At the Euro Pride 2011 in Rome, Italy, Nils Jøran Riedl of the Open Church group in Oslo, Norway, held this speech about Making changes – a short story about the history of Gay and Lesbians in the Church of Norway.
I have a dream
Once upon a time there was a man – he was making a speech. ‘I have a dream’ – he said. The world has not been the same since that. Martin Luther King jr. made a different – but what did he? He talked – he said what was important for him, and he shows his face. It was probably easy to see his face among the faces he wanted to change. Visible or not: We as LGBT-persons are not necessarily visible. One day – some years ago – one of the bishops in the Church of Norway asked me: ‘Why you need to be so outspoken? You demand to much. When I was young we had a gay guy in my small village, we never asked him, it was not necessary – it was so obvious. All knew that he was gay. And nobody made any harm. We just did not need to talk about it’.
This bishop did not understand why we proclaimed our right, since we then asked for our rights. We want to be listened to. We want to be able to live our life – as we need and want and not as someone have proclaimed it to be for us. For that: It is important to continue talking about dreams and show our faces. We then might be able to make a change.
To make a difference
We have made a different in the Church of Norway. Our story is a story that goes from clear and outspoken resistance to some kind of silent acceptance. We are not done. Its still work to be done, but the different from 20 years ago is huge. In a Norwegian church context, these 20 years are the period when the majority of the members of the church have changed their opinion. It started with a big conference on homosexuality and the church in 1991. Before that things happened for sure as well. The oldest Christian group for homosexuals in Norway was established already in 1976 (Open Church group). Just to put my self in that frame: I was done with my education around 1991. It was then not possible for me, as a gay man living with another man, to have a job within the church as a minister/priest – since I had been clear and visible in media. I was ordained in 2001 and the bishop that did it got massive negative attention. I got my first position as minister in 2004. My bishop (a new one) did not like it, but since the decision was made by the Oslo Diocese council he just happened to be 1 of 8 to vote. It just become another news of the change that had taken place in our church. To day I am divorced, still working as a university chaplain – and I do not have any problems in my daily work. If I want, I might have a position on the west-coast – since it need to be votes in favor for me – and still: It's a lot of fear in our churches, and in the Dioceses it is still many that do not dare – yet.
The story of LGBT-issues in the church of Norway is a story that for sure is clearly connected to what’s have been going on in many European countries during the last decades. We have been inspired by other groups and other things that have happened in both the church and societies. New rights. New laws. New openness. New focus on what is important in our life. New vies on what homosexuality might be and how to understand us. To listens to other stories have given us courage and hope. Small steps were taken in the 60s and 70s. More happens in the 80s. Even more open discussions in the 90s. And when we write 2011 I have the feeling that in my life time it has really been a big different. I might felt afraid 25 years ago. Afraid of reactions that might take place. Afraid of not been taken for who I wanted to be. My fairs has not come trough. Or – for sure – I have been without a job in the church, but that was just for 12 years. In our history of gay and lesbian lifes – that is nothing.
A story of negativity
Once upon a time the bishops in Norway said (1954): ‘Homosexuality must be valid as the perversity that is: We are facing a threat of global dimensions’. As Hitler did during 2. world war: They needed someone to blame for problems that occurred. Someone gives us the guilt for the wrong things that happens. The laws against male homosexuality were removed in 1972 (when I was 7 years old). It’s not longer something anyone needs to be afraid of: The society does not punish anymore. There are fewer and fewer countries in the world which maintain such strange laws, so our rights, the situation regarding laws and human rights have probably never been stronger in a global perspective than now. In Norway we have had laws that protected against discrimination since 1981.
When they started to do research on gay and lesbians in US during the 1970s, and they found the respondents to the surveys in the environments where people were living ‘normal’ lives, and not in prisons and psychiatric hospitals, the WHO changed their diagnoses and we become reported ‘healthy’ and not sick. (1978). In many families it‘s still a shame to be ‘different’, but also regarding this we can se how the period people need to dear to be open is shorter now than before. The only negative word that seams still to be used in ‘serious’ debate is sin. Even with the open climate and the public debate that have taken place in Norway, we can still during our pride for example, see that opponents are using the bible and talk about sin against us.
So today it’s not a story of guild, punishment, sickness, of shame or sin: Today we have parades, dear to be more open, experience that families, friends, our public life and our daily life is easier many places. It’s easier to feel secure. It’s easier to find peers. Its easier – but still matters that needs to be dealt with, to make all people feel equal, even when we feel different.
Church and society
The church might like to think that the reason to be more careful is connected with tradition. We are coming from different churches with quite different traditions. In my church we have had women in priesthood for 50 years. It used to be a scandal, now it’s definitely not. When I grew up, it was still some in my environment that did not look upon dancing, to go to the cinema, to have a cigarette or to drink any alcohol with favor. They started to use the scriptures and tradition against it, but then someone started to ‘read the bible once more’. It’s not the texts that has changed, but the way to use them and to read the tradition. This makes changes.
The church is, and has to be, a part of the society. We might think that we are dealing with matters beyond this life, and for sure this stops us from doing the right things in our daily life, (but that is anointer matter…). What is going on around us make changes! The laws and the way to look at the human rights aspects of the issue of homosexuality, has definitely made a different for the development for all European countries. An exception might maybe be Italy, but even there things happens. Some days ago I was having a look at Rai1 (TV) from Italy, and there was an interview with a couple that had received a blessing in a church. In Norway we got a partnership law in 1993. I happen to be one of the first who used this opportunity. At that time with a lot of suppression from elements in the church that tries to destroy our day. They did not manage, and the public respond was enormous. That day made a big difference in the church opinion in Norway. Before approximately 30 percent of the Church was positive to gay and lesbian relations. Short time after it changed: Most of the people (70 percent were positive, just the leaders still holding back. Most important of all: This law made it impossible for the church to have a big public debate during the 1990s. With the law they started to make papers and have formal discussion, even if the church synod made some bad decisions in 1995 and 1997 saying that it was not possible to live in partnership and have the ordination within the church, makes a difference. The official dialogue has not been good at all time, but we have been talking, and it has been a port of media-reality in Norway. In Norway the church debate has been more public than in Denmark and Sweden. Of that reason it might seem like the development from an conservative church to a more open and liberal one has taken shorter time than if not. The bad decisions failed when the church realized that it is not possible to vote against what’s already a reality. They might think they can scare us away: But I do have a call. Gay and lesbians did not need to be ordained – some were already. Not to many. But enough to be visible for all that the decisions made of the synods had to be redone. Just a few years ago they proclaimed the change: Its now up to local level and the different bishops and Dioceses to decide them selves.
Knowledge as icebreaker
The change in our church in Norway has taken place on two levels. First of all it’s important to know that we have the arguments – that means we need the knowledge. Psychological, phenomenological, social and theological. Unfortunately we have to admit that patience seems to be important to have. That's not easy. But if we are just angry and provoking at all time, it might also be something working against the changes we make and want to take place. I don't know, but I do think we should understand the mechanism that takes place in our churches. Not to accept them, for sure to challenge them – with knowledge. To understand theology, to be able to discuss theology and to deal with so many different views, has been important for us in our debate in Norway. Further: To point on the connection between the church and what’s going on in the society in general has also been important. The church does not exist in a vacuum. We are a part of what’s going on – even if someone wants to think that we do not belong in this world. Its one thing I know: It tradition is used to tell that we have to wait for changes – I will say: All tradition has showed that to deal with people in our churches is to accept that taste, mode, levels and knowledge have always made changes, even if it is examples in our tradition telling us that some churches and congregation has made their life easier in one way by making a choice a certain point in history on how everything should be to be a part of the true believers.
In Open Church Group we have during the 1990 had study groups arguing and working every time the church has given official statements. We have made sure that we also publish and make them visible. Arguments have been met with arguments. Knowledge with knowledge. We have had a good connection to what’s have taken place on an international level regarding the questions of liberation and theology that works for the LGBT environment (even if that also is difficult: We are all different). And then last but not least, we have been dealing as a congregation: Making alternative places to meet and to worship – to keep our mind up and encourage each other with positive thinking and theology. The weekly masses that have taken place since late 1980 became important places to grow and give courage to live.
At one point in the ongoing ‘dialogue-process’ in the 1990s, we asked every congregation in the church of Norway, and every Diocese as well to have a face to face dialogue with us. All eleven Dioceses invited us to participate in a dialogue. And we went on: To as many as possible. We wanted them to meet us. To listen to our stories. We needed our members of the churches, to see that we also wanted to be taken seriously within the church. We are not just standing outside with bad intentions for our church. We experienced to be taken seriously. We got money from the state to make materials and to travel around. Of 1850 local congregations it was not to many that invited us, but we met some thousand of people during these years. And for sure – we know it was a lot of meetings on a local level without us present. Some do not dare to see each other in the eyes, but as I see it: If we want to make a different – that is absolutely necessary. We are not only knowledge and arguments. We are not only theoretical difficulties and theological challenges. We are humans, Christians, LGBTs with dreams.
I have a dream. I will continue to talk about that dream. The dream is not to be totally assimilated or neglected. The dream is to be in a situation where it is my qualifications that give me the opportunity to do a job, or to deal with my local congregation and to be able to be what I am. Not a sexual orientation or preference regarding who I would like to live with. I have a dream that we one day can tell our stories as they are. That we can live our own dreams as we want and that we can follow the calls we might feel we have. I have a dream that our stories can be more visible and understood. I have a dream, and I know that when I tell my dreams – they sometimes make a difference: They become true.