Out on a Limb in Norway
An Interview with Norwegian Dissident Roald Flemestad
The Reverend Dr. Roald Flemestad is a senior lecturer on dogmatic theology at Det Norske Diakonhjem (a church-related educational institute that educates “diaconal workers” in medicine and theology) in Oslo, and a former pastor in the (Lutheran) Church of Norway. He is now a priest in the newly formed Nordic Catholic Church, which has eleven clergy, ten of whom are former priests of the Church of Norway. Touchstone correspondent William J. Tighe conducted this interview in August 2000 in Oslo, Norway.
William J. Tighe: When would you say that you first became marginalized?
Roald Flemestad (RF): The day a lady bishop was appointed, in 1993, I more or less concluded that my days in the Church of Norway were over. But it was necessary, we all thought at that time, to take with us the people we had been working with. We couldn’t just leave the ship because we had been leaders. We were the “sterner” people, but there were other people with us who were less forward but who were also alienated from the Church of Norway. So we couldn’t be satisfied with individual solutions; we had to try to find some common way forward.
Has your evaluation of the church’s situation shifted over the years?
RF: We had an idea that there was a Catholic heritage in the Lutheran tradition—and there is—and our task was to develop it and thereby renew the Church of Norway in this spiritual tradition and heritage. After a while, many of us realized that there was a lack of ecclesiology, a structural fault in the Lutheran tradition, so it was more or less as though we were renewing different aspects, but not the church as a whole.
We could renew the liturgical practices, and in some ways pastoral care, but we could not effectively renew a parish that was part of the state church system. We had done very good pastoral work in parishes, but the minute one of us left, they would get a new priest who would take the parish in a completely different direction. We had to ask ourselves what we could do about this inability to have a lasting impact on the church. For these reasons it seemed that we had to leave.
Many of us concluded that there is in the Lutheran tradition an emphasis on individualism—my faith, my grace, my heart—that takes away the need for an ecclesiology. We simply had to ask ourselves if we had to break out and make a new future, and it was at that point that my thinking was radicalized.
Did you achieve any successes in your efforts?
RF: We had the Free Synod, an association of priests and lay people in the church working together with certain ideals. Part of our agenda was negative: to stop the state from ruling the church and promoting anti-Christian measures. We also had a positive agenda: to promote liturgical renewal and to emphasize the sacramental ministry of the church, such as individual sacramental confession. We wanted to make people conscious of the spiritual heritage of our church. That positive spiritual agenda was, in effect, to recatholicize the Church of Norway, to take up again what had characterized the Church of Norway until the time of the Evangelical revivals in the early nineteenth century.
We didn’t object to these revivals. We could sympathize with much in that movement because it took the Christian life very seriously. On the other hand, it was a very individualistic form of piety, so we had to once again emphasize the commonality of Christian life.
After many years we could see some successes. We changed the liturgical life of the Church of Norway for the better, but those were only very superficial successes. When we got the lady bishop, who was in favor of homosexual partnerships and abortion and divorce-and-remarriage—the whole “package” of the liberal establishment—her ordination liturgy would not have been so splendid if it hadn’t been for us! That created a paradox where we came to understand that we had to be saved from our victories. The people who had worked so hard for liturgical renewal after 20 years’ time became suspicious of liturgical renewal because it had become “renewal” without any of the theological basis that should be at its heart.
Are “flying bishops” for conservatives in the state church still an option, or has this been effectively ruled out by the bishops?
RF: I doubt it will happen. The Doctrinal Commission stated that if there was to be a “flying bishop,” he would have to be in full communion with all the other bishops in the state church. That’s an insuperable objection because those who wanted a “flying bishop” wanted one because they didn’t want to be in communion with their bishop.
I have the impression that while the “catholic-minded” people in the Church of Norway were concerned about the ordination of women, it wasn’t an overwhelming issue for them, at least until the appointment of the lady bishop of Hamar.
RF: In Norway, a traditional society in many ways, the lady clergy were introduced more discreetly, perhaps, so it didn’t create that kind of tension. When tension arose, there were rules of conduct, which could take the tension away, because those rules provided for the integrity of a priest as an individual. But on the other hand, there were no rules that provided for the integrity of the lay people in a parish, or the parish as a group. That’s what the lady bishop’s appointment made clear.
The Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs said that the church contained many “dark forces,” and therefore the church could not be allowed to decide for itself on this question. It needed the king as the guide into progressive thinking, and, therefore, it was the duty of the Social Democratic Party to take the church by the hand and lead it into enlightenment—to liberate her from her history, so to speak.
During World War II the Norwegian episcopate courageously broke with the Quisling government and declared the state church disestablished. They said that they did this because the government did not respect church order. There was a great consciousness in the Church of Norway that the church is a society apart from the state. This church was led by bishops who had to be pastors of their flocks and had to act to protect their flocks even against political dangers, whether democratic or totalitarian.
That idea was a great help for us afterwards because we did not live under the illusion that Norwegian society would be Christian and that there would be an easy cooperation between society and the church because we have a state church. Rather, we inherited from the war the thinking that we had to protect the integrity of the church at all costs. The abortion issue was the one that made this very dramatic.
How did the abortion issue affect the Church of Norway?
RF: There was one bishop, Per Lonning, who protested the idea that the king as summus episcopus, or “supreme overseer” of the church, could actually sign an abortion law—he laid down his episcopate—a very dramatic act. In hindsight, I think that he should not have done so, but rather have taken his diocese out of the state church. But that is easy to say now.
It caused battle lines to be drawn in the church. That battle lasted for about twenty years. We had to halt because we no longer had many bishops behind us. The state, of course, did not appoint bishops who were really willing to back us. The bishops would protest, but they would not take any action that would cause trouble. Their idea, unfortunately, was that their task was not to maintain the integrity of the church, but to keep it united. They were thinking pastorally to come to that conclusion, but, in hindsight again, it is difficult to see that they have done much, except keep the show going while making concessions on all sides.
You’ve said that in 1993, when Rosemarie Koehn was appointed bishop of Hamar, you first realized that you could not stay in the Church of Norway for the rest of your life.
RF: We realized that it would be impossible for us to stay without creating a space in the Church of Norway where we would be protected by canon law. We had been protected only by “gentlemen’s agreements,” more or less, but we had to have a legal structure that would protect us. We were working in order that people could be enrolled in a parish that they wished to join even if they did not live in the neighborhood, that the priests would be picked by the parish councils to serve the particular spirituality of that parish, and that if there was a lady bishop, some of the other bishops would take the episcopal oversight of those parishes which might be in her diocese.
We started to discuss this in 1993. Even in 1999 the bishops had this on their agenda, but nothing came of it, so, for us, 1999 was a decisive year. We understood then that the abortion issue was lost, the ordination of women issue was lost, and there was not one single bishop, even among the “conservative” ones, that was willing to call the “same-sex partnership” issue a serious dogmatic question. The “conservative” ones would say that they disagreed with the liberal bishops but that this disagreement was not so important that it should have any consequences for the unity of the church. So the homosexual partnership issue was reduced to an adiaphoron [a matter of opinion].
But what was at stake was the idea of man and woman created in the image of God. By abolishing the natural sexual relationships, you simply deny that there is an order of creation. This was a moral question, but it was also a sacramental question because even “conservative” bishops would accept people living in same-sex relationships at the Communion rail. And that destroyed the idea of the life of the Spirit as the basis of the church.
But the main issue was that this questioned the first article of the Creed: Is God our Creator? Does creation have a pattern—a natural law, so to speak?
This became so dramatic that in 1999 we said there’s no use working for a structure within the state church, because even if we got our own “flying bishop,” with whom would he be in communion? At that point, we said we have no future in this church, we have to get out. That meant, in this case, working out a relationship with the Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC).
Is homosexuality any longer an issue in the state church?
RF: Yes, in the sense that one dean, Reverend Asle Dingstad, got an official letter from his bishop stating that the bishop would now advocate the church blessing homosexual “partnerships.” As a dean, it was Dingstad’s duty to accompany the bishop on church visitations to the twenty-odd parishes in the deanery, and he knew that he would have to stand beside the bishop at the altar and assist him in giving Communion to people living in same-sex relationships. Consequently, he declared himself out of communion with his bishop, in the sense that he could not participate at the same altar with the bishop in his capacity as a dean.
After some time, the bishop took the case to the church’s Doctrinal Commission. He argued that the gospel is concerned with forgiveness and that the church and its pastors cannot impose demands upon people living in same-sex relationships because they are “marginalized people,” victims of oppression from society, and, therefore, the only charitable thing to do is to support them and take them into the church community to protect them against “bashing.” He claimed that he and Dingstad disagreed not so much about same-sex relationships as about the nature of the gospel.
Eventually, the Doctrinal Commission decided that the nature of the gospel is such that Dingstad had no right to break communion with his bishop. Dingstad had misunderstood the nature of the gospel, and in the dichotomy between law and gospel, he had ended up on the side of the law when he should have been preaching the gospel. There is no more serious an accusation that can be made against a Lutheran clergyman than that he has misunderstood the nature of the gospel. In the Lutheran tradition, “what is gospel” is the issue because it caused the Reformation split with Rome.
With the exception of Bishop Bondevik, the bishops voted against Dingstad. The only other member who dissented was Professor Ola Tjoerhom, a professor of systematic theology. When they discovered afterwards that public opinion in the church was shocked by this and that Dingstad had great support on the parish level, they tried to explain that they were really on his side, even if they had voted against him, and that for “formalistic” reasons they had to vote as they did.
Many of those who were saying that the issue of homosexual relations is an adiaphoron are now trying to say “this is a very serious issue, and you have misunderstood me if you think that I am of the opinion that this is an adiaphoron.” They are trying to move along with the times and public opinion as they change.
Before 1993, what was the Free Synod’s hopes for the future of the Church of Norway and its future in it?
RF: The idea was to renew the heritage of the Church of Norway in the light of the new ecumenical horizon, and thereby to lay the basis for a new spirituality, a sacramental spirituality. Under different circumstances—had we started a hundred years earlier—we might have had a chance to manage it. In hindsight we can see that it was an impossible project because the Zeitgeist was so much against us. To think that by piety, good work, and devotion we could change the whole structure of the state church was naive.
When I was in Sweden, I was told that a significant turning point in the Free Synod came in 1997 because, up to that point, your main effort was not directed toward separating from the Church of Norway but in trying to work together with the low-church confessionalist organizations. Only when this attempt failed did leaving the Church of Norway became a real possibility.
RF: No. At a certain point there was no use in uniting to attack the Church of Norway’s system. But we had to turn in another direction, in which we now think the future lies. Our positive agenda of breaking with the state church was too radical for many of the people who still were opposed to the way the state church was going. So while there were some discussions between low-church and high-church people about liturgical issues and eucharistic theology, the main question that split the Free Synod was simply, “Shall we, dare we, break with the state church?”
Those of us who went a new way decided that we do not want to create a future by finding the lowest common denominator between the different groups “in opposition” to the Church of Norway.
If we are going to take the future in our own hands, we have to find out what is the solid theological and sacramental basis for doing so. Some wanted to make a “Continuing Church of Norway,” but others thought that a “continuing church” would simply be a nostalgic project. If we were to go somewhere, we wanted to take our heritage with us. We had nothing against the best in our Lutheran heritage, which we wanted to cherish and develop, but we had to find a basis that could respond to the present challenges. We couldn’t be content with—to put it perhaps a little too harshly—devoting ourselves to the ideals of a past that never really existed.
So this was our challenge, to build the foundations for a future. We had learned that the main weakness of the Lutheran theological system was its confused and inconsistent ecclesiology. We had, therefore, to ask ourselves, what are the signs of the Church? We decided that the Church must be able as a social community to link with its own past, and that this was not only a matter of theology and of liturgical practice, but also a matter of holy orders. So we then started the discussions with the PNCC so as to have a “sacramental umbrella” around our project.
What, then, was the point of your intense discussions in 1996 and 1997 with the low-church confessionalists if you didn’t want to follow the Swedish “bowl strategy” of keeping together all “orthodox opposition” groups, however divergent their theological stances?
RF: It was a fair give-and-take dialogue. We were trying to find out, “What are your minimum requirements? What are your maximum requirements? And we would like you to listen to ours.” We started out by saying that our purpose was not to try to negotiate a compromise with which neither party would be really satisfied. We wanted to build a ship that can sail through storms, not a ship that everyone can be satisfied with, a pleasure ship.
On what issues did the dialogue falter?
RF: Church order. This is very typical because church order is a weak point in Lutheran theology. Many were satisfied as long as they had parishes that were more or less united in an ethos and common structures. Whether they were members of the Church of Norway or of a “continuing church,” that was not important, so long as they had—how shall I put it?—a “pious atmosphere” in their groups; whereas we said that piety itself is not enough: You have to have apostolic order.
And the low-church people did not agree?
RF: The low-church people were generally thinking—this is a Lutheran saying—“The order of salvation stands above the order of the Church,” and so they could imagine different solutions to our problems. They could imagine an episcopal evangelical church; they could imagine a presbyterian evangelical church—it was no great issue, so long as they found something they recognized from the past.
One of our difficulties was that so many traditional Lutherans tend to consider that church doctrine is intact as long as you can look it up in the book. We were constantly saying that you have to live out church teaching in an ecclesial body. This is simply the question of Marxism, that theory must be put into practice for it to function.
To put it bluntly, why the Nordic Catholic Church? Why not Rome? Why not Orthodoxy?
RF: We had been united as a group, and there was a lot of internal loyalty to the group. Those of us who had leadership responsibilities did not want to leave the people that we had put in such a difficult position. So we tried to find a collective solution. Orthodoxy would probably have accepted us in the end, after a transitional period, as a Western rite parish or parishes.
The Roman Catholic Church never gave any indication of an option other than individual conversions. For our leadership, Rome also was more difficult in the sense that many people had difficulties with various Roman Catholic dogmas, especially the Marian dogmas. As to Orthodoxy, it was felt to be culturally impossible not to follow a Western liturgical calendar.
Even though we were not looking for the lowest common denominator, we had to take into consideration that not all our people were moving at the same speed, and some probably were not going to move either to Constantinople or to Rome. Therefore, those of us who had responsibility wanted to find some sort of structure that could take us as a flock. So we made contact with the PNCC in 1996. They were very generous to us and proposed a period of convergence into the new system.
Of course, it has been somewhat difficult theologically: Many of us, because of our background, are rather Augustinian in our theological thinking, but we have been very influenced by Orthodoxy in our liturgical style and also, perhaps, in our theological thinking. So we are living with a certain theological tension, perhaps a creative tension, in the sense that we are trying to unite a Western Augustinian theology and ethos with elements from the Orthodox Church. Perhaps that means, unfortunately, that we are too Augustinian to become Orthodox and too Orthodox in some of our approaches to become Roman.
Would you say that the Nordic Catholic Church is an Old Catholic church? Old Catholicism, by definition and history, is a form of Western non-papal Catholicism that in practice tends to be strongly anti-papal.
RF: Well, two things can be said. Where we identify very strongly with European Old Catholicism is in relation to its Augustinian heritage. Without Augustinianism there would have been no Utrecht Church alienated from Rome.
On the other hand, Pope John Paul II is the most outspoken representative of the Christian gospel today, and for those like us who identify with his stand on moral issues, it’s very difficult not to have the deepest respect for his authority. We have not been mixed up historically in polemical battles with the Roman Catholic Church, so we have no history of “Catholic bashing.” We have not done what we have done in order to become Roman Catholics, but we have taken one step away from the Church of Norway in the Catholic direction, and there is an openness in that we do not know what the future will bring.
Are Nordic Catholics interested in the Union of Utrecht, in particular, the Western European Old Catholic churches?
RF: It is very difficult for us to relate to those churches as long as they continue to implement the sort of theological “reforms” that we have been reacting against in the Church of Norway. We did not leave the Church of Norway over the ordination of women and same-sex relationships in order to become members of another church that is rapidly propagating those very same developments.
Does the Nordic Catholic Church entertain the “branch theory” of the Church that has been embraced by certain high-church Anglicans?
RF: Well, if the “branch theory” means that all denominations are really equal but, by chance, historically different expressions of the same faith, then I do not accept it. Historically, there is but One Church, Catholic and Apostolic. Realizing that Christ did not leave behind a religious philosophy or a set of ideas that could comfort the soul, but that he sent out Twelve Apostles as the foundation of his Church, we could not in our predicament isolate ourselves from that historical mission and let ourselves be satisfied with some sort of pseudo-ecclesial arrangement as some sort of pet project.
Thus, we could resort to neither a nostalgic project of creating a “continuing church” based upon an idealized Lutheran past, nor an ahistorical utopianism in the form of some sort of new ecumenical arrangement for dissatisfied high-church Protestants. We had to look for a church! We had to find a given historical church institution that had the catholicity we needed and would show the pastoral generosity to support us as a group.
That said, there’s an Orthodox saying, “We know where the Church is, but not where it isn’t.” There are people of true faith that can be examples for us all in Protestant churches—I’m not for a minute doubting that—and if their lives are such, it must be the work of the Holy Spirit. So even if I am critical of the branch theory, I wouldn’t say that the “charismatic overflow” of the Holy Spirit does not exist in places other than the historic apostolic churches.
What is the current state of Orthodox Christianity in Norway? Is it reasonably possible for a Norwegian to join the Orthodox Church?
RF: There is a radical development there, as the old Russian parish, established after the Russian Revolution and now under Constantinople (via the Russian archdiocese in Paris), has moved dramatically in a Norwegian direction, with Norwegian clergy and a Liturgy mostly in Norwegian. I think that if they get more clergy and can change their calendar to a Western reckoning, they will have a great future. A culturally indigenous Norwegian Orthodoxy would profit from the anti-Romanism inherent in the Lutheran tradition and a certain closeness to, and sympathy with, Russia in northern Norway. Also, in Norway there is some liking for both Gregorian Chant and Orthodox church music. The Orthodox Liturgy itself exerts a strong attraction on many Protestants, almost as if they find in it the verve and pulse—a liturgical version—of a revival meeting.
What about the Roman Catholic Church in Norway?
RF: The difficulty with the Roman Catholic Church is that it remains a church of immigrants. Sometimes I have the feeling that the Roman Catholic Church is less Norwegian than it was twenty years ago, and that it is more and more becoming culturally marginalized in Norwegian society. Perhaps also the Norwegian element in it is more liberal than what we tend to be.
What about the Porvoo Agreement of intercommunion between the Church of Norway and other Scandinavian Lutheran bodies and between the Church of England and other British Anglican bodies? Is Porvoo in any way beneficial to the Church of Norway, or harmful, or an indifferent development?
RF: It’s very difficult to say. I think that the Porvoo Agreement could have had possibilities, but it turned out that these liberal state churches linked together in a sort of liberal “catholic” organization that could in the future become some sort of liberal alternative to Rome.
It is a case of declining state churches uniting under Canterbury, with all that style. Perhaps it would have been a good idea thirty or forty years ago, but today it’s difficult to know on what basis they are uniting, whether on a theological basis or whether declining state churches are simply finding common comfort in a liberal agenda.
How do you see the future of orthodox Christianity in Norway? What do you see as the future of the state church and the Nordic Catholic Church?
RF: Christianity is at stake in Norway today. In Oslo, there are more Muslims going to mosques weekly than Christians to churches, so Christianity as such needs a dramatic realignment.
We have to leave to God all that is going to be, but I do not think that the Church of Norway has the spiritual resources to renew itself—at least not at the present time. To put it another way, it needs a nervous breakdown in order to rediscover its identity before it can start moving again.
The future of the Nordic Catholic Church is difficult to say because it is really still in its inception. We hope that we can develop parishes on the basis of what used to be the Free Synod and also that we can create a strong and vigorous spirituality that will allow us to do our part in re-evangelizing Norwegian society. And we hope to do this with sister parishes in Sweden and perhaps elsewhere in Scandinavia and the British Isles.
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“Out on a Limb in Norway” first appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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