Impromptu baptisms help boost church numbers in Denmark

Looking to get baptised, but put off by the thought of tedious planning? With membership waning, Denmark's Lutheran Church is lowering the bar for hesitant prospective members by hosting drop-in christenings.

Impromptu baptisms help boost church numbers in Denmark
Photos: AFP, AFP video screenshot

The process is simple: You just walk into a church hosting a drop-in ceremony and all you need to bring is some form of identification.

After a brief chat with a minister you are ready to get christened. The ceremony lasts only a few minutes, and then it's time for refreshments offered by the church.

On a recent Friday, Ida Hauerberg Olesen went to a church in Hvidovre, a suburb of Copenhagen, with papers in hand.

The 27-year old woman, whose two children were not christened, decided she needed to take the plunge a few weeks earlier when her niece asked her to be her daughter's godmother — which would require her to be baptised herself.

She said that before that, she hadn't considered herself “church compatible”.

“I thought that religion was something boxy (narrow-minded) and boring but this pastor I had, he showed me other things,” she said without delving into theological details.

For Peter Skov-Jakobsen, the bishop of Copenhagen, “the sacrament is the beginning of the journey” in the Lutheran faith for the new faithfuls.

He sees no need to go through future members' knowledge of the Bible with a fine-tooth comb or to require exhaustive preparation.

Skov-Jakobsen explained that he sees a renewed interest in the Church through a need for spirituality in the contemporary era.

“We have reached an age where people are actually realising there is more to life than what science can tell us,” he told AFP in his bright office in the Danish capital's city centre.

Like its Nordic neighbours, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark has seen a steady decline in membership in recent decades.

Churches in Sweden and Norway have also adopted the more casual christening ceremony to lower the threshold for the secularly minded northerners.

In keeping with the countries' progressive cultures, their respective churches have had traditions of early reform.

Denmark's state Church started blessing same-sex partnerships in 1997, eight years after their legal recognition, and marrying same-sex couples in 2012.

The Church also ordained its first female minister in 1948.

Since the premiere of the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church's drop-in ceremonies in 2017, more than 600 people have been christened.

But this has done little to boost membership numbers and engagement with the Church, which relies on its members for financing through a tax levied on adult members of the congregation.

2.4 percent practitioners

While 75 percent of Denmark's population of 5.8 million are members, most are so out of tradition rather than faith.

Only 2.4 percent of the population attend church regularly, but 64 percent of Danes describe themselves as Christian, said Astrid Krabbe-Trolle, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Copenhagen.

According to Krabbe-Trolle, the move toward less formal christenings can be seen as a way of showing the Church's openness.

“It is really saying, 'Ok, we are a Church for everybody, you can just come in and we have no expectations of you other than you getting baptised',” she said.

The motivations for the new converts are diverse, from parents looking to make amends for an “oversight” by christening their children, to teenagers wanting to be confirmed or sick people and urbanites looking for a sense of purpose.

At age 73, John Ib Knudsen had “been thinking about it for a long time” before making the decision.

“I saw it in the newspaper and thought it was time for a rebirth,” he said. After the ceremony he wanted to “surprise” his ninety-something mother, a fierce opponent of the Church, with his certificate.

Jakob Kleofas Christensen, the minister who christened Hauerberg Olesen, said the Church is not carelessly offering this without any preconditions but is responding to public thirst for tradition and rituals.

That spring day in Hvidovre, four pastors were mobilised and 36 people were christened, more than double what the parish had expected.

Bishop Peter Skov-Jakobsen also stressed that they were not trying to be opportunistic in response to people's need for spirituality.

“We try to be relevent in our society,” he said, smiling.”The Protestant church has always been a movement for free minds,” he added.

Recently a minister in the same diocese even offered to bless divorces.

“In a divorce there are many existential questions (so) it is logical to introduce a ritual,” he told local media.  


Number of secular funerals in Denmark increases

Non-religious funerals in Denmark have increased by a significant amount over a relatively short period.

Number of secular funerals in Denmark increases
File photo: Kristian Djurhuus/Ritzau Scanpix

Until recently, priests have been present at the vast majority of burials and cremations in Denmark — in contrast to weddings, which have seen a far stronger tendency towards secular ceremonies.

But that is now beginning to change, newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad reports.

The number of burials or cremations conducted without the presence of a priest, imam, rabbi or other religious authority has increased significantly in the space of a few years, the newspaper writes.

Last year, 8,846 people were given non-religious funerals, or ceremonies ‘without spiritual participation’, according to the categorisation used by national statistics agency Statistics Denmark.

That represents an 84 percent increase compared to 2006, the oldest available data on the area.

The trend is further evidence that the general population in Denmark is becoming less closely connected to the Church of Denmark (Folkekirken), according to Ulla Schmidt, professor in theology at Aarhus University.

“Death has traditionally been the rite of passage in which the church's presence has remained strongest. But now we are beginning to see a decline,” Schmidt, who is leading a research project on death, remembrance and religion in Denmark, said.

“Although the church has, for a long time, been making an effort to increase the number of baptisms and church weddings, the decreasing number of (religious) funerals is a new situation, and one which the Church of Denmark has not yet done anything to address,” the researcher continued.

The trend exists across the country, but is most prominent in Copenhagen, where almost one third of all burials and cremations last year took place without any religious element.

Nationally, non-religious services constituted 16 percent of the 55,262 funerals which took place in 2018. That compares to 9 percent in 2006.

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