The Church of Norway is at the present time witnessing an internal division of such proportions that schism is a real possibility. The intensity of the conflict can only be explained as the culmination of a century of unsolved theological and canonical questions in the state church.

Historically, the church of Norway understands herself as the national church under the King as her “summus episcopus”. Perhaps the pre-Revolutionary caesaro-papalism of the Russian Orthodox church can serve as a parallel. Of course, the introduction of parliamentarism in 1884 and the ever increasing pluralisation of modern society has radically changed the legal and societal conditions of the co-operation between state and church. Nevertheless the church leadership has stubbornly refused to draw the unavoidable conclusions from this change, fearing that this will necessarily threaten the many privileges flowing from the established position.

However, during the German occupation the Bishops’ conference disestablished the church in 1942 and the bold action was supported by some ninety per cent of the clergy and their parishes. The disestablishment was argued for in a doctrinal statement called The Foundations of the Church. Primarily this was a rejection of any effort by secular powers to subdue the spiritual integrity of the church.

After the war, when the king returned from England the church was immediately re-established. Only bishop Eivind Berggrav protested claiming that democracy was a threat to the spiritual life of the Church potentially as dangerous a totalitarianism. The last fifty years have proved this to be true.

To no one’s surprise the internal division of the church has been the opening door for external pressure upon the church. The challenge from modernism has during the last century created in the Church of Norway, as elsewhere, an increasing polarisation between a liberal and a conservative wing. The last party is again divided along theological and regional lines. Luckily, during the war the fight against the common enemy set these divisions aside.

But the reconciliation only lasted till the 1950s when under pressure from feminist political groups, the Labour government proposed to the Bishops’ conference that ordination to the priesthood should be open to women. Over against the protest of six conservative bishops, three liberal bishops agreed to this in 1961. Being told that the few ordained women would not take up positions in dioceses where they were not welcome, and when welcomed would mainly work as hospital chaplains, the conservative majority acquiesced.

However, as the initial guarantee was gradually repudiated, the protest continued among the clergy and the laity. This tension made the state wary about its influence on the church and the government took steps to safeguard control over the selection of bishops.

The need for this was the more apparent, as after 1975 a new abortion law regenerated antagonism between church and state. Initially the bishops voiced very strong opposition and even threatened to disestablish the church over the issue, but after a while the bishops not only became quiet but began to remove – and even defrock – clergy who upheld what had till then been the church’s official position. Disgust with the same bishops’ action resulted in a new wave of bitter internal conflict in the eighties.

Sensing that vocal protest led nowhere, in 1991 priests and laity, mainly with high church or Lutheran confessional backgrounds, constituted a para-ecclesial structure – a free synod – named Council on the Foundations of the Church. Referring to the doctrinal statement that led to the disestablishment of the church during the Nazi occupation, the name spelled out the vision of liberation from secular domination of the church. Despite the deep internal division of the Norwegian Church, the birth of the Free Synod was difficult, as the Evangelical party was very disinclined to take action beyond formal protest. And in a situation where proponents of traditional churchmanship became more and more marginalised, some Evangelical clergy had fallen into the temptation to search for the higher offices of the church. For a superficial observer this blurred the front-line, as the Evangelicals generally had advocated conventional piety.

The government’s appointment in 1993 of a lady bishop to the diocese of Hamar, the least active in our church, was then consummated when three Evangelical bishops consecrated her. This caused a state of paralysis among conservative Evangelicals as the lady had openly had advocated abortion, homosexual partnership, inclusive language and the whole package of liberal causes.

When some clergy in the Hamar diocese not only protested but resigned well knowing they would from then on be lepers in the church, Evangelicals in some rural parishes set up alternative eucharistic communities under the umbrella of the Free Synod. After a lot of uproar at the time, today only one such group is functioning well as a regular parish with approximately fifty communicants.

In hindsight there are many reasons to explain why the protest did not develop on a broader scale. Where the conflict did not harden by offence to the laity, the church authorities were able to isolate the protest by playing on the forces of conformity in local rural culture and the traditional co-operation between state and church in national culture.

Then, this spring, the bishops’ conference made a statement on the question of ordination of homosexuals living in partnership. Again the question was put on the bishops’ agenda by the government and three bishops came out actively supporting such ordinations. As an immediate consequence, a dean in the diocese of Tunsberg who is also regional pastor in the Free Synod, declared himself out of communion with this bishop. The parochial council and, in all, some twenty priests in the deanery expressed support for his action. Some days later four priests and five parish councils in the diocese of North Haalogoland followed suit. In these two dioceses more priests and parish councils are expected to take similar action in the immediate future, whereas the diocese of Hamar appears to be without active resistance apart from the followers of the Free Synod.

At her millennium celebration this summer the Church of Norway will be in a sad position. Firstly, large groups in the church reject the lady bishop of Hamar as illegitimate, with all the ramifications that implies. In the two other dioceses the situation is becoming acute as a number of clergy and parishes are jointly breaking the communion with their diocesans.

Thus, for the moment the Church of Norway is chaotically divided. In a longer perspective, however, the outcome of the struggle is uncertain. Denial of access to church buildings, economical pressure and legal sanctions must not be underestimate as determining factors in favour of the establishment position. This is the more so as the inclination of the faithful not to take action beyond verbal protest makes them in the long run defenceless against the clever crisis management of the church authorities.

The challenge to the Free Synod in this situation is to turn vocal protest into innovative action, an innovation that then must be institutionalised into some form of alternative church structure. Hopefully, the Westminster agreement from 1994 will supply the necessary ecclesiastical setting to this institutionalisation process.

Roald Flamstad, the author of this letter, is the National Secretary of the Samrad Pa Kirkens Grunn in the Church of Norway.