Church of Iceland

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Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland
Classification Protestant
Orientation Lutheranism
Polity Episcopal
Leader Bishop of Iceland
Associations Lutheran World Federation,
World Council of Churches,
Conference of European Churches,
Porvoo Communion
Region Iceland
Headquarters Reykjavík, Iceland
Origin 1540
Separated from Church of Denmark
Official website kirkjan.is (Icelandic)
A small wood and turf church in Hof.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (Icelandic: Hin evangeliska lúterska kirkja), also called the National Church (Icelandic: Þjóðkirkjan), is the officially established Christian church in Iceland. The church professes the Lutheran faith and is a member of the Porvoo Communion.

The church is organised into one diocese headed by the Bishop of Iceland. The current Bishop of Iceland is Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, the first woman to hold this position.[1]

History[edit]

Pre-Christian era[edit]

Christianity was present from the beginning of human habitation in Iceland, a fact that is unique to Iceland among the European nations. The first people setting foot on Icelandic soil were Celtic hermits, seeking refuge on these remote shores to worship Christ. Later, Norse settlers are thought to have driven them out. Some of the settlers were Christians, although the majority were pagan, worshipping the old Norse gods. When Iceland was constituted as a republic in 930 CE, it was based on the pagan religion. In the late 10th century missionaries from the continent sought to spread Catholicism among the population.

Adoption of Christianity[edit]

The Goðafoss waterfall, named after the pagan idols thrown into it after the adoption of Christianity

Ari Þorgilsson, in his historical work Íslendingabók, recounts that the nation was deeply divided between the adherents of the different religions that would not tolerate each other. At the legislative assembly, the Alþingi at Þingvellir, in the year 1000, the country was on the brink of civil war. The leaders of the two groups realized the danger and found a solution. They chose a person that everybody respected for his wisdom, the heathen priest and chieftain, Þorgeir of Ljósavatn, to decide which way the people should go. Þorgeir retired to his dwelling and lay there all day meditating. The next day he called the assembly together and made his decision known. "If we put asunder the law, we will put asunder the peace," he said. "Let it be the foundation of our law that everyone in this land shall be Christian and believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit." He also decreed that pagan sacrifice, the exposure of infants, and the eating of horseflesh would be tolerated for the time being, if practiced in private. The people agreed and many were subsequently baptized.[2]

Through the centuries[edit]

At the inauguration of Christianity in Iceland, missionary bishops and priests from Germany, England and Eastern Europe worked among the population. The first Icelandic bishop, Ísleifur, was consecrated in Bremen in 1056, and he made Skálholt the episcopal see. Thereafter, Skálholt was the centre of Christian learning and spirituality in the country through the 18th century. In spite of all the upheavals of history there is a marked continuity within the church of Iceland. For the first five centuries the Icelandic church was Roman Catholic. In the beginning of 1056, it was part of the province in Bremen. Later, the Icelandic church came under the archbishops of Lund and in 1153 it became a part of the province of Nidaros. Iceland was divided into two dioceses, Skálholt, established 1056, and Holar in 1106. These continued until 1801, when Iceland became one diocese under one bishop of Iceland, residing in Reykjavík.

The country was an independent republic from 930 until 1262. Then Iceland, having suffered civil war and anarchy, came under the rule of the Norwegian king and in 1380 with Norway under the Danish crown. In 1944 Iceland regained its independence as a republic.

Holy men and venerable books[edit]

Three Icelandic churchmen were revered as saints, even though none of them actually canonized. The most famous of them is Þorlákur, St. Thorlac of Skálholt (1133–1193). He was educated in Lincoln, England, and in Paris. Returning to Iceland Þorlákur became an abbot of the Canon Regular monastery of Þykkvibær, soon gaining a reputation for his sanctity. As a bishop of Skálholt, he sought to enforce the decrees of Rome regarding the ownership of church property and morality of the clergy. The Icelandic calendar has two days dedicated to Þorlákur, July 20 and December 23. The other two saintly bishops are Jón Ögmundsson (1106–1121) and Guðmundur Arason (1203–1237).

There was great literary activity during the 12th and 13th centuries producing extensive religious literature in the Icelandic language as well as the well-known sagas. Clergy doubtless wrote most of them. Parts of the Bible were already translated into Icelandic in the 13th century. This powerful and enduring literary tradition with its strong national character has shaped the Icelandic language and inspired literary activity. Icelandic has had a continuity that makes it the oldest living language in Europe. Every child in Iceland can read texts dating from the 13th century. The Icelandic hymnal contains hymns from the 12th century and the 14th centuries in their original linguistic forms.

The Reformation[edit]

In 1540 the Lutheran Reformation was established in Iceland, enforced by the Danish crown. The monasteries were dissolved and much of the property of the episcopal sees confiscated by the King of Denmark, who became the supreme head of the church. A dark spot in the history of the Reformation is the lawless execution in 1550 of the last Roman Catholic bishop of Hólar, Jón Arason and his two sons. Most of the Roman priests continued in their parishes under the Lutheran church ordinance. The Reformation unleashed renewed literary activity in the country. The publication of the Icelandic translation of the New Testament in 1540 and the entire Bible in 1584 marks important milestones in the history of the Icelandic language and is a major factor in its preservation. The "Hymns of the Passion," 50 meditations on the cross by the 17th century poet and minister Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674), were for generations the most important school of prayer and wisdom. The same can be said of "The Postil", the sermons of Jón Vídalin, bishop of Skálholt (1698–1720). His eloquent and dynamic sermons were read in every home for generations. The Icelandic Bible Society was founded in 1815. Its foundation was the fruit of the visit of a Scottish minister, Ebenezer Henderson, who travelled around the country distributing Bibles and New testaments. The 19th century witnessed the beginning of a national revival in Iceland and a movement towards political independence. Many clergy played an important part in that movement.

The modern era[edit]

The constitution of 1874 guarantees religious freedom, but the constitution also specifies that the "Evangelical Lutheran Church is a national church and as such it is protected and supported by the State." This provision was retained in the constitution of the Republic of Iceland of 1944. Around the start of the 20th century, the church legislation was reformed, parish councils were established and the congregations gained the right to elect their pastors. A new translation of the Bible was printed in 1912, and revised in 1981. The most recent translation of the Bible was published in 2007 by Hið íslenska Biblíufélag (The Icelandic Bible Society). In the early 20th century, liberal theology was introduced in Iceland, causing great theological strife between liberal and conservative adherents. Textual criticism of the Scriptures and radical theological liberalism was quite influential in the Department of Theology within the newly founded University of Iceland. Spiritism and theosophical writings were also influential in intellectual circles. Opposed to this were the inner mission, the YMCA/YWCA, and missionary societies with a pietistic leadership. This conflict marred church life in the country well into the 1960s. At the start of the 20th century, two Lutheran free churches were founded, based on the same confessions as the national church and using the same liturgy and hymnal, but structurally and financially independent. Earlier, Roman Catholic priests and nuns had established missions and founded hospitals. In the early decades of the 20th century Seventh Day Adventist and Pentecostal missions were quite successful.

Until the 20th century, the population of the country was predominately rural, farmers and fishermen, whose lifestyle was traditional. The church was a part of this way of life, prayers and devotions in every home and religious customs surrounding everyday life and work of the people taken for granted. Modern social upheavals have brought with them problems for the church in Iceland. Iceland is a modern and highly urbanized society, highly secularized with increasing pluralism of belief.

About 79% of the population belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland[3] and over 90% of the populace belong to Christian churches. Nine out of 10 children are baptised in their first year, more than 90% of adolescents are confirmed, 85% are married in the church and 99% of funerals take place in the church. Regular Sunday morning worshippers are a much lower percentage of the population, even though church festivals and special events frequently draw large crowds.

In 2000, the Icelandic people celebrated the millennium of Christianity in Iceland.[4] In a 2004 Gallup poll of Icelanders, 51% of respondents described themselves as "religious".[5]

Organisation[edit]

Church membership
(1 January)[6]
Year Population Members % ±
1998 272,381 244,893 89.91 0.00 Steady
1999 275,712 246,263 89.32 0.59 Decrease
2000 279,049 247,420 88.67 0.65 Decrease
2001 283,361 248,614 87.74 0.93 Decrease
2002 286,575 249,386 87.02 0.72 Decrease
2003 288,471 249,645 86.54 0.48 Decrease
2004 290,570 250,176 86.10 0.44 Decrease
2005 293,577 250,759 85.42 0.68 Decrease
2006 299,891 251,909 84.00 1.42 Decrease
2007 307,672 252,411 82.04 1.96 Decrease
2008 315,459 252,708 80.11 1.93 Decrease
2009 319,368 253,069 79.24 0.87 Decrease
2010 317,630 251,487 79.18 0.06 Decrease
2011 318,452 247,245 77.64 1.54 Decrease
2012 319,575 245,456 76.81 0.83 Decrease
2013 321,857 245,184 76.20 0.61 Decrease
2014 325,671 244,440 75.06 1.14 Decrease

On 1 January 1998, a new law came into effect defining the status of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland and its relations to the government. The annual Church Assembly (Kirkjuþing) is now the highest legislative authority of the church, making most church law previously enacted by the Alþing. The Kirkjuþing has 29 elected representatives, 12 ordained and 17 lay-people, and a lay President. The highest executive authority is the Church Council, Kirkjuráð, with two clergy and two lay-persons elected by the Kirkjuþing, and presided by the Bishop of Iceland. Annually the Bishop summons all the pastors and theologians of the church to the Pastoral Synod, to discuss the affairs of the church and society. The synod has a say in all matters of theology and liturgy to be decided by the bishop and Kirkjuþing.

Iceland is one diocese under the Bishop of Iceland, based in Reykjavík. Two assistant or suffragan bishops (vígslubiskup) reside at the old episcopal sees of Skálholt and Hólar. They are responsible for the cathedrals of their sees and the building up of these as centres of study and spirituality. They assist the Bishop of Iceland in pastoral matters and together the three bishops form the Bishops´ Council.

The Bishop's Office in Church House in Reykjavík also serves as the office of the Kirkjuráð. Besides dealing with financial matters and personnel, it also has departments of education and diaconia, ecumenical affairs, church and society and communication. The church's publishing house is also situated in Church House. There are about 300 Lutheran parishes nationwide. Each parish is a financially independent unit, responsible to for the construction and upkeep of its church buildings and all the work of the congregation. Besides worship services, parish work covers wide range of educational and diaconal activities, children and youth work. In rural areas up to several parishes are served by the same priest.

There are about 150 priests and 27 ordained deacons. Fourteen priests work in specialized ministries in hospitals and other institutions. The Church of Iceland also has priests serving Icelandic congregations abroad.

The theological faculty of the University of Iceland, founded in 1911, educates the clergy (priests and deacons) for the Lutheran Church. Many theologians go abroad for further studies in seminaries and universities on both sides of the Atlantic. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland is far from being isolated and is open to all contemporary influences and theological trends.

Ecumenical alliances[edit]

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland is a member of the Lutheran World Federation, the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches. In 1995, the church signed the Porvoo Communion Statement, entering into full communion (close relationship and acknowledgement of shared doctrines) with the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran churches and the Anglican Churches of the British Isles.[7]

The Missionary Federation of Iceland in cooperation with the Norwegian Missionary Federation has operated missions in China, Ethiopia and Kenya. The Icelandic Church Aid has worked in cooperation with international agencies in relief and development work in various parts of the world.

The church has historical connections with the other Nordic churches including the Church of Sweden, Church of Norway and its former parent church, the Church of Denmark. All Nordic state churches are of the Lutheran Christian tradition.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Agnes M Sigurdardóttir is first woman elected as bishop in Icelan". Zonta International. 15 May 2012. Retrieved 11 January 2013. 
  2. ^ Karlsson, Gunnar. History of Iceland. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, pp. 33-34.
  3. ^ "Statistics Iceland - Statistics " Population " Religious organisations". Statice.is. 2009. Retrieved 2010-01-26. 
  4. ^ Church of Iceland, kirkjan.is, retrieved 24 January 2008 
  5. ^ Þjóðarpúls Gallup 2004, see the poll archive
  6. ^ "Populations by religious organizations 1998-2012". Reykjavík, Iceland: Statistics Iceland. 
  7. ^ "The Porvoo Communion". Porvoo Churches. Retrieved 11 January 2013. "The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland signed the Porvoo Agreement at its General Synod on 17–27 October 1995." 

External links[edit]