Nordic Bishops Gather for Conference in Akureyri, Discuss ‘the Church in a Changing World’

Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir.

The Nordic Bishops’ Conference took place in Akureyri, North Iceland this week, RÚV reports. Forty-five bishops were in attendance. Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, Bishop of Iceland, says that gatherings such as this one, where attendees can share their experiences and learn from one another, are important for the work of the church.

The conference is held every three years in one of the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). Agnes was among the organizers of this year’s event.

“There’s always a theme that we lay out and have lectures about,” she explained. This year, the theme was the church in a changing world because “naturally, a lot has changed.”

The theme was intentionally broad, giving the bishops an opportunity to discuss, among other things, climate change, democracy, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. Agnes says it’s important for the Nordic bishops to meet regularly “because we have many common issues and most of the ones we’re dealing with are the same everywhere, so we need to fortify ourselves and together, find ways of responding to all the changes that are taking place.”

Antje Jackelén, Archbishop of Sweden, agrees. “It’s important to meet for personal reasons. Bishops need to gather and exchange experience,” she said. “Our churches have much in common so we’re familiar with each other’s work, but they are also different in ways that makes the conference inspiring and exciting. From the church’s point of view, the conference is important because we in the Nordic countries need to work together to strengthen our actions and grow together spiritually.”

Shifts in Religious Associations and Affiliation in Iceland

religion in iceland

A few changes have occurred to the religious associations listed in the National Registry of Iceland over the past year, Fréttablaðið reports. The Jewish Community of Iceland was registered for the first time, with 38 members currently listed. The Islamic Cultural Centre of Iceland was taken off the registry of religious groups (another Islamic association, the Félag Múslima á Íslandi, remains on the registry). The National Church of Iceland is still the largest religious association in the country by membership, though it has been steadily losing members in recent years.

A total of 53 religious and life stance associations are currently listed in the National Register. Currently, 229,623 individuals are registered in the national church, which has higher affiliation than any other religious association in the country. Its registered members, however, decreased by 94 between December 1, 2020 and October 1 of this year.  The second most populous religious association in the country is the Catholic Church, with just over 14,700 registered members, followed by the Free Church in Reykjavík with about 10,000 members.

Read More: What it Takes to Belong

The two religious groups that saw the biggest spikes in membership during the same period were the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association (Siðmennt), which grew by 334 members, and Ásatrúarfélagið (a pagan religious organization).

The largest decrease was in the Zuist Association, which decreased by 225 members, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the church was set to dissolve in 2019 following disputes with authorities. The organisation with the smallest membership was Vitund (Awareness), with three members. As of October 1, 2021, 4.6% of Iceland’s population was registered outside of any religious organisation, or more than 29,000 people.

Membership in National Church of Iceland Gradually Declining

New data published by Registers Iceland shows that registered membership in the National Church of Iceland continues to decline, albeit slowly. Meanwhile, the pagan Ásatrú Fellowship and the Ethical Humanist Association have both been quietly gaining members.

As of September 1, there were 229,714 people registered as members of Iceland’s National (Lutheran) Church. This is a decline of three members since December 1. And while this is not a dramatic decrease in membership, it does appear to be part of a consistent pattern. From December 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021, the church lost 75 members from its registry.

The Catholic Church has the second-highest membership, or 14,709 members. Fríkirkjan, the independent Lutheran Church of Iceland, which operates apart from the national church, comes in third with 10,040 members. The Ásatrú Fellowship and the Ethical Humanist Association had the greatest jump in membership—279 new members. (Statistics Iceland shows a total of 5,118 members of Ásatrú and 4,084 members of the Ethical Humanist Association as of January 1, 2021, but the current National Registers round-up offered no more specific, recent data regarding total membership in either organization.)

As of September 1, there were 28,926 people (7.7% of the population) registered as not being part of any religious organization. There were additionally 58,514 people listed as ‘Other and Not Specified,’ or 15.7% of the nation.


Catholic Church To Be Built In Selfoss

Municipal authorities in Árborg are requesting comments on a suggestion for the Selfoss city plan that the Catholic Church in Iceland be permitted to erect a church, a congregation hall and a rectory.

The new church buildings are set to rise is in southwest Selfoss, in a plot allocated last year after much deliberation. The blueprints for the buildings are ready, and the buildings are expected to cover 1500 m2 of land and rise no higher than 12,6 m (41.3 ft). The suggestion notes that constructors expect an insignificant increase in traffic to the area but church bells can be expected to ring on holy days. The suggestion also notes that the municipality’s former plans for building a school and kindergarten in the area would have affected the environment much more, especially traffic and noise levels.

According to data from Statistics Iceland, 14,658 people belong to the Catholic Church of Iceland. Its congregation has grown in the past few years, up from only 3,200 in 1998.

Catholic Church In Reykjavík Cancels Sunday Mass

Landakotskirkja, Reykjavík Catholic Church

All Sunday Mass and Saturday night vigils at the Catholic church in Reykjavík have been cancelled following reports of alleged infection prevention regulation infractions over the holidays. The Chancellor of the Catholic church’s Diocese in Iceland Jakob Rolland states that infection prevention regulations are necessary but that it’s not acceptable that the same rules apply everywhere, RÚV reports. He claims no infections have been traced to Masses at the church and that they may make changes to weekday religious services as well because of gathering limits.

All official Sunday Masses and Saturday night Vigils at the Catholic church have been cancelled as they don’t comply with infection prevention regulations, according to a notice from David Tencer, the Catholic bishop of Iceland.

“We aren’t unhappy with the infection prevention regulations. It’s completely clear that such rules are necessary and that we need to comply. On the other hand, the same rules need to apply everywhere with similar conditions. We’re unhappy that there aren’t the same rules for restaurants, entertainment establishments, concerts and the church,” says Jakob. “the church isn’t more dangerous than any other place.”

Infection prevention regulations infractions have occurred twice in Landakotskirkja over the holidays, last on Sunday when the police were called during a Polish-language Mass. The police counted 51 people in the church but the gathering ban currently in place limits the number of people allowed to gather in churches to 10. Another infraction occurred on Christmas Eve when crowd sizes again exceeded 10.

Jakob told RÚV that the church’s priests didn’t have it in them to turn people away. People need to pray and get support from their congregation. “The world is in a serious condition. And the need to pray might be greater now than usual.”

He says that due to recent events, the church’s bishop decided to cancel weekend masses. If more than 10 people arrive at mass on a weekday, people will presumably be turned away or more services added to the schedule. “We will either have to turn people away or operate in such a way that no more than 10 people gather at a time,” says Jakob.

The media has reported that infection preventions in the church were lacking and that priests didn’t use hand sanitiser before distributing communion wafers. Jakob states that no infections can be traced to the church. “So I believe that we have at least as strict, if not stricter rules than most. Priests must also consider their ways and adhere more closely to the recommended rules.”

When asked if it was more important to pray in the church than to obey infection prevention regulations, Jakob replied. “God’s laws apply first and foremost, that’s obvious. But we must also follow infection prevention regulations. And the two can go together.”

COVID-19 In Iceland: Police Investigate Gathering Ban Infractions at Reykjavík Catholic Church

Landakotskirkja, Reykjavík Catholic Church

The police had an extensive presence at a six pm mass at Landakotskirkja Catholic church, following the 1 pm Mass, which was attended by more than 50 people, RÚV reports. That goes against infection prevention regulations in place, which state that a maximum of ten people is allowed to gather. The police are currently investigating alleged infection prevention regulation infractions at the church.

The police were called to Landakotskirkja church when a Polish Language mass started at 1 pm. At that point, two services had already taken place over the day. Another Polish-language mass was scheduled for three pm, a Rosary Prayer session at 5. 30 pm, an English-language mass at 6 pm and yet another mass at 7 pm.

This is the second time in a short period that brings news of alleged infection prevention regulation infractions in the church. Around 50 people were allegedly there on Christmas Eve. According to gathering bans currently in place, no more than 10 people can gather. That also applies to religious services, excluding funerals, where up to 50 people are allowed to gather.

No funeral was scheduled at 1 pm at Landakotskirkja. According to RÚV’s count from recordings on location, you could see at least 70 people over the age of fifteen.

The Catholic Bishop David Tencer had previously posted a notice on the church’s website stating that “A new regulation of the authorities on meeting restrictions will apply until January 12, 2021. The church life and catechism in each parish depend on the situation in the parishes and is, of course, carried out in accordance with all disease control rules.” It is not known if he was in attendance during the Polish-language mass yesterday.

A police officer counted the guests in the church. He also counted the ones exiting through the main doors, stating that they were 51. He also said some remained inside and that some church guests exited through a side door. “I myself was not at mass but a police officer told me that he counted 51 in the church”, Landakotskirkja parish priest Patrick Breen stated to a reporter after speaking to the police. “He told me that 10 is the limit. But I think that if we respect the two-metre-rule and people wear a mask, it’s ok to be up to 50 people because our church is so big.” When asked if he would consider allowing ten people to attend the next mass before shuttering the door, Patrick stated: “Ten, no. We would rather close the church. We’re not forbidding people to come to church. We won’t have a mass and only allow ten people inside, I just don’t think that’s an option.”

Just before the scheduled mass at 6 pm, several police officers were at the church. According to the Capital area police force, they will look into this alleged infraction this week along with other cases where they suspect infection prevention regulations were broken. A church representative will likely be asked to give a report on the incidents, following which they will decide if they will be charged.

Infection prevention regulation infractions were a hot topic over the festive period following reports of Iceland’s Minister of Finance Bjarni Ben attending a party over the gathering ban limits on December 23d.

When asked about the incident, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson stated the first and foremost, the news made him sad. He told RÚV “everyone knows why we have these rules and what we’re doing. We’re trying to dispel a global pandemic. That’s why we have these regulations. If people don’t like and feel like they don’t apply to them, they can apply to the Ministry of Health for an exemption. That’s the correct procedure. Otherwise, everyone should be following the rules and in all but a very few cases, people do.”