In an interview with Asle Dingstad, William Tighe reveals the relativism which pervades a State Church.
T: Have you been involved from the beginning of your ministry in the ‘orthodox opposition’ within the Church of Norway?
AD: Well, in my opinion every priest who is committed to a programme of building up the Church, which is biblical and apostolic, will sooner or later have a problem in the Church of Norway. Every priest who has a biblical profile will want to build the Church of Jesus Christ, and not the folkchurch as a sort of ‘folkhome’ for all people, a warm house for people’s religious life; and this will cause problems.
My problem started very early, and it was connected with questions of baptismal practice, the practice of giving ‘unconditional’ baptism. At that time we baptized more than 90 per cent of the people, thousands and thousands every year, from families with no links with a congregation or any possibility of subsequent teaching or participation in the life of the Church. Baptism was, in a way, no longer a sacrament, because it no longer connected with Jesus Christ, with prayer and with congregational life; it was a ‘contact point’ with people whom we could go back to later on to evangelize, but who were really not Christians, and this is a big problem for a ‘folk church’. Over the years my ‘orthodox opposition’ to the Church in various ways all went back to those two questions, the question of Baptism and the question of ecclesiology.
T: Has your theological standpoint shifted over the years?
AD: I think the worst thing that could be said about me is that I’ve been a bit naive as to these things. For many years I thought that real Lutheranism – because, you see, I’ve studied the Augsburg Confession and the theology behind it – meant that Lutheran confessionalism was ecumenical confessionalism. At the heart it was concerned about one Church, an existing Church, the Catholic Church. I thought that it would be possible to take into the inner debate in these movements the question of ecclesiology, and I always said that the Church of Norway is very much lacking ecclesiology. You can find some things, you can find the seven marks of the Church in Luther’s Concerning Councils and Churches and you can connect to them, and there are Catholic things there to lay hold of and build on, but, as you see, I have found that that project is not one in which I can trust any longer.
T: So you began to have doubts?
AD: Yes, it was not so much a question of principles, because I had no problems even now to recognize some basic Lutheran principles, but of how little there is around those principles to maintain an orthodox church life – all this has brought me to ask for some more ‘church aid’ from outside Lutheranism. Especially when I saw how the one main Lutheran principle, that concerning Justification by Faith, was misused to open up for all those new things, liberal things in ethics and so on, and then how it was used in the case against myself in the Tunsberg/Dingstad Case, that took from me all my illusions about it; that is the main reason why I have now left the Church.
T: Tell us about the Asle Dingstad Case.
AD: In the Church of Norway, as I’ve told you, a dean is defined as an assistant to the bishop, taking part in his oversight, episcope, in the Church. It is very important, of course, that they have the same direction for their teaching and pastoral practice. This has been a growing problem, and it has been one all the time as to the women priests – and that, of course, is one of the other questions that I should have mentioned about the ‘orthodox opposition’, because that question really stopped my career in the Church of Norway. I was an opponent of the ordination of women, along with many others, and it has become evident that to have a career in the Church of Norway we would have to change our attitude toward that question. Everyone that I knew that was in a position to make a career did change their stance, but I never wanted to do that, since I knew that if I did I would lose my spiritual strength. It was too big a sacrifice to make.
T: It sounds as though up to very recently liberal bishops in Norway have been much more willing to cooperate with conservatives than, say, in Sweden.
AD: Yes, and wanting to compromise and find practical ways to get along, and solutions – as in the matter of female priests. It came, however, to the point that I couldn’t stand that any more. My bishop officially broke out in the Bishops’ Conference meeting – he was one of three – in 1995 in favour of homosexual unions, I had warned him beforehand. On the same day that he came out openly in favour, I wrote to the newspapers (and to him, of course) that I was repudiating his episcope over me. I said that I was no longer in communion with him. The first thing he said to me, when he called me the same night, was ‘Now, Asle, it’s either you or me’, he said. ‘Yes, I think that you’re right, both you and I know the Church of Norway; they will try to find some practical way of solving this.’ For two years we went on together. As Rural Dean, I did my job, and I have his word that I did it well. Then he had some talks with government officials and legal officers, and the Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs, and eventually they wrote me a letter telling me that I had to withdraw from my position as Rural Dean but that I could continue as a Vicar in Larvik. It was not stated then and there, although I knew it was the case, that my other option was to be taken to court. I said that I had my church office, that I was properly appointed as a dean, and would not resign. What I wanted to avoid was being removed in a formal, legalistic way, without taking up the theological questions.
I had said that the unity of the Church was broken, and I pointed to Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, where it says that the unity of the Church rests on the right preaching of the Gospel and right administration of the sacraments and not on the views of men. I claimed that his attitude was not in accordance with the Gospel as the Augsburg Confession demands. I wanted to have that cleared by the Church, not by a legal process, but by the Church itself. So I spoke with various government officials, and finally the Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs. I said to him that if he could guarantee me that my case would be brought before the Doctrinal Commission I would relieve him of the necessity to fire me. He didn’t want to fire me, since he knew that if he did so there would be a strong popular reaction to it.
And so it was brought before the Doctrinal Commission, and I took a leave of absence from my position in Larvik. But even when it came to the Doctrinal Commission they wanted to find a way to decide this question without really grappling with the underlying theological issues. That was two years ago. It then took two years to resolve. I did what I could to make them deal with the issue and come to a decision on it. I put it to them, and said that if the new doctrines, the liberal teachings, of the bishops are in accordance with the Gospel as understood in the Augsburg Confession, then I have broken with the bishop on false premises, and my understanding of the Augsburg Confession is not that of the Church of Norway; and so I would have to draw the appropriate conclusion, and resign. I could not be a priest in the Church and still not be in communion with my bishop, and if I have broken with him on false premises, according to the Church of Norway, then I cannot be a priest in it any longer. On the other hand, if what he is teaching is in opposition to the Gospel, how can he then go on being a bishop? I put everything on that question, what is in accordance with the Gospel?
T: Who sits on the Doctrinal Commission? The bishops?
AD: All eleven bishops, three professional theologians, one from each of the three theological faculties, and six lay people, usually academics, chosen by the Church Assembly from its members.
T: Did you argue your case, and the bishop argue his case, before the Commission?
AD: I was not allowed to be there. I was there once, at the beginning, when they had an interview with me, and then I had an advocate to argue on my behalf, and that was Bernt Oftestad. In my interview I explained my views and gave them some writings – position papers and formal documents – and I remember I was asked by the Commission Chairman ‘if you look around at all these bishops, do you find anyone that you can be under ?’ I answered, ‘No, I can’t see one, because they are all now in communion with each another and they are also in fact backing Osberg against me; they can say and mean whatever they want, but as long as they don’t act to that I have no bishop’.
T: How did the Commission resolve the problem?
AD: They concluded that you can be in full communion and share in communion while having two different positions on the question. They said that officially there is only one teaching on this in the Church of Norway, but this is not true, because you can promote the opposite teaching and still be in full communion; but, of course, it is the legal view that will win in the end here, because of the State Church system.
T: Did they say that there were any reasons for which a priest might break communion with his bishop?
AD: They said that there were many reasons, but in practice there were none.
T: So the court went against you, and what was the practical result?
AD: I could go back to Larvik as Dean, but then I would have to resume my previous relationship with the bishop; otherwise, he could undertake legal process against me, to remove me. I said I would think about it, and in the meantime have my ordination rights ‘passively’, not exercising my ministry. In June of this year I left the Church, and now last week I entered this Nordic Catholic Church, I was chrismated (on Thursday, August 10, 2000 – Ed.), I was ordained as a deacon (August 11, 2000 – Ed.) and as a priest (August 12, 2000 – Ed.).
T: I think there were only two on the Commission who supported you: Bishop Bondevik, now the Primus, and professor Ola Tjorholm.
AD: Yes. But when it comes to Bondevik, I think he said later on that he could have followed the other bishops, the so-called conservative bishops (of the eleven bishops in the Church of Norway, seven are reckoned as ‘conservatives’ in theological and ethical matters, and four as ‘liberals’, although all support the ordination of women – Ed.) in their way of understanding what they had done, but (as he said) I want to give priests with a stronger doctrinal or dogmatic viewpoint than myself room in the Church; and then he said that in a way he agrees with what was said in the majority premises, but he wanted to defend those stronger than him in these questions. He didn’t give us any hope for the future ecclesiologically; he wanted to protest only, and to give us moral support. If he had broken with the other bishops and said that he was no longer in communion with them, I would have stayed for some time longer in the Church.
William Tighe is a regular contributor to Touchstone Magazine. This piece appeared there recently and is reproduced by permission.