of those voting don’t actually attend church regularly but yet could “in practice determine the church’s profile.”
“It would be fine if the doubling of the voter turnout also led to a doubling of church attendance this fall,” Ottosen told Aftenposten. “I doubt that will happen.”
The voting results were hailed in several of Norway’s leading newspapers on Friday. Aftenposten itself editorialized that the church meeting next spring should approve marriages of homosexuals, and put a long and hostile debate behind it. Dagsavisen called the election results “a victory for church democracy” that allowed ordinary members to become engaged in important issues related to human values.
“They managed to create a majority that has a different opinion than large portions of the church elite,” Dagsavisen wrote. “That shows with all clarity that the Norwegian Church has strengthened as a church of the people, after it loosened its ties to the state.”