The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland has been a part of the government since the constitution established it as such in 1874. While most Icelanders are decidedly irreligious or not very religious, they have for the most part not been very vocal in calling for the separation of church and state. A series of recent events has changed all that, to where even the Prime Minister herself has said she has considered unregistering herself from the church, and that she would like the government to “work towards” separation of church and state.
First, a little background
About 65% of Icelanders are in favor of separation of church and state, according to a poll conducted by the Humanist Society in 2006. 43% said they never go to church. The next highest percentage – 17.4% – go two to three times a year. 15.9%, once a year. At the same time, the church receives around 5 billion ISK per year in the form of state revenues, and the bishop himself earns almost 1 million ISK per month. While this has been more or less common knowledge for some time, the economic crisis brought this fact to light in conversations on how to save state revenues. This was underlined when, earlier in August, the Church of Iceland rejected a government proposal to cut their budget by 9%, offering instead to have their budget cut by 5%, with certain conditions.
The tipping point in the discussion, however, had nothing to do with money. Instead, it was centred around one woman – Guðrún Ebba Ólafsdóttir, daughter of former bishop Ólafur Skúlason. She wrote a letter to the current bishop, 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. The church never reported the matter to the police. In response to the criticism, the bishop sent a letter to the media stating that one of the women accusing Ólafur of molestation had gone to the state prosecutor, who told her that there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges. However, in reality, it was Ólafur himself who wanted to press charges against his accusers, and the state prosecutor had advised him not to pursue the case. The bishop later apologized for this inaccuracy, calling it “a slip of the pen.”
Keeping it to Themselves
The entire issue involving the church’s treatment, past and present, of the Ólafur Skúlason matter has led to more general discussion about how the church handles cases of sexual abuse in general. Gunnar Rúnar Matthíasson, head of a special committee within the church that oversees incidences of sexual abuse within the congregation, told the press that the church is fully aware of instances of sexual abuse, and has for a long time fought against it. He would not, however, disclose just how many instances of sexual abuse between clergy and members of the congregation have been reported, saying only that there has been more than one. The matter was not helped when Reykholt priest Geir Waage – a clergyman known for his often outdated and decidedly conservative opinions – told reporters that the church’s vow of silence with regards to confessions takes precedence over the law when it comes to matters of sexual abuse, arguing that the sanctity of the confessional must be “all or nothing”, adding, “That which a priest hears in the confessional must never, under any circumstances, go any further. The vow of silence is either all or nothing. The credibility of a priest is gone if people cannot rely on what they say to a priest staying with him.” The public reaction was understandably one of outrage, and the church went immediately on the defensive. It should be noted that many members of the clergy spoke out against Waage’s remarks, including the bishop himself. One priest, Bjarni Karlsson, called for Waage to be ousted from his office altogether. The church also made an effort to show it was doing its part to combat sex abuse within its walls, announcing that it will now require that all church staff allow the bishop access to their police records. The rule, which applies to both salaried staff and volunteers, has in fact been in effect for the past 12 years, so the church’s move is more one of stating that they would start to enforce it.
Public Reaction and Official Lack of Action
Despite these efforts, the National Registry has reported that hundreds of Icelanders have recently been unregistering themselves from the church (all Icelanders are registered with the church by default; filling out a free form, either on paper or online, is required to change this). Icelanders have been encouraging each other, through social networking sites such as Facebook and others, to unregister.
The debacle had prompted the one government official closest to the church – the Minister of Justice, as the ministry oversees ecclesiastical affairs – to meet with the bishop, to discuss both Waage’s remarks in particular and church matters in general. In the end, though, she washed her hands of their troubles, telling reporters that “the church needs to handle its own matters themselves.” The bishop has also been on the defensive, and not just with regards to his “slip of the pen” – many have been calling for his resignation. Speaking on the television news discussion show Kastljósið recently, the bishop said he believes he still has the support of the nation, and does not plan to resign.
The media has even turned its attention to the nation’s political leaders, asking for their opinion on separation of church and state. As it turns out, half the government favors separation of church and state: the chairpeople of the parties leading the government – Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir of the Social Democrats and Minister of Finance Steingrímur J. Sigfússon of the Leftist-Greens – have recently told reporters that they would like the government to “work towards” separation of church and state. In agreement are Minister of Culture and Education Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Minister of Foreign Affairs Össur Skarphéðinsson, Minister of Business and Economics Gylfi Magnússon, and Minister of Industry Katrín Júlíusdóttir. While neither Össur nor Katrín Jakobsdóttir are registered in the national church, Gylfi and Katrín Júlíusdóttir both are, although they have said they have recently considered unregistering. Chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee Árni Þór Sigurðsson recently wrote an article calling for “a serious discussion on the separation of church and state.”
At the time of this writing, the future of the church remains unclear. Naturally, most clergy are nervous about the idea – if the church had to survive on donations alone, given the church’s low attendance rates, their size (and clergy salaries) would have to be drastically reduced. But more importantly, clergy who have dedicated themselves to the spiritual guidance of others are understandably hurt. Reverend Halldór Gunnarsson, who sits on the church council, wrote an article of Morgunblaðið entitled “An Apology”. Therein, he says in part, “As one of the church’s leaders, I ask these women, who have suffered because of [former bishop Ólafur Skúlason], to forgive the Icelandic church. I apologize to my nation and ask also the church to seize the day today, and the days to come, to rebuild trust anew, so that there will be no separation between the nation and the church.” Whether Reverend Gunnarsson’s wish will come true remains to be seen. Whatever happens, it is unlikely the Icelandic people’s relationship with their church will ever be the same again.