Iceland is one of seven countries in the world that still has a national Lutheran church. If you’ve only driven around the country without talking much to Icelanders themselves, you might think Iceland was a deeply religious country. From Reykjavík to the tiniest village in the countryside, every municipality has its own church, often erected at the highest elevation in the area. On all major and some minor Christian holidays, the entire country practically shuts down. Most members of Parliament attend a special mass at the opening of the legislative session. By all outward appearances, Iceland is a solidly Christian country and support for the national church is strong.
Look just beneath the surface, however, and the church appears more to be built on sand than rock. The percentage of Icelanders registered in the national church has been falling steadily for the past 20 years now, with about a third of the country now no longer registered in the church. Less than half identify as regular church-goers, and the number of Icelanders who consider themselves “religious” in any sense has also been dwindling.
There are many explanations for the modern Icelander’s growing alienation from the national church, but the greatest threat to the church’s existence is arguably the church itself. This can be divided into two main points of contention: the tax money allocated to the church, and a series of sexual abuses scandals within the church that were made all the more hurtful by the church’s response to them. While Iceland’s national church is considerably more progressive than, for example, the Roman Catholic church, there is still room for improvement.
You cannot serve both God and mammon
To understand how the church makes its money, it’s important to understand the concept of church registration. That is to say, it’s not 100% voluntary to sign up. Up until 2013, any child born in Iceland whose mother was in the national church was automatically registered in it as well. Today, while both parents now need to be in the church for automatic registration to happen, new members of the church are effectively grandfathered in. Many of these new members don’t bother to take steps to de-register, and simply remain in the church, whether they’re actually practicing Lutherans or not.
By Icelandic law, if you are registered in a religious organisation, part of your taxes go directly to that institution. These taxes are known as “parish fees.” Further, as government support for the national church is enshrined in Iceland’s constitution, there are also budget allocations made to the church. The most recent funding allocations to the church total over 2.8 billion ISK, and this is before we even get into the individual charges that ministers might levy for functions such as weddings, baptisms and confirmations.
What does all this money translate into? The average starting salary for a parish minister is just under 600,000 ISK, and Bishop Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir makes 1.55 million ISK each month. Is this because her expenses are high? On the contrary, it seems: her official residence, a 487m2 house on Bergstaðastræti (in fairness, a residence that tradition requires the Bishop to live in) with a real estate value of 185 million ISK, charges her a rent of only 90,000 ISK per month – a price many Icelanders would kill to pay for even a room downtown, let alone an apartment.
On top of all this, the church continuously complains that they do not have enough money to operate and continuously ask for more; a complaint that was particularly prominent right after the 2008 crash. When the government’s Wage Committee awarded the Bishop a 21% pay rise last December, in addition to a one-time retroactive payment of 3.24 million ISK, this understandably generated considerable criticism in a country where most people are facing a housing crisis and have seen their wages rise very little, if at all, in recent years.
The sins of the fathers
With sexual abuse within the Catholic church grabbing headlines around the world, it is easy to forget that the Catholics are not alone in this horror, and that even the national church of Iceland is not innocent.
The tipping point in the discussion came in 2010. It was centred around one woman – Guðrún Ebba Ólafsdóttir, daughter of former bishop Ólafur Skúlason. She wrote a letter to the bishop at the time, Karl Sigurbjörnsson, calling for the church to take additional measures to combat sexual abuse between clergy and the congregation. She urged the church to “come clean” and to confront instances of sexual abuse that have been committed within the walls of the church.
Guðrún Ebba specifically spoke up about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, and she wasn’t alone. Several other women have since come forward, saying that they were also molested by Ólafur, and that they reported this to church officials, but they were told to stay quiet.
More recently, it has come to light that Þórir Stephensen, a minister within the national church and a confessed child molester, is still performing the official duties of a minister within the auspices of the church. (Update: The Bishop has since asked Þórir to cease his official duties.)
It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out
All of these issues, from the ever-increasing budgets and salaries to the sex abuse scandals, might be fixable in some extent or another. However, the response of the Bishop to these various issues arguably only makes matters worse, most of the time.
When it comes to declining church registration and attendance, the Bishop has said that is due to an increase in immigration to Iceland as well as Icelanders leaving the country. However, people who leave the country are not automatically deregistered from the church; they have to fill out the necessary form to do so. In addition, even if people were deregistered upon leaving Iceland, 2014 data from Statistics Iceland shows that only 400 more Icelanders left the country that year than moved to the country – in that same year, about 2,000 people deregistered from the national church. Further, by the same Statistics Iceland data cited earlier, 2014 only saw an influx of 860 more foreigners entering the country than leaving it. By contrast, some 12,000 people have deregistered from the church from 2010 to 2014.
The Bishop also contended in 2015 that separation of church and state already exists in Iceland, because the church handed over some 600 properties to the state in 1997. Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, who was an MP for the Pirate Party at the time, was amongst those who pointed out the strangeness of this definition of “separation.”
In a now notorious interview that appeared in the magazine DV late last month, when the Bishop was asked directly about whether she thought it was right that a man who confessed to molesting a 10-year-old girl should be allowed to conduct mass, she responded that she was not sure “whether that is unnatural in itself,” and that while the past cannot be changed, “We also have something in the church that’s called forgiveness.”
Rendering to Caesar
In fairness, the Bishop has also made public declarations that the church has problems, and that sex offenders within the institution cannot be ignored and must be rooted out. But shifting attitudes towards religion, declining attendance and registration, and sex abuse scandals certainly don’t help. Not least of all when the Bishop, while defending the church, ends up fanning the flames of discontent, however unwittingly.