New Bishop of Iceland Says Church Failed LGBTQ+ People

Guðrún Karls Helgudóttir bishop of iceland

Guðrún Karls Helgudóttir, who was recently elected the new bishop of Iceland, said that the Church of Iceland’s attitude towards homosexuality was at a time based on denial.

“The church failed”, she told Morgunblaðið in an interview this weekend. “Therefore it owes a debt to the LGBTQ+ community. The church should have opened its arms to diversity. A majority of priests were on the community’s side, for the record, even if the church itself didn’t come around formally until it was too late.”

Family experience

One of Guðrún’s two daughters is trans. “It was very surprising to us when she told us, the autumn after her confirmation. We don’t choose what we face as parents and our job is first and foremost to love, help, and support our children,” Guðrún said.

“I’ve always had an open mind for how human beings can be of all stripes, but this caused me to feel even more strongly about how important it is that we accept all people the way they are and respect diversity,” she added. “I think the new generation is teaching us a lot when it comes to this.”

Membership decline

Guðrún was elected as bishop on 7 May in an election among 2286 registered voters of the church electorate, which includes priests, deacons, and lay members. She was ordained in 2011 and has served a number of parishes, most recently the Grafarvogur neighbourhood of Reykjavík.

She takes over from current bishop Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir on 1 September. The church, known officially as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, has around 220,000 members, just over 60% of the population. Membership is down from since the turn of the century, when the church’s membership was 90% of the population.

Bishop Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir To Step Down in 18 Months

Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir.

In her New Year Sermon in the Reykjavík Cathedral, Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir announced that she will step down from her role in 18 months.

In her sermon, Agnes noted that she would be publishing her pastoral letter, a step towards completing her duties as Bishop. A pastoral letter is a book that each bishop releases during their tenure that expresses the bishop’s vision of the church and the community. In her sermon, Agnes stated: “In the next eighteen months, I will close this chapter of my life related to my service as Bishop. When I look back over my journey, I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I knew that I would have my work cut out for me in the reforms I wanted to make and I’ve often had rough seas during my tenure.”

In her pastoral letter, Agnes stresses that the church should have an impact on human rights, equality, the environment, and other issues that concern people’s lives, stating in her sermon that: “The Church’s voice in the human rights cases of asylum seekers and refugees has become louder, above all demanding mercy and grace.”

In the next eighteen months, Agnes will complete her visitations to all churches and congregations in the country, ending in Bolungarvík on Sailor’s Day 2024, where Agnes served as minister from 1994-2012. “I want to complete my visitations and my service as Bishop by singing with my former choir in Hólskirkja in Bolungarvík, on the day that will mark 12 years since I left that fine congregation.”

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.”

Directorate of Immigration Condemned for Withdrawing Support of Asylum Seekers

religion in iceland

The Church of Iceland has issued a resolution condemning the Directorate of Immigration for withdrawing housing and food allowances for a group of asylum seekers that are set to be deported, Fréttablaðið reports. The Directorate of Immigration revoked housing and food allowances from 14 men, most from Palestine, after they refused to undergo the testing for COVID-19 required for their deportation. Hundreds participated in a Reykjavík protest in support of the group last Saturday.

The Directorate of Immigration withdrew housing and food allowances from a group of 14 men earlier this month after they refused to undergo COVID-19 testing that was a prerequisite to their deportation to Greece. The men have also been barred access to other services, including healthcare, with at least one reporting that a medical appointment was cancelled following the Directorate of Immigration’s decision to withdraw services. Most of the men are from Palestine, while others are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and other countries.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CPVUJahgaW_/

The Directorate aims to deport the men to Greece, where they have received international protection. Asylum seekers entering Europe often do so through Greece and are consequently granted international protection in the country allowing (though not obligating) other European countries to deport them back to Greece. The Council of Europe, the Red Cross, and many human rights organisations have deemed living conditions in Greece to be unfit for refugees, who often lack access to basic services there including healthcare, housing, and education. The Palestinian men within the group have issued a statement pleading for the government to reconsider their cases (see post above).

Read More: Asylum Seeker Deportations from Iceland

“It is highly reprehensible that the Icelandic government is using force and deliberately making people homeless in a society that aims to have Christian values ​​and human rights as a guiding principle. It is also unacceptable that people should be sent back to conditions in Greece that are by no means safe, as many international reports indicate, and that people’s only choice lies in deciding in which country they want to be homeless,” the Church’s resolution states. The Church’s statement calls on Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir and the Director-General of the Directorate of Immigration to take immediate action to reverse their decision.

The Self-Isolation Diaries II: We Need a New God

Over the next few weeks, Iceland Review’s Ragnar Tómas will be publishing a series of articles on life in the time of COVID (click here to read part 1).

April 16

I came across the carcass of a redwing this morning.

Or at least I think it was a redwing. It was hardly recognisable, decomposing there in the flowerbed, below the glass panel of our backyard fence. Lulling my son to sleep in his carriage, walking back and forth, I conjectured that the bird had probably broken its neck on the glass, before a cat, or some other scavenger, had begun picking at its remains. It wasn’t the most dignified of farewells, although, you could argue, an elevated bed of flowers, partly shielded from the elements, is among a species not known for burying its kind not too shabby. Also, it had probably died swiftly.

The sick in New York City are not dying swiftly. Many of them, we are told, suffer alone, for days, before being unceremoniously interred into mass graves on Hart Island. These “unclaimed dead” lie next to Civil War soldiers, stillborn babies, and the homeless – hard to imagine a more pathetic fate. (According to the latest figures, over 34,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States – and more than 11,000 in New York City alone.)

Things aren’t as bad in Iceland – but it’s still not a particularly good time to die. With the authorities limiting public gatherings to 19 people, families of the recently departed must decide whether to hold sparse funerals or whether to postpone such ceremonies indefinitely (the restrictions will be eased on May 4, with 49 people being allowed to assemble legally). Other church services are undergoing a similar hiatus: confirmations, the majority of which are held during Easter, have been postponed; Sunday mass is suspended; and anyone hoping to get married in front of an adoring crowd of witnesses will have to defer their error to a later time.

We have a curious relationship with our national church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland is protected and supported by the state under Section VI of the Constitution. Over 65% of us belong to the National Church (over 90% to Christian churches generally). Nine out of our ten children are baptised. And 99% of our funerals take place within church walls (not to mention that a considerable portion of our taxes is funnelled directly into the institution). Compare these figures to those of a survey conducted in 2016, which revealed that 0.0% of Icelanders 25 years or younger believed that God created the universe; that only 36% of Christians believed in God, Jesus, the resurrection, and eternal life; and that 60% wanted to expunge Section VI from the constitution.

These two sets of opposing facts speak to a bizarre, nation-wide cognitive dissonance. We allow the National Church to preside over the most significant events of our lives – births, weddings, funerals – even though the majority of us have little faith in this presiding party. Despite the relative benignancy of Icelandic Christianity – which has chosen to “mellow out and modernise,” as opposed to becoming more fundamentalist and fanatical, as a colleague recently observed – it yet originates from the same moral strain that has been the source of more than one misguided tragedy during the pandemic.

In South Korea, executives of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus may be held criminally responsible for the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the country (they ignored the advice of medical professionals and went ahead with religious services). In Iran, the head of the Fatima Masumeh Shrine in Qom called on pilgrims to keep coming because it was a place to “heal from spiritual and physical diseases” (worsening the outbreak). In the US, Bishop Gerald Glenn, pastor of the New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Virginia, died from COVID-19 after having defied warnings about the danger of religious gatherings. Before his death, he is to have said, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.”

A pandemic will do strange things to you. We have witnessed the abrupt cessation of what seemed the unremitting workings of an ungovernable machine (author Andri Snær Magnason stated in March that he had thought it “unthinkable” to live at a time when the world effectively shut down). This sudden stoppage affords us the opportunity of examining the elements of that machinery – and inquiring which parts are worth keeping when the system reboots. I’m not sure if I’m ready to abandon handshakes. Not sure that I prefer to spend more time working from home. But I feel as prepared as ever to begin disentangling the Church of Iceland from the most meaningful strands of our lives.

We need a new God.

Church to Open Daytime Shelter for the Homeless

Reykjavik from above

According to a press release published today, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (the national church of Iceland) plans on opening a daytime shelter for the homeless in Reykjavík in 2020. Bishop Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir established a committee to investigate the possibility last year.

The committee subsequently submitted proposals to the Bishop along with a cost estimate, advising that the daytime shelter should initially be open only to homeless women. The shelter, which is expected to be open year-round from 11 am to 5 pm, will offer hot meals at noon and refreshments in the afternoon. The Church Council reviewed the proposal and approved of the project on December 11. The Council has earmarked funds for the shelter in the 2020 budget.

In a conversation with Iceland Review today, deacon and committee member Ragnheiður Sverrisdóttir confirmed that the project was in preparation, but shied away from speculating on when exactly the daytime shelter would open: “In my experience, if you announce that you’ll open in April, you’ll open in August.”

Along with Ragnheiður Sverrisdóttir, reverends Hjalti Jón Sverrisson and Vilborg Oddsdóttir, and a social worker from Icelandic Church Aid, also comprise the committee. Reverend Hreinn S. Hákonarson, a former prison chaplain, serves as an advisor to the committee.

Bishop Expresses Regret Over Minister’s Moral Infractions

Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir.

The Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir has met with the five women who accused rev. Ólafur Jóhannsson of sexual harassment and reported him to the Church of Iceland Complaints Board. The bishop and two suffragan bishops have released a statement expressing regret that the incidents took place, calling the minister’s infractions unacceptable while stressing that they believed the women’s stories.

The bishop sent Ólafur on leave in the summer of 2017 after the women’s accusations against him, which included picking them up, kissing them and hugging, and licking their ears, were reported to the Complaints board. The board’s ruling was appealed and the appellatory committee found that Ólafur had morally violated two of the women but denied that the violations were sexual. The Church has been criticised before for handling matters of sexual harassment internally instead of directing accusations to the police. All of the women were in contact with the minister through their work or volunteering for the church.

In a statement from the church, the Bishop of Iceland and the Suffragan Bishops of Skálholt and Hólar, Sólveig Lára Guðmundsdóttir and Kristján Björnsson, regret that the infractions committed by the parish minister, rev. Ólafur Jóhannsson happened and declare the fact that the women had to suffer his moral infractions for years, painful. They also state that they believe the women’s stories and are pained by the fact that the women had to go through the “trial by fire of defending their own boundaries and morality through official complaints and other public means.” Finally, they state their hope that the changes to the way sexual harassment cases are handled within the church will lead to better and more efficient ways to protect victims of sexual and disciplinary violations.

The bishop suspended rev. Ólafur in December of 2018 but a committee on the rights and duties of government employees found that his suspension wasn’t legitimate. Despite his intention to resume his duties, that never happened as his office as Parish Minister in Grensás Parish was abolished and Grensás and Bústaðasókn parishes combined into one.

Pastors “Fiercely Object” to Salary Freeze

hallgrímskirkja reykjavík

The Association of Icelandic Pastors has issued a strongly worded statement of protest against the so-called “wage council bill” which is currently under consideration in parliament. RÚV reports that among the bill’s provisions is one that would freeze church salaries until the Church of Iceland and the government come to an agreement about revised state contributions to the church.

In their statement, the board of the Association of Icelandic Pastors said that they “fiercely object to the plans to ‘freeze’ the salaries of bishops, suffragan bishops, archdeacons, and pastors of the Church of Iceland for an indefinite period of time.” Under normal circumstances, continues the statement, the salaries of the aforementioned religious leaders would be reviewed for increases every year, as salaries are in other professions.

In that there is currently no revised agreement on the table for the state’s contributions to the national church, the association says that is “unacceptable to link these together and put such conditions on the revision of the agreement and wages of those mentioned here,” particularly as these individuals “have no involvement in these negotiations.”

Therefore, the association asserts, the provisional bill “severely undercuts the legal protections that the current agreement guarantees” and should be “amended without delay.”

Under 60% of Icelanders Registered in the Church of Iceland

 

The percentage of Icelanders that are registered in the Church of Iceland has gone below 60% for the first time, Kjarninn reports. Newly released data from Registers Iceland reveals that 59.4% of Icelanders are currently registered in the church, or 270.190 people in total. That number accounts for all of the currently registered individuals, regardless of residence or citizenship. Therefore, a substantial number of those Icelanders who are registered currently live abroad.

Registers Iceland states that 2.310 people left the Church of Iceland since the beginning of December 2017 to September 2018. That decrease is following the trend of events in recent years. Around 90% of Icelanders were registered in the Church of Iceland close to the turn of the millennium. The record year for de-registrations was set in 2010, due to the church’s handling of the alleged sexual crimes of Ólafur Skúlason, an ex-Bishop of Iceland. 4.242 individuals left the Church of Iceland that year.

A majority of those not in the Church of Iceland are registered outside of religion and view-of-life groups, just over 28.000 people in total. The largest increase in a religious group was with Catholics, which increased by 2.8%, or 530 people in total. This can be traced to the increase of foreign citizens in Iceland from countries where the Catholic church has a good standing, such as Poland. On the 1st of January 1998, there were 820 individuals residing in Iceland which were born in Poland. That number had grown to over 17.000 people by the end of 2017.

The existence of the Church of Iceland, which is an evangelical Lutheran church, is secured in the Icelandic constitution. It is stated that the evangelical Lutheran church shall be the national church of Iceland and that government authorities shall protect and support the institution.