Iceland's Lutherans

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Last month’s decision by the California Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage is going to have plenty of repercussions, not the least on churches faced with requests to allow such ceremonies. For the most part, religious groups have decried such court decisions — at least in the USA.

 

But in Iceland, a direct flight of only a few hours from BWI Airport, things are totally different. I picked up this factoid quite recently from Iceland Review. On Oct. 24, Iceland’s national ecclesiastical council (the country is about 96 percent Lutheran) voted to register same-sex partnerships. Karl Sigurdbjornsson, the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland said no church — anywhere, I guess — had ever taken this step. Certainly not there and as far as I know of, not here. I found a little bit more information about the matter here.

I’ve been to Iceland twice and would return in a minute. It’s a country of about 300,000 and I would tell people there that I live in a Virginia county that’s three times the size of their country. During my first trip there during six days in 1997, I spent a lot of time interviewing evangelical [with a small “e”] religious leaders in that country. There were charismatic Lutherans, several shades of pentecostals, Salvation Army and YMCA folks. I even appeared on a religious TV station there, with my comments being translated into Icelandic. Folks I talked with said that, unlike America, Iceland had never had an Great Awakening-style revivals and they envied Americans for having had at least two, or maybe three, if you count the 1970s Jesus movement (which I would). They had benefited immensely from Canadian evangelists associated with the Toronto blessing movement.

 

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But this being in the far north Atlantic, movements take a little longer there to catch on there plus the tenor of most churches there, I was told, is very, very liberal. As is Icelandic society as a whole. During my second visit there in the days before Easter, I witnessed a most impressive custom of 24/7 singing of famous hymns — some of them by well-known performers — in some of Reykjavik’s Lutheran churches. These meditations on the death of Christ are quite the pre-Easter custom there. Called “The Hymns of the Passion,” they were first published in Iceland in 1666 by a pastor/poet Hallgrimur Petursson.

 

The photo along with this entry is that of Hallgrimskirkja, the enormous tower-like church in Reykjavik that bears his name. His 50 hymns were broadcast on national radio during Lent and at least one a day was read outloud in Lent-observant homes. I was last in the country in 2001 so I know that up to seven years ago, this custom was still alive.

 

So Lutheranism has strong traditional roots in the culture, but at the same time the national church appears to have sold out to the spirit of the age. Alas, I did not get to interview any Lutheran leaders, but the pentecostals and evangelicals I talked with said they were growing in numbers while the state church was dropping and that while most Icelanders are nominally Lutheran, church attendance is quite low.

 

Presently, pentecostals are the third largest religious group in Iceland but if they continue to grow, they should take over the country’s tiny Catholic population of 5,600 pretty soon. About half of the Catholics are foreign-born Poles or Filipinos; the pentecostals were all Icelanders. I was pretty amazed at the foothold pentecostals had established even 11 years ago. If I can afford the plane fare, at some point I’ll have to fly back and get an update.

 

Julia Duin, assistant national editor/religion, The Washington Times

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About the Author
Julia Duin

Julia Duin

Julia Duin is the Times' religion editor. She has a master's degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...

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