The Orthodox Church in Norway

history and current state

This article was published in St. Herman Monastery Calendar of 2020

The Kingdom of Norway

Norwegian flag

The kingdom of Norway is the northernmost and westernmost of the Scandinavian countries. Its history as a nation dates back to the ninth century, and the name Norway literally means “the way to the north.” Norway reached its power peak in the thirteenth century, but was subsumed under the Danish crown in the fourteenth century until 1814, when it was transferred to the Swedish crown. Only in 1905 did it regain its independence. Today the country has a population of about 5.2 million and covers a land area about the size of the U.S. state of Montana. It is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, fueled by large reservoirs of oil, huge fisheries, andsignificant mineral resources. The population is increasingly secular and non-religious, but to this day 70% still belongs to the state-sponsored Lutheran Church. However, membership is declining by over 1% annually.

Historical Stages of Christianity in Norway

The history of Christianity and the Orthodox Church in Norway spans over a millennium and stretches back even beyond the formation of the Norwegian state. The Norwegian nation, state, and identity went through many stages and developments during this time. Nevertheless, this long interval can be divided into four main periods: pre-schism Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Modern, with the reemergence of religious freedom.

Christianity came to Norway when the Latin and Eastern parts of Christianity were still united as one Holy Catholic and Orthodox Church. The first Christians of Norway were thus Orthodox Christians. The great schism between the Latin West and the Byzantine East took place over a long period of time, but is often dated to 1054. Today, the Orthodox population in Norway considers the Christian history in Norway prior to this date as Orthodox history. After this date followed the Roman Catholic period, which lasted until the Reformation in 1537 inaugurated the Lutheran period which, for the Orthodox, lasted until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. During these two periods, which span almost 900 years, the Orthodox Church had literally no ecclesial presence in Norway, except on the very perimeters of the state bordering Russia. Although during the Roman Catholic period there were sporadic interactions between East and West, the Reformation in Denmark-Norway brought this to an end and made the Lutheran Church exclusive, the only allowed religion in Denmark-Norway. Only as late as 1845 was a law passed that allowed for the presence of “dissenter groups,” under certain provisions, but full legal religious freedom in Norway came only in 1969. It is thus only in the last 150 years that other Christian and later other religious groups have been able to establish themselves on Norwegian soil.

Early Pre-schism History: the One Catholic and Orthodox Church

Borgund Stave Church

In 793 a group of Norsemen, possibly from Norway, attacked the monastery on the holy island of Lindisfarne, situated on the northeast coast of modern-day England. The prominent and important monastery was completely unprepared for this swift, brutal, and devastating attack. Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar, noted: “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the street.” The monks were killed or taken as slaves, while the treasures of the monastery were carried home in triumph. This unexpected and cruel attack inaugurated the Viking era, and made the Norsemen famous and feared all over Europe. The Norsemen, as the Scandinavians at the time were called, worshipped Norse gods such as Thor and Odin. At that time most of Europe was Christian, and only on the outskirts, and in isolated pockets of the continent, did pagan religions remain.
Although the Vikings were well known for their brutality, it is important to note that many of the Norsemen were peaceful, living as farmers, fishermen, and traders. Most did not participate in Viking raids. In fact, the word “Viking” came from the activity of raiding, and did not designate a specific ethnic group. Their vast trading network brought them as far west as North America, and as far east as the Caspian Sea. They also settled at many of these places, such as the islands west and south of Scandinavia, and for a long time had a strong presence on the British Isles. The Normans, who later captured England, were also descendants of the Norsemen. In the East many of them settled in Ancient Rus’ (or “Gardarike”, as they called it), especially in Novgorod. They also came to form the ruling class in Kiev. Their extensive network brought them in touch with Christianity, which they brought home. Archeologists have found Christian graves in certain places in Norway from as early as the beginning of the Viking era, thus suggesting the presence of a Christian population in Norway already at that time.

The attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne can in many ways serve as an example of one of the early encounters, albeit a dramatic one, between the pagan Norsemen and Christianity. Monasteries were easy targets for the Vikings, having much wealth and resources, and being a source of slaves. But the sacrifice of the many monastics seems to have left a long lasting impact on the pagan Norsemen, although this did not seem to be the case at first. The power of the Gospel is not of this world. Christ told His disciples to turn the other cheek when faced by their adversaries. The monastics came to embody these words in a special way as they gave their lives at the hands of the Vikings. Their witness must in some ways have left an imprint on the Norsemen’s hearts, starting a process of transformation and preparing them to later embrace Christ. These encounters with Christianity and subsequent conversions are concretely embodied in the early Christian kings of Norway, such as Haakon the good, Olav Tryggvason, St. Olav Haraldsson, Magnus the Good, and Harald Hardraade. They were all Viking kings and spent their time “viking,” amassing huge fortunes that made it possible for them to gain power in Norway upon their return. But all of them also encountered a greater European culture permeated with Christianity that touched their souls. They later accepted Christ, bringing home monastics, priests, and even bishops, and paving the way for the formation of a Norwegian state founded on Christian law, modeled after European, Roman and Justinian laws.

Influence from the West: St. Sunniva of Selja

The Vikings encountered Christians both in the East and the West. For the most part, the Norwegian Vikings went westwards and encountered a western form of Christianity. An example of western influence is St. Sunniva of Selja (July 8), the most ancient of the Norwegian saints. She was a pious Irish princess from the tenth century who desired to live a life devoted to God as a virgin. However, according to her Life, a Viking king (possibly from Norway?) wanted to force her hand in marriage. She declined and fled her land together with a group of faithful followers. Like Irish monastics before them, they took ship and left their land without oars or sails, praying to God that He would lead them to a land where they could practice their faith in quiet and solitude. In an ironic twist, God brought them to the island of Selja, situated on the northwest coast of Norway. They established themselves on the island, only to be discovered by the locals, who notified some Vikings about their presence. When the Vikings came to the island, St. Sunniva, together with some of her followers, escaped into a cave where they hid, praying that God would keep them from their pursuers. As an answer to their prayers the walls of the cave fell in on them. Her incorrupt and fragrant body was later discovered by a miracle and recognized as the relics of a saint by the Christian king, Olav Tryggvason. The first episcopal seat on the west coast of Norway was later established on the island and a monastery founded there. To this day, St. Sunniva is the patron saint of the city of Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, and together with the other medieval saints of Norway is receiving an increased amount of attention and veneration from Lutherans, along with the Roman Catholics and Orthodox. The Romanian Orthodox Parish in Bergen is dedicated to her, as well as to some other Romanian saints.

St. Olav: the Eternal King of Norway

St. Olav (Haraldsson) (July 29) ruled Norway from 1015 to 1028, and is by far the best known Scandinavian saint. He spent many years viking, serving the Danish king Canute the Great, but returned to Norway in 1015 in order to claim the throne. St. Olav died at the hands of his enemies at the battle at Stiklestad in 1030, trying to recapture power after escaping his former lord Canute, who seized power in Norway in 1028. His incorrupt body was recovered a year later, and his fame and recognition as a saint spread like wildfire, supported by his enemies as well as by his friends. Already by 1035 the first church was erected and dedicated to him in England. Churches were built in many major cities in medieval Europe, including London, Novgorod, and even Constantinople. The oldest iconographic depiction of him is in fact not found in Norway, or in Scandinavia, but as far away as the church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, where it can still be seen today on one of the pillars in the nave.

Norwegian Coat of Arms with the Axe of St. Olav

It is through St. Olav’s conversion and journey of repentance that he acquired sanctity. In several medieval iconographic depictions of St. Olav, he is portrayed standing upon a demon or dragon, which bears his own face, thus signifying that St. Olav battled with his inner demon throughout his life. This journey and battle was brought to full fruition at his hour of death. It is St. Olav’s death rather than his life and rule that convinced both friends and foes of his sanctity. It is quite remarkable that some of his worst enemies were the first to acknowledge his sainthood. He became a saint that embodied the presence of holiness in the north and was venerated all over Scandinavia and far beyond. Later, he also become a symbol of Norwegian unity and opposition against powers that sought to both rule over and fracture the kingdom of Norway. The axe with which he was martyred is found on both the current Norwegian coat of arms and on the insignia of the state-sponsored Lutheran Church. The Lutherans keep a big annual cultural festival in his honor around the time of his feast (Olsok) on July 29 in Trondheim. His cathedral in the same city is also the most impressive church in Norway. A few years ago the Moscow Patriarchate erected a small chapel dedicated to him at Stiklestad. Orthodox iconographers have painted several icons of him, and one of the most important ones is found in the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Olga in Oslo.

Examples of Influences from the East

What is especially interesting for Eastern Orthodox Christians to notice is that almost all of the Christian Viking kings, except Haakon the Good (933–961), had strong ties to the East and spent a considerable amount of time in ancient Rus’ and cities such as Novgorod and Kiev, and some even in the great city of Constantinople. They brought Eastern Christianity back home with them, erected churches dedicated to Eastern saints, and brought monastics and priests from the East. St. Olav (1015– 1028) spent a couple of years there. His predecessor, King Olav Tryggvason (995–1000), was raised in Ancient Rus’, and was personally acquainted with and protected by St. Vladimir the Great. Magnus the Good (1035–1047), son of St. Olav, was raised there as well. Harald Hardraade (1046–1066), half brother of St. Olav, spent many years in the East— seven of them in Constantinople, where he became the head of the Varangian guard. He spent two periods of his life in Kievan Rus’, where he later married Elisiv, the daughter of Yaroslav the Wise and St. Anna of Novgorod. He later returned to Norway in order to claim the Norwegian crown, but ended his life in 1066 at the battle of Stamford Bridge, fighting Harold Godwinson in a failed attempt to include England under his Norwegian kingdom. His death marks the end of the Viking era.

Roman Catholic and Lutheran Periods

Following the Great Schism, the presence of the Orthodox Church declined and disappeared altogether in Norway. The political ties with the East were severed and diminished. The ruling class in Ancient Rus’ and their Scandinavian relatives drifted apart. At the same time, Norway was slowly drawn closer to Rome and the orbit of the expanding papacy. In the time that followed, the Roman
Catholic Church flourished, and with time Norway became a strong Roman Catholic nation, with an archbishop seated in Nidaros, present-day Trondheim. From a religious point of view, there were no signs of what was about to come with the Reformation. Protestantism had no following at all, and only a handful of Lutheran sympathizers could be found in the entire country. The conversion of Norway to Lutheranism would have been impossible without the enforcement of the Danish king, who then ruled both Denmark and Norway, and who at the time was in great debt. Following the Reformation, he immediately confiscated the properties of the Roman Catholic Church and gifted them to his debtors in order to pay what he owed. After the Reformation all other Christian groups and religions were forbidden, and the king made himself the head of the Lutheran state church. At this point in time there was no Orthodox presence in Norway at all, except perhaps in the very far north, where the borders with Russia and Sweden (today Finland) were still not clear.

St. Tryphon of Pechenga

A few years before the Reformation reached Norway, a Russian named Tryphon (1495–1583) started missionary work among the indigenous Skolt Sami population in what is now modern Russia, Norway and Finland. He had been longing for a life in the wilderness since childhood. He was later tonsured a monk and attracted a group of monastic followers, founded a monastery dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and built churches and chapels. The monastery became an important spiritual, economical, and political center in the border region. The monks translated liturgical as well as other literature into the local Sami language. In about 1565 St. Tryphon erected a small chapel dedicated to St. George in Neiden, a Lapp village that today lies just within Norwegian borders. A small group of Orthodox believers has survived in this area of Norway since the 1500s. Today, local Orthodox Lapps, Russians, Finns and Norwegians venerate St. Tryphon. His feast day is celebrated on December 15, but now he is also celebrated on the last weekend in August, as people from Finland, Norway, and Russia come to celebrate him on the Norwegian and Finnish sides of the border.

Modern History: the Reemergence of the Orthodox Church in Norway

The modern history of the Orthodox Church in Norway started with a small group of Russian refugees who fled the Bolshevik Revolution. They settled in Oslo and founded the first Orthodox parish in modern-day Norway in 1931. The parish, dedicated to St. Nicholas, belonged to the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox parishes in Western Europe under the Patriarchate of Constantinople. They did not however, have a resident priest of their own until 1947, when they received their first priest from Estonia, the first resident Orthodox priest in Norway. For quite some time the small parish was the only one in Norway, thus making it the home of Orthodox people from many countries. In 1965 the Greeks founded their own parish in Oslo. Later, the fall of Communism led to an influx of Orthodox immigrants to Norway. In 1992 the Serbs founded their own parish, followed by the establishment of a Russian parish under the Moscow Patriarchate (in 1996), as well as Romanian and Bulgarian parishes. For a few years the Georgian Patriarchate was present as well. Today, five local Churches are represented in Norway: the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. However, no Orthodox bishop has been assigned to Norway yet, and the three closest ones reside in Stockholm, Sweden. The largest jurisdictions are under Russia and Romania.

Since the late 1990s the Orthodox Church has grown tremendously, and is currently the fastest growing Christian group in Norway. In 2005 5,028 Orthodox parish members were registered with Norwegian authorities. The last census on January 1, 2017, reported the numbers to have increased to 25,843. Although the numbers include Oriental Orthodox as well, the numbers are likely much higher, since they do not count Orthodox believers, but membership in Orthodox parishes. Far from all Orthodox Christians register their membership in a parish. According to these numbers, the Orthodox Church is currently the third largest Christian group outside the Lutheran state church, only surpassed by the Roman Catholics and the Pentecostals. If the growth does not stagnate, in a few years the latter one will be surpassed. Today there are more than thirty-five parishes or missions and one canonical monastery in Norway. Oslo alone has seven parishes; Bergen has five, and many other cities are represented by an Orthodox community. However, the presence of the Church is still for the most part an urban phenomenon. The rapid growth of the Orthodox Church has given it some infrastructural challenges. Most communities are small, and only a very few of them possess buildings of their own, let alone a priest. Compared to other Christian groups, the parishes are few in numbers, sometimes poorly organized, and lacking in properties and funds. In some cases the distance from other ecclesial bodies, isolation, and the lack of episcopal oversight have also proved a challenge. However, the recent increase in numbers has resulted in greater contact, cooperation, and joint efforts between the parishes and across jurisdictional boundaries.

So far, the vast majority of Orthodox believers are immigrants, and only a limited number of native Norwegians have joined the Church. Until recently, most of the Norwegian converts have been received at the parish of St. Nicholas in Oslo. But other parishes have also attracted Norwegians and started celebrating services in Norwegian on a regular basis, among them the parish of St. Olga under the Moscow Patriarchate, currently the largest parish in Norway. Only three small mission parishes serve mainly in Norwegian: one in Oslo, one in Østfold and another one in Bergen. Norwegians have a higher regard for the Orthodox Church and for tradition in general than Protestant Americans. They feel that the Orthodox Church is an expression of a deeper and more authentic form of Christianity, but they still have a hard time imagining themselves becoming Orthodox. This is mainly because they view the Orthodox Church as a small, ethnic, and culturally foreign church not native to Norway. However, there are signs that this could be changing. What it means to be Norwegian is changing due to immigration and general cultural developments common to many Western European countries. Recent developments within the Lutheran Church and Norwegian society in general have also left many Christian Norwegians searching for a new church home. In general, people are also looking for a deep and true form of religion.

The future of the Orthodox Church in Norway could look promising, but the Orthodox community is also facing some challenges as it grows. God willing, ways to meet them will be found. The saints that this land has given us so far were all faced with a pagan culture that was sometimes quite hostile to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today the Orthodox Church in Norway is facing a different development, that of the decline of Christianity. But we are nevertheless facing some of the same pagan spiritual powers that our saints battled. We can therefore find grace and great strength in our saints’ struggle, and by their prayers remain faithful to Christ while God is rebuilding the Orthodox Church in Norway.

Fr. Theodor Svane
The Annunciation of the Holy Virgin Mary Orthodox Parish, Bergen Norway

Read also (In Norwegian): The Orthodox Church is the fastest growing Christian Church in Norway.

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