Baptism in Norway

Introduction to baptism in Norway the last two decades, by Harald Hegstad

This summary refers to the situation in the Church of Norway (“Den norske kirke”) which is an Evangelical-Lutheran Church and the largest faith community in Norway, with 71 % of the population as members (2018). It owes this standing to its former status as a state church. Even if the ties to the states have been loosened, the Church of Norway is still mentioned in the Constitution as the “folk church of Norway”. An important aspect of the church’s role in Norwegian society has been the position of infant baptism, both as a religious and a societal rite. In the premodern period, infant baptism was mandated by law for all children. Following religious freedom in the 19th century, infant baptism was no longer mandatory, but continued to be a dominant cultural practice in society. As statistics show, this position can no longer be taken for granted. The decline in baptisms has led to a self-reflection process on the situation in the church, both locally, regionally, and nationally.

 

1. Statistics

In 1960 97 % of all newborn children in Norway were baptized in the Church of Norway. Since then, the percentage as declined, more rapidly the last years. In 2018 the number of baptized corresponded to 52 % of all newborn in Norway the same year. This represented 75 % of children with one or both parents as church members. At the same time, the number of youth and adults that is being baptized has increased. In 2017 approx. 1000 persons were baptized before confirmation, in addition approx. 200 adults were baptized.

When interpretating this drop in the baptism percentage, there was initially a tendency to explain this by reference to immigration. As new immigrants usually belong to other denominations or religions than the Lutheran, it is not expected that they will baptize their children in the Church of Norway. However, this can not fully explain the decline, and statistics also showed a decline in the number of baptisms among children whose parents are church members. (From 2021 this part of the statistics can no longer be continued, as the church will no more have access to information of children born by members.) There are important regional variations between dioceses. In 2018 the percentage of baptism in the diocese of Oslo was 31 %, substantially lower than the rest of the country. As Oslo is the most urbanized area in the country, this might indicate a connection between urbanization and declining number of baptisms.

 

2. Practice

The drop in baptism has led to an examination of practices related to baptism. This includes a renewed emphasis on quality in existing practices, and introduction of new practices. In 2015 a local congregation introduced drop-in-baptisms, a practice that has spread to several other congregations subsequently. The bibliography shows several examples of focusing on how parents and godparents are met by the church, especially the conversation or conference preceding the baptism. In 2016 the Bishops’ meeting issued a document on baptism of asylum seekers. As part of the emphasis on baptism, the national church office established a web site with overview of resources and practices related to baptism. The common practice in Norway is to celebrate baptisms in the main Sunday service. (In some congregations in North, there is a tradition for home baptisms). There is a growing conversation whether this need to be an absolute norm, and whether both ordinary service attenders and baptismal families might be better served by having separate baptismal services.

 

3. Liturgy

 The present baptismal liturgy is from 2017, which is a revision of the 2011 liturgy. This replaced a liturgy from 1981. The revision in 2011 was part of a general revision of liturgies, which also included the liturgy for baptism. An important concern in the process leading to the 2011 liturgy, was the wish to strengthen a theology of creation perspective. While the 1981 liturgy rooted the need for baptism in the child’s share in the world’s sinfulness, the 2011 liturgy explicitly mentions the value of the child as created by God and valuable. The wish to include various theological motives in the liturgy, led to criticisms of the liturgy for being too wordy and not working well in practical use. This led to the revision process that ended in 2017. However, the debate on baptismal liturgy has not come to an end.

There have been several studies of the liturgy of baptism, analyzing the versions of it from various perspectives.

 

4. Communication

 As a result of the decline in baptismal numbers, information about baptism for parents has been a prioritized area in the church the last few years. It has led to a general emphasis on the quality and availability of the communication in connection with baptism. On the one hand this communication has been directed towards employees and volunteers in the church that is working with baptism or areas related to baptism. This includes a magazine directed at this group. For parents considering bringing their child to baptism, new brochures and booklets have been developed. External communication also includes resources for social medias and web pages, including short videos. Videos has also been used as advertisement at public cinemas. In Oslo, the diocese ran a campaign with posters in metro trains.

 

5. Education

 In 2004 the Church of Norway initiated a large-scale reform in its education in Christian faith (“trosopplæringsreformen”). The reform was financed by a new permanent grant from the Norwegian state and led to a new group of employees in this area in the church. As part of the reform, a new plan for faith instruction in the congregations was developed (2010). After a development phase, the reform was implemented in all congregations.


The historical background for the reform was on the one hand a debate in the church during the 1970’s and 80’s regarding the question of an “indiscriminate baptismal practice”. Is it legitimate for the church to baptize almost all children when there is no guarantee that the child will receive education in the faith afterwards? The general conclusion drawn from this was not to stop baptizing, but rather that the church should take greater responsibility for teaching. This led to various programs and initiatives which culminated in the 2004 reform.

On the other hand, an important background for the reform was the development in religious instruction in public school. Teaching in religion had traditionally been based in a Lutheran understanding, with formal ties to the Church of Norway. In 1997 the subject was changed to a general introduction in religion, ethics and world views, with no confessional basis. The 2004 reform could thus be understood as a compensation from the state to the church for the loss of a confessionally based religion subject.

The reform has been followed by evaluation research, which has been documented in several reports.


A problem in the reform has been participation. In public school, nearly 100 % of all children and youth participates, but when this takes place in the church, it becomes voluntary and has to compete with other activities for young people (sport, music etc.)

The goal for the reform has been to offer faith instruction for “all baptized”. What seems to be a wide definition, now seems to be too narrow, as many children of church members are not baptized, as parents wants children to choose for themselves. It has therefore been argued that the faith education program should redefine its audience, not only to included baptized children, but all children and youth that might consider baptism in the future.

 

6. Social science and empirical theology

 There was already at the beginning of the century empirical research on the role of baptism as a rite of passage and its role in the folk church context. Especially the research of Ida Marie Høeg should be mentioned, which also compares baptism to alternative name giving ceremonies.


As a result of focus on the decline in baptismal numbers, research has been initiated into reasons for choosing and not choosing baptism. The research has pointed to general tendencies in society, such as pluralization and individualization. There are also socioeconomic differences between parents choosing and not choosing, even if there is a similar tendency across all groups. A very important factor seems to be the understanding that parents want to let their children choose for themselves when they get older.

Research also shows a discrepancy between parents’ understanding of baptism and what the church communicates about the meaning of baptism.


There has also been research on church practices connected to baptism, including how pastors and other church workers reflect on their work, and which role baptism plays in the life of the church.

 

7. Theological studies

 The recent work on the theology of baptism has been sparked by different factors: the development and discussion of the baptismal liturgy, the church educational reform, and recently the focus on dropping numbers of baptisms. This work has been done by theologians in academic institutions, by practitioners, and by official church bodies. In 2019 the bishops’ meeting wrote a short letter about baptism that was meant to be read in all churches. In 2020 the bishops published a more extensive text on baptism. In the end of 2019, a book on baptismal theology (by Harald Hegstad) was distributed by the National church council to all congregations.

An important aspect in the theological conversation about baptism has been the attempt to expand the perspective from baptism as an event to baptism as a reality that means something for the whole life of the baptized. Thus, baptism is of importance for the understanding of faith instruction, for youth ministry and for confirmation. In 2020 the bishops’ meeting also published a document on confirmation, which stresses the connection between baptism and confirmation.

Another important question in the discussion of baptismal theology has been the role of theology of creation. How should the unbaptized be understood, and how should the salvation that is given in baptism be understood in relation to what has already been given in creation? These are questions with practical relevance for communication with church members about baptism.