Civil Ceremonies Surpass Church Weddings for First Time in Iceland

Hallgrímskirkja lutheran church in Iceland

In 2023, more Icelanders were married by officiants at the offices of the District Commissioner (43%) than by priests belonging to the National Church (33.9%), according to Registers Iceland. This is the first time that marriages conducted by District Commissioners outnumbered those performed by the National Church.

2,095 individuals married via District Magistrate

In 2023, of the 4,870 individuals who entered into marriage according to Registers Iceland, 43% (2,095) were married by the offices of the District Commissioner, surpassing the 33.9% (1,650) who were married by the National Church. This is the first time in history that the number of marriages conducted at the offices of District Commissioners outnumbers that of the National Church. Additionally, 12% of marriages were conducted by other religious groups, and 11% of individuals chose to marry abroad.

Regional data also reveals that per 1,000 residents, East Iceland saw the highest number of marriages, followed by Northwest and Northeast Iceland.

(The data used in the report were derived from marriage registrations in the national registry; marriages involving an individual without a national ID number [kennitala] were not included in the statistics.)

Briefly concerning marriage in Iceland

As noted on Registers Iceland, authorised marriage officiants in Iceland include district commissioners, priests of the national church, and heads of registered religious and secular philosophical organisations (lífsskoðunarfélög). If a marriage ceremony is conducted at the offices of the district commissioner, a fee of ISK 11,000 [$78 / €73] is charged. The specific district commissioner’s office where the marriage takes place determines where the payment should be made.

In civil marriage ceremonies, it is not necessary to exchange rings. Guests may be brought along, subject to the capacity of the premises at each location. The district commissioner’s office can usually provide witnesses for the ceremony, if requested.

According to Icelandic legislation, prospective spouses must be at least 18 years old, must be legally competent, and must have concluded any financial settlements, divorces, or estate distributions if they were previously married. Additionally, one prospective spouse cannot be a descendant of the other, and they must not be siblings. The same applies to stepparents and stepchildren unless the adoption has been legally annulled.

“Legal Uncertainty” Concerning Bishop’s Reappointment

Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir.

Ragnhildur Ásgeirsdóttir, Executive Director of the Bishopric appointed her superior, Bishop Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, to serve as a bishop temporarily for 28 months, reports Morgunblaðið. However, the reappointment was made without knowledge of the synod, calling its legality into question.

Drífa Hjartardóttir, President of the Church Assembly, stated to Morgunblaðið that “it is strange for a subordinate to make an employment contract with their superior, as in this case. Neither the Church Assembly nor its executive committee were aware of the agreement.”

“I heard about the existence of this contract last week,” she stated further. “I had no idea about it before. I find it very strange that a subordinate can make an employment contract with their superior. We were never informed about this, neither the executive committee of the Church Assembly nor the Church Assembly itself. This came as a big surprise to me, and it’s very unusual.”

Agnes Sigurðardóttir was appointed as a bishop by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson on July 1, 2012, for five years, and her appointment period was then extended for another five years on July 1, 2017.

The Church Assembly changed the rules regarding the bishop’s election last year. The term is now six years, but this extension did not automatically apply to the current appointment.

As it stood, Agnes’ appointment period should have ended on July 1, 2022. She is now set to hold office until October 31, 2024, though the possibility remains that her appointment may be legally challenged.

Priests Alarmed by Proposed Continuation of Budgetary Cuts

Priests in Iceland are alarmed by the proposed continuation of budgetary cutbacks within the Evangelical Lutheran Church, according to the Director of the Minister’s Association, Ninna Sif Svavarsdóttir. Budgetary cuts will be discussed at an annual Church Assembly, which begins tomorrow.

Reduction of full-time equivalent units

In an interview with Mbl.is, Ninna Sif Svavarsdóttir – pastor at the Hveragerði parish and Director of the Minister’s Association – stated that priests were “alarmed” by the proposed continuation of budgetary cutbacks passed at an extraordinary Church Assembly in January of this year. The proposed continuation, which will be submitted to the Church Assembly (Kirkjuþing) beginning this weekend, involves the temporary cessation of new hires within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland and the Bishop’s Office, along with continued retrenchment of church’s staff (e.g. a decrease in the number of salaried priests and the consolidation of parishes).

According to a memorandum published on Mbl.is on October 20, the Evangelical Lutheran Church hopes to reduce the number of full-time equivalent units from 169.7 to 157.7 – the number originally proposed in the church agreement from 1997 – and thereby save approximately ISK 180-190 million ($1.4-1.5 million / €1.2-1.25 million) annually.

No replacements for retired priests

According to Ninna, January’s budgetary cutbacks had an immediate impact on church services: “Several priests retired, and no replacements were hired. More priests are expected to retire in the coming weeks, and there will probably be no new hires to replace them either,” Ninna remarked. “Priests worry that they’ll be asked to take on more responsibility for the same wages and that they’ll be unable to maintain the same level of religious services.”

Priests are dependent on the national church for employment, Ninna notes: “They are, of course, worried about these positions; we can’t apply anywhere else … the church agreement – which is the basis for the financial relationship between the church and state – stipulates that the lion’s share of the church’s budget be dedicated to the salary of priests.”

In addition to budgetary proposals, the priest and mediator Kristinn Ágúst Friðfinsson has proposed that lay representatives at the Church Assembly, which constitute the majority of those assembled, be chosen at random.

‘We’re trying to embrace society as it is’

The National Church of Iceland’s new ad welcoming people to Sunday School features a prominent rainbow and a Jesus with a beard and breasts, Vísir reports. The ad immediately sparked outrage in some quarters, but the church says that while they aren’t surprised by the anger, responses have been mostly been positive.

The image appeared on the National Church’s Facebook page on Friday. “There was a reason I left the National Church and found another Christian congregation,” wrote one commenter. “I’ve got to congratulate the church for this,” wrote another. The image was variously dubbed “tasteless,” “wonderful,” and “particularly stupid.”

“Shame on the bishop!” read another comment, while another said that the church should be ashamed for “showing [Jesus] humiliated like this.”

“Where’s the love and tolerance among you people?” chided yet another commenter. “It shows we come in all sorts.”

‘It’s really important that each and every person see themselves in Jesus’

The latter sentiment seems to best reflect the National Church’s intentions with the ad—which, it should be added, is only one of many that were produced for the Sunday School campaign. “It isn’t the only picture,” says Pétur G. Markan, director of communications for the church.

“In this one, we see a Jesus who has breasts and a beard. We’re trying to embrace society as it is. We have all sorts of people and we need to train ourselves to talk about Jesus as being ‘all sorts’ in this context. Especially because it’s really important that each and every person see themselves in Jesus and that we don’t stagnate too much. That’s the essential message. So this is okay. It’s okay that Jesus has a beard and breasts,” he remarked.

Putting words into action

As for the negative reactions, Pétur says they don’t come as any real surprise. “Love can come outrage people. That’s just how it goes. It’s been shown many times throughout human history that love can outrage people.”

Pétur says he thinks that the picture presents an opportunity for growth among parishioners. “I sometimes think that it’s really good, with a project like this, to take in the responses, analyze them, and realize that maybe there’s really a need for something like this. We really need to break open stereotypes, to open our society and [actually] make it diverse, not just talk about [making it diverse],” Pétur concludes. “If people feel like there’s been some kind of change in the National Church, it’s maybe just a change from just talking about things to doing them.”

Separation of Church and State Inevitable

The eventual separation of church and state is inevitable, writes Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir in an op-ed in Morgunblaðið this morning. The Church of Iceland is fully capable of executing its duties independent of the state.

Iceland’s 1874 constitution guarantees religious freedom, but also specifies that the “Evangelical Lutheran Church is a national church and as such it is protected and supported by the State.” This provision was retained in the constitution of the Republic of Iceland of 1944.

According to Áslaug, the demand for equality among religious organisations has become increasingly salient. “An autonomous church independent of the government better accords with the ideals of freedom of religion and opinion, but the Church of Iceland (The Evangelical Lutheran Church) has enjoyed special status within Icelandic governance,” she writes. According to Áslaug, more and more people are now convinced that the financing of religious organisations should not fall within the government’s purview. “Many will continue to follow the church,” she writes, “even if a complete separation of church and state becomes a reality.”

“A new agreement between the government and the Church of Iceland stipulates that the latter will no longer function as another state institution. Rather, the church will come to resemble an independent religious organisation, responsible for its own operations and finances. These changes are a significant improvement. Heading in the direction of full separation of church and state is inevitable. Until then – and despite this agreement – the Church of Iceland will, in accordance with the constitution, continue to enjoy the support and guardianship of the Icelandic government.”

The above-mentioned agreement, signed in September, specifies the increased financial independence of the Church of Iceland. From January 1st onward, the Church of Iceland will process its own wages and manage its own books. Furthermore, a special law on Church-managed funds will be revoked.

According to Áslaug, the teachings of the Church continue to be significant and meaningful to the everyday lives of Icelandic citizens. If citizens continue to trust the church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church will continue to be Iceland’s national church, irrespective of its legal or governmental status.

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.”

Icelanders’ Religious Affiliation Diversifies

The number of Icelanders registered as members of the National Church has gone down in the last twelve months, while there has been an increase in followers of Ethical Humanism, Ásatrú, and Islam. This according to the most recent data Icelanders’ religious affiliation, which was recently released by the country’s national register.

Iceland’s National (Lutheran) Church has seen a decrease in membership of just around 1%, or 2,419 people. The highest increases have been for the Catholic church (up by 512 registrants; an increase of 3.8%) and The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association (up by 536, or 23.5%). Around 400 people officially joined Ásatrú, a Norse pagan religion, which is an increase of 9.9%.

The largest increase was among registered Muslims in Iceland. This year, there was an 122.1% increase, or 105 newly registered members, for a total of 191.

The largest decrease was seen among followers of Zuism, an ancient Sumerian religion, which went down by 306 members, or 15.8%.

There was also an overall increase among those who wanted to officially register as unaffiliated with any religious or philosophical organization. There was an increase of 2,221 people in this category, or 9.9%.