The Lutheran Church of Norway has made history by appointing to a parish a homosexual priest living openly with another man. The priest, Jens Torstein Olsen, will work in Majorstua, a suburb of Oslo. His appointment was narrowly approved by the Oslo Bishop's Council, with four members voting in favor, three against. The council is the ruling body for the diocese of Oslo, capital of Norway.Like other Scandinavian countries, Norway is often considered a liberal country on issues such as sexuality. But the decision has caused some conflict within the Church of Norway, the country's biggest denomination, and debate is still continuing. Seven of Norway's 11 Lutheran bishops were strongly opposed to the appointment. Some Lutheran clergy have even stated publicly that they might refuse to have a "pro-homosexuality" bishop as their supervisor. But the church does not believe that the issue will cause schism or even the departure of a significant number of church members."We are dealing with a very sensitive issue, but nobody is talking about a split within the church," Dag Stange, head of information for the Church of Norway's national council, told ENI. "Everybody is doing their outmost to minimize the negative effects of the debate."Stange said there had been no increase in the number of people leaving the church. About 4,000 people leave the church each year, and that number is half that of 15 years ago when the church experienced a bitter debate about abortion.Olsen, who is at present administrative leader in the parish of Markus, also in Oslo, will become pastor of Majorstua in the next month or two, when he and his partner are expected to move into the parish house. He has declined to be interviewed, and the Bishop of Oslo, Gunnar Staalsett, does not want to make any comment on the issue to the international media.Critics have accused Bishop Staalsett of failing to abide by a decision—taken a few years ago in the national diocesan council and in the national church's general synod—not to appoint homosexuals as priests or deacons.In a statement after Olsen's appointment, Bishop Staalsett said he believed he should work for the acceptance of homosexual partnerships within the church in order to help homosexuals and out of respect for their dignity as human beings.The bishop said he had a duty to follow "the writings in the Bible about Jesus Christ who never discriminated against anybody."Responding to claims that the Bible contains several unequivocal condemnations of homosexuality, Bishop Staalsett said that his beliefs were based upon "the teachings of the Bible in its entirety."Over the past 10 years homosexuality has often been a subject of debate within the Church of Norway. Most debates and votes have upheld the view that homosexuals should not be appointed to various posts within the church. But last year Bishop Rosemarie Kohn went against majority thinking by deciding not to dismiss a woman priest who began a lesbian relationship after she had been appointed to a parish. Bishop Kohn publicly defended her decision saying that she "had to be faithful to the truth of love.""I accepted the decision not to appoint homosexual people as priests in order not to cause a split within the church," she said. "But I did that against my innermost convictions as a believer and a truth-seeker—a conviction it has taken me 25years to reach."She later said: "For me this is an example of a case where the truth cannot be administered by a majority. Everybody has to follow his or her own heart."But, according to a statement supported by most of Norway's Lutheran bishops, "marital relations between people of the same sex are against the word and the will of God. This is not a question of human rights. It can never be a human right to be ordained as priest."The Norwegian media have given intense coverage to the debate over Olsen's appointment, accusing the church of being old-fashioned and conservative. Dag Stange agreed with ENI that the views of most bishops—as well as most of its governing bodies—were not in line with the attitudes held by most Norwegians."Within the various governing bodies of the church, the majority agree with the majority of the bishops," he said. "Even though we have seen more liberal views among the representatives of the church in recent years, there is generally still a more conservative mood than in the population as a whole."Copyright © 2000 ENI

Related Elsewhere

More on Olsen's appointment is available from The Norway Post, Aftenposten, and the Associated PressOslo is also in an uproar over a recent announcement that Crown Prince Haakon is living with his girlfriend, Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby. See yesterday's Christianity Today article for the Church of Norway's reaction to the couple's decision.Visit the Church of Norway's English language also ran a story on Olsen's approval as clergy.The Norway Post ran an editorial last month discussing whether the Church of Norway should have such strong ties to the state. Read " Church Controversy."