New Religious Freedom Laws Reveal the Question of True Christian Faith among Finns

"Does membership signify a commitment to the faith that churches represent?" asks Archbishop
( [email protected] ) Jun 15, 2004 04:23 PM EDT

According to Archbishop Jukka Paarma of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF), new religious laws enacted in Finland have lead to a decrease in church membership.

ELCF currently has over 4.6 million members representing around 84 percent of the Finnish population. Archbishop Paarma reflected also on the ELCF's membership in the wider Lutheran communion. He noted that the Finnish church is the third largest member church of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and joined the Federation at its foundation in 1947.

Under the new law on religious freedom, it is easier for people to leave the church. For those who wish to discontinue membership in a religious denomination, the month-long notice period as well as a resignation letter that previously needed to be delivered personally is no longer a requirement, according to the ELCF Archbishop Paarma.

Archbishop Paarma addressed the new regulations governing burial grounds, which have triggered resignations of people from the Lutheran church. Before January 2004, Lutheran church members had the privilege to a grave at the Lutheran cemeteries at a discounted price. However, now the cemeteries serve as public burial grounds, meaning that all people can use the service there. Accordingly, funeral fees are the same for all Finns.

This has caused disappointment among the church members who have paid church tax all their life because they cannot understand why those who have never paid anything get a gravesite and funeral at the same price. Actually, Paarma pointed out that the state subsidizes for burial services. He explained, "So we cannot say it is not right, but there is a feeling of betrayal on the part of congregation members."

Very surprisingly, the faith of Finnish Lutheran Church members can be revealed through local surveys and the change of the religious law. This year' ELCF report states that 80-90 percent of Finns are of the opinion that the opportunity to have their children baptised and married in church and have a church funeral are important reasons to belong to the church.

Therefore, Archbishop Paarma deeply reflected on the faith of Lutheran church members in Finland, “What does it mean for one to be a church member? Is it only that you pay membership fees, some taxes, and get some services in return or is the membership something more? Does membership signify a commitment to the faith that churches represent?”

Recalling the history, Archbishop Paarma noted that there were notable declines in membership during significant periods of social, political and economic changes in the country. This may have shown that the Christian faith of Finnish Lutheran Church members needs to be strengthened.

According to the 2004 ELCF Annual Report there were cycles of ups and downs in membership between the two laws of freedom of religion in 1923 and 2003. After the first introduction on the law of religious freedom in 1923, members of religious minorities in particular left the Lutheran church. Rises in resignation were also recorded after the Second World War and General Synod's decision not to accept the ordination of women in 1984. In between these two peaks of cessation, at the beginning of the 1960's, the number of resignations began to drop when church tax levying was transferred from the parishes to the state. By the end of the decade, the number of those leaving and joining the church was nearly equal.

In 2003, the number of people that left the ELCF exceeded that of new registered members by 17,000. The report even notes that resignations in 2004 increased from the previous year's, from 27,000 to 37,000. Archbishop Paarma commented that the current decrease, although not higher than during the 1990s recession, was remarkable.

The future membership of the church may be also threatened by the new religious education system. Religious education in public schools emphasized the concept of previous "confessional religious education”, which means that the religious education curricula are based on the Lutheran denomination’s teaching and practices. Under the new law, all pupils are allowed to have access to such instruction in their respective faith tradition while the teaching of religion continues.

It is very true that whenever there is crisis, there is new opportunity. The decrease in the Lutheran Church membership may lead to a horizontal shift to the other denominations. As a result a new dominant denomination may arise in Finland.

Finland's location has long made it the meeting place in Northern Europe between Western and Eastern Christianity. Missions from the West began in the 11th century, and Finland was Roman Catholic until the time of the Lutheran Reformation in the 16th century. ELCF held its first assembly in 1876 when the approval of the national parliament was required for the church to carry out its work. In 1896 a new law granted the ELCF almost complete autonomy from the State. The new religious law nowadays may provide space to create a new religious face in Finland.

In conclusion, the Archbishop Paarma pointed to the Lutheran church's open ecumenical relations with the Orthodox and free churches in Finland, and the over 30-year doctrinal dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church.

"For us it is important to deepen our roots in the Lutheran communion and at the same time be open to ecumenical dialogues with other churches," Archbishop Paarma stressed.