New Year Will See Norway Church And State 'Divorce'

Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien with Norway's Queen Sonja and King Harald, and Bishop Tor Singsaas, leaving a service in the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim earlier this yearReuters

Norway's Lutheran Church and the state of Norway are to "divorce" on January 1 after nearly 500 years together.

The moment marks a formal separation of Church and state following a parliamentary vote eight years ago. It means the Church's 1,250 priests and bishops will no longer be government officials and the Church will cease to be an agency of the state.

The head of the Church's National Council, Jens-Petter Johnsen, told Norway's Dagsavisen newspaper: "We are facing the biggest organisational change of the Church since the Reformation."

The change recreates the Church as an independent legal entity. However, some argue that it does not go far enough. The previous description of the Church as "the state's public religion" has been ditched, but the new formulation says that ""the Church of Norway, an Evangelical-Lutheran Church, will remain Norway's national Church and will be supported as such by the state".

Kristin Mile, the secretary general of the Norwegian Humanist Association, told Dagsavisen: "As long as the Constitution says that the Norwegian Church is Norway's national Church, and that it should be supported by the state, we still have a state Church."

She said the new formulation was worse than the old because it connected the state to a particular denomination, not just to a particular religion.

The churchgoing rate in Norway is one of the lowest in the world at only around five per cent, though most Norwegians identify with the state Church. The Church of Norway has lost around 40,000 members this year after it became possible to opt out online.

Churches are funded by the state according to the number of members they have, an incentive for Churches to inflate their membership. In November the Catholic Church in Norway was fined for fraud and ordered to reimburse money it had claimed after using the names of immigrants from Catholic countries without their permission.