Decline of Icelandic Church: Scandals And Controversy Lead To Mass Exodus - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Decline of Icelandic Church: Scandals And Controversy Lead To Mass Exodus

Published November 8, 2019

Sam O'Donnell
Main photo by
Art Bicnick

The number of Icelanders who trust the National Church has decreased by half since the turn of the century. Only one third of the nation now trusts the Church, according to a Gallup poll published on October 28. In a nation without a separation of Church and State, it’s hard to read those numbers as anything but a crisis for the National Church.

There are many reasons for the decline in trust in the institution. The simplest is that immigrants to Iceland are largely from countries with strong Catholic beliefs. People born in Iceland are registered with the church automatically, so long as their parents are also in the church. However, immigrants have to go through the process of registering themselves if they want to join the National Church. Since the largest percentage of immigrants to Iceland are Polish, the majority of them choose to register instead with with the Catholic Church. The Icelandic National Church is Lutheran.

Betrayal of human rights

Additionally, Icelanders are leaving the National Church in droves because of the church’s notoriously tone-deaf method of handling social issues. For example, in 2006, Guðrún Ögmundsdóttir submitted a bill to Parliament on various legal benefits for homosexuals, which, among other things, allowed them to get married and adopt children. Former Bishop Karl Sigurbjörnsson of the National Church objected strongly to the proposal.

“It would seem that lack of trust in the church could be attributed more to controversial opinions that are held dearly by its members. Furthermore, sex crimes that top clergy members get away with, both locally and internationally, do not help the church’s image.”

And he wasn’t alone. Political scientist Baldur Thorhallsson says that the bishop and ministers lobbied hard against the proposed change. “They were calling Parliament and meeting with them to prevent us from obtaining the same legal rights as heterosexual citizens,” he told RÚV. “Dealing with the clergy of the small denominations, that’s one thing. But having to deal with the bishop of Iceland and the renowned clerics who stood with him in this matter, it hurt a man, it was difficult. But that didn’t mean we were going to give up and take this blow.”

The bill eventually passed, but it would take four years. In the meantime, church officials lambasted the bill, and worked against it. “Everywhere in every church this is disputed,” the former bishop said on New Years’ Day 2006. “The truth is that the church has, for a long time, been based on a certain definition in this matter. Now that definition is being changed. But I just want to say this: I think the sanctity of marriage depends on us, that we don’t throw it on the dump without thinking.”

While the world progressed onwards, the National Church defended their antiquated opinions. “This is naturally the main reason why groups of people, thousands of people, have begun to withdraw from the National Church at this time,” Baldur said.

Trying to stay relevant

The current bishop, Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, has tried to keep the National Church relevant by apologising to Iceland’s LGBTQ community on RÚV’s news programme Kastljós for her predecessor’s stance. Programme host Einar Þorsteinsson asked Bishop Agnes if the LGBTQ community should be entitled to an apology from the church, spurring the bishop wi respond: .
“I can totally apologise on behalf of the Church for having come out and hurting people this way. I’m happy to apologise for that.”

She partially attributes the lack of trust in the Church to the anomie she believes occurred when the nation’s elementary schools stopped teaching Christianity. “It has become a morass, I think. People do not realise where the things that we would like to live and work for come from. It goes without saying that if the children do not study the Bible at home, for example, or at school, the future will be such that they do not know it exists,” she told RÚV.

“After public outcry when these facts came to light, the bishop apologised for this inaccuracy, calling it ‘a slip of the pen.'”

It would seem that lack of trust in the church could be attributed more to controversial opinions that are held dearly by its members. Furthermore, sex crimes that top clergy members get away with, both locally and internationally, do not help the church’s image.

Egregious mishandling of a delicate situation

Possibly the most notable and most appalling scandal in the National Church involved former Bishop Ólafur Skúlason. While he was bishop, he sexually assaulted multiple women, who reported his behaviour to church officials. Nothing came of it until after his death in 2008 when his daughter, Guðrún Ebba Ólafsdóttir, came forward and disclosed that Ólafur had sexually abused her for many years.

She wrote a letter to Bishop Karl, 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 their priests and clergy members have committed within the walls of the church. Several other women came forward after the letter, 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, Bishop Karl sent a letter to the media stating that one of the women who accused Ólafur 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. After public outcry when these facts came to light, the bishop apologised for this inaccuracy, calling it “a slip of the pen.”

“While church officials hemmed and hawed about the philosophical and ethical implications of this question, hundreds of citizens unregistered themselves.”

The cover-up

Later, it came to light that Bishop Karl knew about Ólafur’s sexual assault, but did nothing. 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.

That raised the question of whether the sanctity of confession takes precedence over the legal obligation to report sex crimes. Reykholt priest Geir Waage told reporters that the church’s vow of silence with regards to confessions takes precedence over the law, even when it comes to matters of sexual abuse. He argued that the sanctity of the confessional must be unyielding.

“That which a priest hears in the confessional must never, under any circumstances, go any further,” he said. “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.”

While church officials hemmed and hawed about the philosophical and ethical implications of this question, hundreds of citizens unregistered themselves.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!

Go travel with Grapevine tried and recommended tours by Grapevine. Fund Grapevine journalism by booking with us.


Show Me More!