Visiting a Biblebelt service in Kristiansand, Norway

Deze post is in het Engels omdat ik deze tekst ook wil delen met collega's die met ons meewerken aan het Europese Biblebelt-project waarvoor wij afgelopen week in Noorwegen waren.

Last Sunday, my colleague Fred van Lieburg and I visited a church service in Kristiansand, Norway. We did this in the context of a new project on European Biblebelts. Familiar as we are with the Dutch Biblebelt, we wondered to what extent the Norwegian Biblebelt would include similar types of spirituality. After all, the fact that a region is being labeled in the media as 'Biblebelt' does not necessarily mean that it is indeed similar to another region in another country and from another confessional tradition which is labeled likewise. And so we went to what was told to us to be the most conservative Lutheran congregation (that they see themselves in this way too, was evident when after the service, one of the attendants of the service said the same), the Samfundet congregation in Kristiansand (more info on their website, use Google Translate to get an idea of what they write about themselves).

A lot could be said about the service of course. I will try to restrict myself. The service took two hours to complete. This was exceptional, because all three sacraments were celebrated during the service, the sacrament of penance, baptism and communion. Communion, and penance is celebrated every month. We were welcomed by other visitors, we received a hymn book and assigned a place in the back row of the church. Other visitors were friendly and somewhat curious who these two men were, but generally they started to talk to us in Norwegian, so they did not expect us to be from abroad. The architecture inside and outside was rather simple, although audio technology was of a high standard. The organ played softly and hardly anyone talked to each other before or during the service. The atmosphere was very pious. Visitors wore dark cloths, mostly not very fashionable. Almost all women wore a skirts or dresses, no trousers. Also, women had their heads covered, either with a hat or with a headband around their long hairs.

The service was built around four elements: first, the sacrament of penance, second, the readings from Scripture (from a lectionary) and the sermon, third the sacrament of (infant) baptism, and finally, the sacrament of communion. Hymns were sung in between prayers and speeches. Hymn singing was at normal pace, not particularly slow (compared to practices that we know from the NL). Most of the hymns sung were from the 16th century and specifically Lutheran, with the exception of the hymn sung during communion, which was Jesu dulce memoria, from the 11th century, translated into Norwegian.

As is evident from their website, the celebration of the sacrament of penance before communion, even at the very beginning of the service, is a distinguishing characteristic of this congregation. After a speech of about ten minutes at least, in which we frequently heard the words 'sin' and 'sacrament', a select group, at most about one third of the people present, came to the fore, and row by row knelt before the altar, followed by a personal laying on of hands by the minister who said, as far as we understood: "Your sins have been forgiven, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you."

The sermon, naturally, was hard to understand for us. It was about the raising of the dead boy at Nain and in the first part of the sermon, it was strongly linked up with the story of Naäman and Elisah. The first half of the sermon seemed predominantly a retelling of both stories. This was all the more important to notice because in the readings from the lectionary, there were hardly any readings from the Old Testament, so this way, the minister brought in OT elements into the service.

What struck us particularly in the celebration of the sacrament of baptism was the gender aspect. Mothers and female witnesses (or female helpers, we don't know) stood next to the fathers in the corridor, but only the mothers and helpers came forth towards the baptistry where the priest performed the rite. After the rite being performed, personal forgiveness of sins was also proclaimed by laying on of hands to the children baptized.

In the sacrament of communion, again about one third of the visitors (not sure whether everyone or almost everyone present is a 'member') came to the fore and row by row they knelt and received bread and wine, while the congregation was singing Jesu dulce memoria. Both in the sacrament of penance and of communion, the age distribution of those participating seemed to be younger than the average age of all visitors. These two groups seemed to be about the same and also, they were sitting in the front rows of the auditorium.

By the way: no money was collected during the service. Nor, as far as we could see from the back of the church, were any gifts collected before, during or after communion.

Were there similarities with what we know from the Dutch Biblebelt? Yes, there were many, but many differences too. Especially the atmosphere felt very similar. The piety, the fact that most of the people were rather of the working or middle class, the architecture of the building, the music (except for the slow singing in the Dutch case). Of course the sacramental context was strikingly different, but the emphasis on the forgiveness of sin was also similar in focus. We would be very curious to hear more from participants about their views and their spirituality, because in spite of the concreteness of the absolution proclaimed very personally to believers, the fact that only one third of the congregation received it, made us wonder as to what assurance of faith would mean to this particular strand of the Lutheran tradition.


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