Lutherans in a quandary over atheist Danish priest


Letter from Copenhagen: Danes are a hard bunch to shock so, when it comes to scandals of the religious kind, the Lutheran church, or Folkekirken (People's church), has had to come up with something special to set the chattering classes chattering.

A priest who stands up in front of his congregation and says that he doesn't actually believe in God any more - now that has caused a stir.

Alarm bells started ringing in earnest last June, when the priest in question, Thorkild Grosboel, pastor of Taarbaek, a town near Copenhagen, went on to elaborate his views in an interview. "There is no heavenly God, there is no eternal life, there is no resurrection," he said, with typical Scandinavian matter of factness.

Grosboel has since refused to step aside and insists that his lack of belief in some of the theological foundations on which the Christian church is built, does not stop him fulfilling the duties for which he is paid.

He is not the only one who feels this way. The local community, including the local council which oversees the running of his church, want to keep their priest and have begun a petition to do so. Rather surprisingly, the leader of Denmark's theological college of education, Mogens Lindhardt, has also come out in support of the priest, calling his views "refreshing".

The local Bishop, Lise-Lotte Rebel, however, does not agree and has suspended Grosboel indefinitely. The two met twice in June and will meet again in August to see if they can reach a compromise.

However, because the Lutheran church is the established church in Denmark, Lutheran priests are employed by the state. As a result, the bishop can not actually sack her wayward priest. That privilege belongs to the Minister for Ecclesiastic Affairs, Tove Fergo, a Lutheran priest herself.

This has placed the Danish government in an unusual pickle.

Whereas most European governments can steer clear of ecclesiastic scandals, the government here could find itself the unsuspecting referee in a fight out of which it would much rather stay. Because the state is now involved, Grosboel's plight has fired the interest of the man and woman in the street.

This is the sort of argument the Danes love. In a country where bureaucracy has become an art form, any battle which pits an individual against the system is bound to rouse the public. Best of all, the sacred right of self-expression is at the heart of the matter.

People here pride themselves in listening to and respecting alternative arguments. After all, Denmark's longest-serving MEP, Jens Peter Bonde, doesn't believe in the EU, at least in its present form. That hasn't prevented him being voted in to the European Parliament on an anti-EU platform since 1979.

However, the Grosboel debate has also sparked a renewed bout of soul-searching regarding the position of the church within the state apparatus. The fact that a governmental ministry will have to make any final decision on Grosboel's job, has highlighted a weak spot at the heart of the church-state relationship.

Many Danes also feel a little embarrassed that their reputations as one of the most practical and forward-looking populations in Europe is slightly undermined by the relationship between the Lutheran church and the government. This relationship may have waned over the years but it still plays an important role in the everyday lives of all inhabitants of Denmark and many people still sees themselves as Christian, albeit the non-practising sort.

For example, the image of the crucifixion from the 10th century Jelling Monument, now appears on every Danish passport as an emblem of national and cultural identity. All births, irrespective of the religion of the child and its parents, must be notified to the local Lutheran church.

All new taxpayers in Denmark must ask to be omitted from a state church tax which goes straight to the Lutheran church if they do not want to contribute. Roughly 85 per cent of the population pay this tax, despite the fact that fewer than 5 per cent of the population regularly attend Lutheran services. The government also allocates a yearly grant to the church, worth about 12 per cent of its annual income.

However, an abundance of revenue from taxes does not mean that the Lutheran church is well off. In fact the opposite is true. Along with the entitlement to benefit from taxes comes the burden of maintaining the hundreds of immaculate, whitewashed churches which dot the Danish land and cityscapes.

The abundance of these under-utilised but beautifully preserved churches has also sparked another volatile debate, for just as the established church dwindles, decades of immigration means that the Danish Muslim population is growing rapidly.

Without enough mosques, Danish Muslims have requested that some of these buildings be turned over for their use. This is another thorny issue which the Danish government may well wish it wasn't involved in.

While church-state relations remain as they are, it cannot be avoided.