The church that built Denmark

In a nation that praises secularism, it’s odd that there is a national religion that receives a privileged status in the constitution. But while Folkekirken struggles to stem its diminishing membership, the Bishop of Copenhagen argues it has a lot to offer in a complicated, modern world

I think that if Jesus saw  today’s society, he would admonish us for how we treat minorities and for our lack of community and togetherness. He would also be deeply disturbed by how we forget each other, don’t grieve together, and how we run from our problems,” says Peter Skov-Jakobsen, Bishop of Copenhagen in Denmark’s national church, Folkekirken.

His opulent office overlooks Copenhagen’s cathedral, Vor Frue Kirke, whose neo-classical columns hint at both lasting and fading power. Folkekirken has certainly been stronger, as church membership has been dropping over the past 25 years. However, 78% of Danes remain members, making Folkekirken Denmark’s undoubted spiritual powerhouse.

The church’s origins lie in the Reformation of 1536, which split the Protestant church from the Catholic and forever changed Europe. The church became integrated into the monarchy, with the king as its highest authority. The first Danish constitution of 1849 formalised this relationship, cementing Folkekirken – the ‘People’s Church’ – as Denmark’s most important institution after the monarchy and the government.

“The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the Established Church of Denmark, and as such shall be supported by the State,” reads section four of the Danish constitution.

Skov-Jakobsen’s sumptuous office and the subdued, yet palatial, Vor Frue Kirke, are a testament to Folkekirken’s status at the heart of Danish society. In an age of increased secularisation and scientific understanding, there is reason to wonder about the role, status and the future of this grand old establishment. But Skov-Jakobsen is adamant that a place remains for the Church in modern society.

“We have now lived so long with natural and social sciences, that we know they are subject to interpretation – religion is no different. Folkekirken symbolises the fact that truth must always be interpreted, because the church has to accommodates voices from both the right and left wings. But regardless of interpretation, religion gives us the opportunity to think about the existential and the banality of existence – of joy, loneliness, sorrow. All these things can be understood and expressed with religion,” says Skov-Jakobsen.
A role in

Bishop of Copenhagen, Peter Skov-Jakobsen. Photo: Peter Stanners

Bishop of Copenhagen, Peter Skov-Jakobsen. Photo: Peter Stanners

A secular society
Skov-Jakobsen has a warm demeanour and his eyes light up with conviction when discussing the future of the church and Christianity. He speaks a little like a politician, which isn’t surprising given that, as Bishop of Copenhagen, he is one of the most powerful and influential people within the church.

The other nine bishops of Folkekirken’s dioceses are his equals, however, as the organisation has no centralised authority and no archbishop – as in the Church of England – who can speak on behalf of the whole church. Instead, individual parish priests settle matters of faith and doctrine, with each diocese’s bishop having the final say on all decisions.

“Our job is to be an open forum where we can discuss and debate. I believe that Christianity has solutions and that it can give the powerless a voice, a means of expression,” he says, adding that in these fast times of technology and individualism, the need for Christianity has never been greater.

“Christianity has a lot to offer to people in this complicated world,” he says. “We live in a very different reality than our ancestors. We are constantly affected by speed and acceleration. It’s a world where we don’t have time for deep conversations. We sometimes need a reason to stop. There is a church on every street corner in Copenhagen, and when you enter that space most people can sense that the walls can accommodate both the large and small questions that we all carry with us, regardless of what life we lead.”

It is difficult to argue with Skov-Jakobsen’s observation about the speed of our society and his diagnosis of post-modern individualism. Just a few generations back, the complicated questions we face had superficial answers – God, King and Fatherland are simple truths for difficult issues.

While Jesus might not be happy with modern society, Pope Francis has taken a strong stance on material inequality. The Catholic leader’s entry into the political sphere has aroused critics, but Skov-Jakobsen argues that it is the role of christianity and churches like Folkekirken to remain opinionated and active in society.

“In 1943, the Danish bishops released a statement saying that the murder of Jews was wrong and that we had to speak up. But we must also protest injustice today. Jesus always pointed to the powerless and he always said that those who serve are the great.”

But just because Folkekirken takes a stance on social and political issues, that doesn’t make it a political party Skov-Jakobsen argues. “We don’t march,” he says, succinctly. And while Christianity has been tainted by immoral acts carried out in its name, Skov-Jakobsen says that abuse and mistakes are a sad part of life and being human.

Folkekirken’s declining membership is balanced by a growing use of church facilities in recent years. One explanation is that its loose structure has allowed individual parishes to develop their own way of reaching out to the public – from night services and brunch, to youth outreach and nude weddings.

A shared church
But Folkekirken’s role in Denmark has involved more than simply caring for the spiritual wellbeing of the Danish people; it has also been instrumental in forming the modern state.

Anders Holm, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Systematic Theology, claims that the legacy of Christianity is still alive and well in Denmark and that understanding its influence is vital to understanding Denmark.

“I have a colleague who claims that there is more Christianity in Denmark than Islam in Saudi Arabia,” he says, joking about the connection between church and state in Denmark.

“It’s interesting that even though most people don’t go to church regularly, there is a lot of Christianity in both our culture and society,” Holm says, explaining that Folkekirken played a pivotal role in shaping two of Denmark’s most characteristic features – social cohesion and the welfare state.

“When you have an institution that connects such a big share of the nation, you help create social cohesion. In the US, for instance, you have many small independent churches that were often built around a single community. Because of the way the church was set up here, people have been forced to associate with others they otherwise would not have. So Folkekirken helped establish a sense of community across society and class boundaries.”

This sense of shared identity and religion helped form a society that believes in the public good; but in Holm’s view, the Reformation’s massive administrative overhaul was equally important.

“People often overlook the historical fact that the church was the central provider of social programmes and welfare. So when the church merged with the state, the state effectively took over duties such as caring for the poor.

“People often credit the Social Democrats for the state’s social role but, in reality, the welfare state has a lot to do with the combination of church and state.”

The situation is different in countries where the church and state have always been separate, Holm argues. In these countries – such as the US and many African countries – local churches are often the main supporters of the poor and disenfranchised.

“Maybe people don’t feel that they need the church following its merger with the state. When we have problems, we don’t turn to our priest, we turn to our social worker.”

Kristkirken parish priest Liane Dambo

Kristkirken parish priest Liane Dambo

Challenges for the future
The status of the church and its tight-knit bond with the state has been widely discussed. The government’s coalition platform included a call to further separate the two – a move supported by professor Svend Andersen from the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University.

“In many ways, we have the most old fashioned connection between church and state in Europe. A modern society would not want to be associated with, or give financial support to, one form of religion and church,” he explains. “I also think the Folkekirken would find it beneficial to have more of a say in its own actions.”

Folkekirken takes its orders from the government’s Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, but their relationship has, at times, been tense. Recently, a priest went on the radio to criticise the more modern ways of worship, but was promptly reprimanded by his bishop. This led former priest and current MP for the populist Danish People’s Party, Christian Langballe, to call on the Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs to fire the bishop.

“Judicially, this form of intervention is permitted, but it doesn’t make much sense that politicians would intervene and decide what is right and wrong for the church,” Andersen says.

The government’s recommendation to modernise Folkekirken’s structure was ultimately shot down by right wing parties in parliament, leaving the church and state entwined in a relationship that has  been abandoned by its neighbours in Sweden and Norway.

Folkekirken’s future is subject to far more pressing issues than its administrative structure, argues Andersen. Fewer people may be leaving Folkekirken, but it faces its greatest challenge in the capital, where only around 61% of residents remain a member – significantly below the 78% national average.

“Folkekirken isn’t in crisis, but it is clear that the church needs to find a way to communicate in a modern society,” Andersen says.

Another challenge facing the church is Islam’s increasingly visible role in Danish society. Danes would better understand Islam if they first  understood their own religious heritage,  Andersen argues. The meeting of the two faiths could even serve as a positive platform for bringing together the people behind them.

“Folkekirken will need to decide how it wants to interact with Islam. Some within the church are very sceptical, while others are very open. So the question is how to find a sensible way of approaching the topic. I think a big part of that is getting young people to study theology so that we can produce some good and clever priests.”

A night in a church 
Moments before the bishop ducks into a taxi that whisks him off to dinner with the American ambassador, he declares that Folkekirken’s current pluralism means there has never been a better time to be a priest.

“You meet so many different people and have so many interesting conversations. There is also an increased interest in Folkekirken’s offerings in recent years. So even though the membership numbers may be dropping, we are very privileged.”

You don’t need to travel far to find it. Walking home one evening from The Murmur’s offices, I passed Kristkirken on Enghavevej, its illuminated interior lighting up the grey sidewalk. It wasn’t the first time I had noticed it open so late, and I recall feeling that it was out of place among Vesterbro’s hip cafes and trendy bars.

Remembering the bishop’s final words, I decided to go inside. I have hardly spoken to a priest since two grumpy old conservative men performed my confirmation when I was a teenager in Iceland. This mental image of a typical priest remained imprinted on my mind, so I was surprised to be met by parish priest Liane Dambo. She spun through the atmospherically-lit church in her puffy red skirt, as two groups of young women enjoyed coffee to the sounds of soft electronica music.

“People don’t know about how many different things we have to offer, because we aren’t good enough at telling them,” Dambo confides.

“When people go to a bad service they often write off the church and don’t go and check out another church. That’s a shame because there might be a priest they like more.”

Being in church at ten in the evening on a Thursday is definitely different. And Dambo breaks the mould of what I expect from a priest. Sitting there, listening to her speak, I couldn’t help but feel that this sanctuary from Vesterbro’s trendy individualism might actually have its place in this world. M


By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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