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From the November/December, 1999 issue of Touchstone


Norwegian Woes by William J. Tighe

Norwegian Woes

by William J. Tighe

A crisis erupted in the Church of Norway in February 1999, and although it is not clear whether it will produce dramatic effects (perhaps even the disestablishment of the Church) or prove but a flash in the pan, it offers material for Christian reflection, as well as piquant analogies to the situation of orthodox believers in many mainline churches of the West.

The Church of Norway is a state church like the churches of Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. It is, like these other church bodies, episcopal in its structure and governance. All the Scandinavian state churches are Lutheran, in that they subscribe to the major Lutheran confessional documents, but they all exhibit a broad spectrum of Christian and subchristian stances. They also all ordain women to their ministry.

In Norway, civil legislation authorized the ordination of women in 1938, but the bishops refused to act upon it until 1961, regarding it as civil legislation about which the Church had not been consulted and upon which they could not be obliged to act. When they did act, most of the bishops prepared to ordain women did so under the impression that ordained women would function as hospital chaplains or in other “specialized ministries” rather than as parochial clergy, and for decades thereafter the number of women ordained, as well as the proportion of women in the clergy as a whole, was notably smaller than in Denmark and Sweden.

It was thus a matter of some surprise that Norway was the first Scandinavian state church to have a “woman bishop”: Rosemarie Koehn, appointed Bishop of Hamar in 1993. (She was only the third Lutheran female bishop worldwide, one having been chosen in Germany and another in America the previous year.) The Danes followed subsequently with two in 1995 and the Swedes with two in 1997–1998.

It was surprising not only because of the smaller number and proportion of women clergy in Norway, but also because in Norway alone, in contrast with both Denmark and Sweden, opponents of the ordination of women had not been blacklisted from appointment as bishops after the introduction of women clergy. Although the number of Norwegian bishops opposed to ordaining women fell from four in the 1970s to two in the 1980s, opponents were selected in 1983 and again in 1991, so that by 1993, when Koehn was appointed bishop of Hamar, there remained two opponents among her colleagues (one of them retired last year and the other one, Odd Bondevik, has changed his mind and now ordains women).

Since 1993, however, the level of tolerance toward opponents has diminished markedly in Norway. Six months after Koehn’s appointment some of the clergy of the Hamar diocese who refused to recognize her authority were forced to resign by an order of the Royal Ministry for Church Affairs. Their only options were to accept her authority or leave the diocese—an initiative by the state that caused a good deal of embarrassment to the Norwegian bishops.

Homosexuality & Credibility

David Mills has written in Touchstone and elsewhere of the manner in which Evangelicals in the Episcopal Church, and no doubt other churches, have accepted the ordination of women while in many cases not really approving of it, under the claim that “it is not an issue worth fighting for,” or not worth losing one’s job over. But when other departures from the received Christian tradition of doctrinal and moral teaching arise about which they have stronger feelings—such as the acceptance of homosexuality—they find that their ability to contest these innovations credibly has been sharply diminished. So it has proved in Norway as well.

While homosexuals are welcome at the Lord’s Table in the Norwegian state church, without any distinction between “practicing” and celibate homosexuals, homosexual clergy are expected to live a celibate life. This is the stated policy of the Norwegian Bishops’ Conference, formulated in 1995 and repeated in subsequent years.

In 1994 Koehn ordained a self-professed lesbian, Siri Sunde. Before appointing her to a chaplaincy in 1996, however, she requested and received a letter from Sunde stating that she understood and accepted the bishops’ stated policy.

Within a year, however, Sunde contracted a “recognized civil partnership,” a secular marriage, with another woman, which they had “blessed,” in defiance of the bishops’ statements, by another female priest at an Oslo church. Reluctantly, and to avoid a clear violation of the rules that the bishops themselves had formulated, Koehn suspended the “differently partnered” Sunde from her chaplaincy for a year while awaiting a decision on whether to take up the case from the State Church’s Doctrine Commission, a body consisting of all the bishops, some theology professors and some lay members of the Church Assembly.

To act as an “interim deputy” or substitute for the temporarily suspended Siri Sunde, Koehn proposed to name—Siri Sunde (!), who thus would have been deputized for herself during her suspension. This proposal met strong opposition, and Koehn then appointed Sunde to a sinecure position in her own office as director and coordinator for the Hamar diocese of the annual St. Olaf Pilgrimage, a nineteenth-century revival of a medieval custom in veneration of Norway’s patron saint.

On February 1, 1999, after the Doctrine Commission refused to consider the question, claiming that Siri Sunde’s suspension was an employer/employee labor dispute about terms of employment rather a matter of doctrine, the bishop of Hamar issued a ruling that claimed that the Bible does not address the subject of homosexual “marriages,” and therefore is silent on the issue, and therefore does not rule out the acceptability of such domestic arrangements, even for clergy. She then restored Siri Sunde to her original position.

While newspapers and politicians praised, for the most part, Koehn’s “progressive” decision, a furious outcry went up from pious evangelical circles. One such bishop, a man who has willingly ordained women, launched so furious an assault on Sunde’s rehabilitation, that it is hard to see, as one informant wrote me, how he can remain in communion with the liberal bishops if they fail to repudiate Koehn’s action. In that case, he wrote, “he and the others must either rebel openly or fall flat in shame.”

And yet, my informant continued, the Evangelicals were caught in a dilemma, in effect colliding with themselves. It was these Evangelicals who argued that Scripture does not prescribe any structure of ministry, but simply a “kerygmatic function” that can be adapted to the needs of any given period or culture. Arguing thus, they joined forces with liberals to promote the ordination of women in the 1960s and ’70s. Now when they attempt to muster arguments against homosexual partnerships, the proponents will retort with a variant of the Evangelicals’ earlier arguments, that is, just as the ministry can be “reconfigured” according to the “needs” of the times to include women, so “love relations” can be reconfigured according to the same “necessity” to include same-sex “partnerships.”

The Unwelcome Opposition

There are currently various opposition groups in the state church, most of them of an evangelical/pietistic nature. One of them, however, the Samraad pa Kirkens Grunn (the “Council on the Church’s Foundation”) is a “high church” or “evangelical catholic” organization. While its members are drawn in differing degrees toward Rome or Orthodoxy, they are unwilling to abandon those who for theological or cultural reasons would find it difficult to become Catholic or Orthodox.

In the ten years of its existence the Samraad has strongly sought to foster a broad-based “orthodox opposition” coalition within the state church. Yet the other, more “evangelical,” groups have repeatedly refused to associate themselves with a group known equally for its firm opposition to the ordination of women and the “catholicizing” outlook of its leaders, an outlook historically arguable to be as faithful to the religious attitudes of Luther and his colleagues as that of Lutheran pietists.

So in 1997 the Samraad leaders began to discuss the possibility of obtaining “episcopal oversight” from the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC), a member church of the now-collapsing Old Catholic Union of Utrecht (see my article “Old Catholics, New Doctrines: the Decline of the Union of Utrecht” in the January/February 1999 issue of Touchstone).

The PNCC insisted on two points, however: the Samraad make a clean and total break with the state church before coming under its aegis, and the Norwegian clergy undergo “unconditional” (re)ordination by a PNCC bishop, despite the fact that most of them had over the previous decade quietly obtained “supplemental ordination” from a sympathetic Swedish bishop (the Swedish church claims to have maintained the “apostolic succession”).

The Samraad leadership agreed to these conditions. But then, at the end of 1997, some of its key officials, mostly laity, as well as a majority of the ordinands associated with the organization, suddenly and unexpectedly joined the Roman Catholic Church. The consequent disarray meant that the implementation of the accord with the PNCC, scheduled for January 1998, had to be deferred to a more opportune time.

Bishops Run Aground

In 1998, however, two things happened to complicate matters. First, the moderately liberal bishop of Oslo, Andreas Aarflot, retired. (The Norwegian State Church has no archbishop—the bishop of Oslo has traditionally served ex officio as Praeses [President] of the Bishops’ Conference.)

For his successor, the cabinet, after a split vote, unexpectedly recommended to the king—in effect chose—the strongly liberal former Secretary-General of the Lutheran World Federation Gunnar Staalset. In his more conservative youth Staalset lived for some years in America and was a member of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Now, however, he supports “same-sex partnerships” for clergy as well as laity. In early February 1999 it became known that he had authorized a ritual for the “blessing” of such relationships.

Secondly, the Norwegian government invited the state church bishops to devise a Norwegian version of the “flying bishops” scheme in use in the Church of England. More properly known as “Provincial Episcopal Visitors,” this English plan allows congregations discontented with their diocesan bishops who ordain women to receive episcopal oversight and sacramental ministrations from nondiocesan bishops chosen and consecrated for that purpose.

Coming hard on the heels of the Samraad’s failure to conclude its arrangement with the PNCC, the scheme seemed to some of its members to obviate the need for an exodus from the state church.

In the meantime, the Norwegian bishops were unable to come to any common mind about the Siri Sunde affair at their March 1999 meeting, save to agree to discuss the question once again at a special meeting on May 1, 1999. (Here they were also to decide how to implement the flying bishops scheme.)

According to the Norwegian newspaper Vaart Land, the reason for the lack of accord in March was that the Bishop of Oslo would not agree to join the others in rebuking Koehn for reinstating Siri Sunde.

In an unprecedented step, however, the majority of the bishops voted to reject the new bishop of Oslo as their Praeses and to choose instead the bishop of Moere, Odd Bondevik, who had been Staalset’s “conservative” rival candidate for the see of Oslo the previous year.

When the bishops met again in May, the deadlock over Sunde continued. They also were unwilling even to consider, let alone authorize, any flying bishops scheme. The strongly liberal minority group of bishops, led by the new bishop of Oslo, played upon the threat of the “inevitable” disestablishment of the Church if there should be an open breach of communion between the bare majority of more or less “conservative” bishops and themselves. The “conservatives” fell into a sort of imbecile paralysis and lost their nerve. Not that most of these “conservative” bishops—ordainers of women all—were any too eager to advance a scheme (flying bishops) which might seriously undercut their own positions by creating a genuinely orthodox alternative to their own inconsistent stances.

A Fractured Exodus

So, on May 8, 1999, the regional deans of the Samraad responded with a statement to the effect that after these repeated failures of the Bishops’ Conference to act, they had concluded that the struggle to witness from within the state church was now over. Many leading clerical and lay members of the society began to renounce their positions in the Norwegian church.

Even earlier, on the weekend after Easter, in meetings in Buffalo, New York, two of the leading officials of the Samraad had reached a doctrinal and practical accord with two bishops of the Polish National Catholic Church—the prime bishop, John Swantek, and Thaddeus Peplowski, bishop of the Buffalo-Pittsburgh diocese. The PNCC proposed to assign the episcopal oversight of the new Norwegian body to Peplowski. It thus appears that Norway may see the birth of a “Nordic Catholic Church” toward the end of 1999.

But the Samraad’s impending exodus may become the occasion of its own fracturing if many of its constituents decide to stay behind. Some who do may retreat into a parochial “congregationalism” in the state church, beguiled once again by the renewed prospect of flying bishops. Others may wait for incorporation into what they foresee as an emergent “alternative Anglicanism” under the aegis of the English Forward-in-Faith organization—which in April and May 1999 gave its name to sister societies in both America and Australia. Others may go to Rome or to Orthodoxy, despite the latter’s miniscule size in Norway and the former’s problems with liberal dissent and weak leadership there. Wherever they go, however, they will no longer be together.

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

“Norwegian Woes” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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