THE LUTHERAN CHURCH IN ICELAND by Rev. Dr. Arnfríður Guðmundsdóttir, Professor & Academic Dean, Dept. of Theology & Religious Studies, University of Iceland
The majority of the Icelandic people belong to The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (ELCI). There are strong ties between the state and the church, even if the church has gradually become more independent during the past two decades. The Icelandic Constitution guarantees religious freedom and also obliges the state to support and protect the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the National Church of Iceland. A clear majority of Icelandic children are baptized and confirmed within the ELCI, and most funerals are carried out by Lutheran pastors. This does not mean that churches are crowded every Sunday morning. The fact is that a lot of people have relatively loose ties with the church. It is still the case, however, that the church plays a significant role within the Icelandic community.
Christianity became the public religion in Iceland around the year 1000. The first Christian missionaries were sent by the king of Norway. Although none of the missionaries were very successful, by the year 1000 there were enough Christians in Iceland to divide the nation into two rival groups, a Christian and a pagan one. In the summer of 1000, a divided nation gathered at Althing, the Icelandic parliament, well-armed and on the brink of a civil war. The leaders of the Christian faction had come directly from Norway, and had promised King Olafur of Norway, to do everything in their power to make Christianity the official religion of the country. Despite their weapons, the leaders of both groups were well-trained diplomats who were willing to go the extra mile for the sake of peace. After some initial deliberations, the leader of the pagan group was chosen to deliver a final verdict in the matter. According to the Sagas, this man went away to his own tent and remained there for three days and three nights before he gave what has been considered the most powerful and influential speech given in the history of our country. The message of his speech was: “If we break asunder the laws, we shall also break asunder the peace.” And for the sake of peace, he recommended that all the people should have one law and one religion and become Christian. Surprisingly enough, his verdict was accepted, and as a result, the Icelandic conversion to Christianity was a peaceful one. In order to make the verdict effective, the godar – the pagan priests – were ordered to demolish the pagan temples and build churches instead. An exception was made that those people who secretly made sacrifices to the heathen gods were not to be punished. However, this exception was recalled a few years later.
Unfortunately, the change from Catholicism to Lutheranism in the sixteenth century was not nearly as peaceful as the conversion from paganism to Christianity. At the time of the Reformation, Iceland belonged to the Danish kingdom, where the Lutheran Church became the National Church in 1537. At this time, there were two bishops in Iceland, one located in Skálholt, in the south, while the other one resided in Hólar, in the north. In 1540, the bishop in Skálholt, Ögmundur Pálsson, who had become old and blind, sent his designated successor, Gissur Einarsson, to Denmark, in order to be ordained the bishop of Skálholt. The bishop did not know that this young man, who had been educated in Germany, had during his studies been greatly influenced by the theological message of Martin Luther. It was the Danish King who decided that Gissur Einarsson would become the first Lutheran bishop in Iceland. The old bishop and his colleague in Holar, Bishop Jón Arason, tried their best to prevent the change from the old tradition to the new one. A key player in this transition was the king of Denmark. In 1541, the king sent his army to Iceland in order to arrest the old bishop in Skálholt and bring him to Denmark. The bishop in the north kept up his fight on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church until 1550, when he was finally defeated and executed, together with two of his sons.
As in other European countries at this time, the Reformation put emphasis on making religious literature available to the general public. In 1540, the New Testament, which had been translated a few years earlier by a young follower of the Reformation, was published. It was the first book to be published in Icelandic. The whole Bible was first printed in Icelandic in 1584. Since then the original translation has been revised several times, most recently in 2007. Given the fact that only 334 thousand people live in Iceland, a new translation is extremely expensive. The small number of citizens is also the reason why the translation of the Bible is an interdenominational undertaking. At the same time, all the future pastors of the ELCI are educated by the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Iceland, which is the only place where theology is taught at a University level in Iceland. The University of Iceland is a state-owned University with free admission for everybody who qualifies for University education.
Even if Icelandic society is becoming more and more multicultural every year, the National Church of Iceland, being a majority church and supported by the State, has clear responsibility towards society as a whole. But this responsibility is, first and foremost, to love one’s neighbor, or in Martin Luther’s words, to be “Christ to one another.” Our neighbor is not only our Christian brother or sister, but the person who lives next to us. Hence, we are called to love our neighbor, regardless of sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinion, etc. This is becoming increasingly important to remember today, when more and more people are on the move, searching for a place they can truly call their home, where they are loved and accepted as they are. I strongly believe this is one of the great challenges of our church in the beginning of the 21st century.