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This page last updated 4 April 2014
Anglicans Online last updated 19 November 2017

Reviewed for Anglicans Online
by R. Mammana

Waffles and the Welfare State
A review of
Nordic Folk Churches: A Contemporary Church History
Edited by Björn Ryman, Aila Lauha, Gunnar Heiene and Peter Lodberg. Foreword by Bishop Gunnar Stålsett.
Eerdmans. 2005.

Nordic Folk ChurchesEvery Wednesday for the last two years I have repaired with coworkers to the Norwegian Seaman's Church in New York for its business lunch buffet. In what has to be (until this evening) one of the best-kept secrets in a city of many millions, this ministry to Norwegians abroad provides a cultural, religious, culinary and artistic focus for their lives as expatriates. (It has parallels with the Swedish Church in New York and other like institutions.) The weekly smorgasbord is held in the main body of the church itself, and the resident pastor reads community announcements, shares concerns and prayer requests, as well as a verse from each week's Gospel lesson. The food amazes guests consistently, and this oasis of gentility and calm in a bustling city boasts what are probably the best dessert waffles and coffee outside of Oslo. Everyone who takes advantage of the business lunch comes away with a strong and positive impression of Norwegian Lutherans and their folk church.

In a new collection of essays entitled Nordic Folk Churches: A Contemporary Church History (ISBN 0-8028-2879-5), Björn Ryman, Aila Lauha, Gunnar Heiene and Peter Lodberg explore the recent history and religious life of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. (Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands are mostly omitted despite their cultural and religious connections to these mainland churches.) The seamen's churches in New York and throughout the world are outgrowths of the notion of the folk church: churches whose membership is voluntary, whose activities and infrastructure are supported in some way by the state, and whose religious life and activities are available to all who wish them. The essays are selected from a 500-page book published by Aarhus University Press in 2001: Nordic Folk Churches Breaking Up: National Identity and the New International Agenda after 1945.

Some of the most interesting portions of the book profile church leaders in each nation under discussion: Kaj Munk (1898-1944), martyr, playwright and resistance leader during World War II; Eivind Berggrav (1884-1959), bishop, ecumenist, resistance leader; Nathan Söderblom (1866-1931), Swedish ecumenical pioneer; Finnish archbishop Martti Simojoki (1908-1999) and others who are likely to be mostly unfamiliar to readers of English. Individual chapters focus on ecumenical relations among the Nordic folk churches, and with other churches; the relationship between church and society in a period of turbulent change after the second world war; controversies and changes in theology and spirituality, etc. In two chapters that stood out for their illumination of topics not covered often in English, Peter Lodberg and Björn Ryman examine the state churches' contributions to the modern theory and practice of the Scandinavian welfare state, and Aila Lauha writes on Finnish Christianity with its revival movements, Orthodox monastic life and social responsibility. Ryman also writes on the Nordic churches' relations with the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, the Sami, who now worship and read the Bible in their own language. Finally, there is a helpful appendix of short biographies of influential Christian politicians or church members: Jens Nørregaard, Bodil Koch, Urho Kekkonen, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Anders Nygren and Olof Palme.

The English in this collection is not always smooth and idiomatic; there is also something of a tendency to gloss over or downplay the fractiousness of ecclesiastical politics in the Nordic churches, which seem in the popular press to be every bit as animated and troubled as those in the Anglican Communion. (The very title of the original, non-English collection from which the essays were drawn focusses on disintegration and marginalisation.) But at 168 pages this is a fine, interesting introduction to the life of national churches most of which are linked to many Anglicans through the Porvoo Agreement and our common history of national church life.


R. Mammana is an editor of Anglicans Online. His articles and reviews have appeared in Sobornost, Anglican Theological Review, The Living Church, Touchstone and The Episcopal New Yorker.