In her New Year's speech, Herborg Finnset, the Bishop of Nidaros, sparked a debate about the future of churches at risk of falling into disuse.
According to Bishop Finnset, several municipalities in Trøndelag County have far too many churches compared to the number of inhabitants. According to her, this problem is relevant in both her own Trøndelag County and elsewhere in the country, where considerable congregation funds are spent on running and maintaining buildings.
“About 150 years ago, many churches were built throughout the country. They still stand where they were built, but there have been major changes in the settlement pattern: many of the old churches we love are where people no longer live”, Finnset said in her New Year's speech at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.
“There was a time when it was necessary to build many churches. In 150 years people have moved, and the traffic pattern is different. We drive cars, we don't sail across fjords anymore. Many churches are located in places that are by no means a centre”, Finnset told national broadcaster NRK.
Therefore, Finnset would like to see a national debate on whether the number of churches should be trimmed down.
When asked what the closed churches could be used for, Finnset suggested tearing them down as the most appropriate way of dealing with the issue.
“Houses of worship and so on that have been taken out of use have become cottages and schools. Selling a church to a cottage is not a thing. We may have to simply take them down”, Finnset said.
She acknowledged that the topic is difficult and touchy, but still insisted that it's worth having a strategic conversation about the use of funds. Apart from phasing out churches, Bishop Finnset also supported the LGBT community in her New Year's speech and questioned the development of wind power.
Finnset's proposal has met with a mixed reaction from the clergy. While some imagined a redistribution of church funds, others suggested that the societal climate was not ripe for such measures.
“There has been no climate to discuss this. People are afraid of losing their churches, and people are afraid of conflicts and disagreements”, Birgit Sund Henriksen, deputy chair of the Inderøy Parish Council in Trøndelag, said. “I personally could think of spending more money on work with children in the church”, she added.
Parish priest Knut Torfinn Øydna acknowledged that there are many good arguments for phasing out, but there are also counter-arguments.
“A church is more than just a building. It is also a signal of the message we are preaching”, Øydna said. He also recalled that Norway would lose important cultural heritage and that historic churches often attract tourists.
Finnset's take also divided netizens. While many Facebook users saw this as a “sensbile idea”, others stressed that Norway is a Christian country and should remain such.
“This does not bode well. When Norway was poor, we could afford to have churches. Now that we have become so rich we no longer need neither God nor churches. The districts will be demolished and now it's the churches turn”, a user observed.
The Church of Norway has over 1,620 buildings defined as either churches or chapels across the country. Over 200 of them are located in the Nidaros diocese, which includes the county of Trøndelag.
The Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Norway is by far the largest Christian denomination in the Scandinavian country with over 3.7 million members (or about 70 percent of the population).
Like fellow Scandinavian churches, however, it has been leaking members at an alarming rate in recent years, having lost 10 percent of its flock in the past decade alone. The option of “unsubscribing” from the church online is widely used, not least for financial reasons.
Over the past decades, the Church of Norway has also revised its stance on a number of pivotal issues, including gay marriage and abortion. Having ordained its first openly gay priest in 2000, the Church of Norway green-lit same-sex marriage in 2015. Earlier this year, Norwegian bishops released a public statement actually apologising for the church's historic pro-life stance and claimed that abortion “promoted women's health, safety, and security”.