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The Church on the Hill

June 9th, 2019 · No Comments · Iceland, Lutherans, tourism, Travel

Seven of us are sharing a comfortable home near the port and downtown of Reykjavik, capital and biggest city of Iceland.

On our first night there, I noticed an interesting, modern church that seemed to be made of large blocks of stone. The whole of it was painted white. And it was about 100 yards from where we are staying, up on a hill with a great view of the bay.

So, next morning was Sunday morning, and I wasn’t quite sure when services were, or if I might be interested in them … so I climbed up the hill at 10:30 or so, and opened the door, and walked to the entrance of the nave where a four-person choir was practicing.

I also saw a tall, dignified-looking man who is the minister of the congregation, who spotted me and came over. I said I was a Lutheran from America, and he seemed pleased, given that he is a Lutheran minister for a Lutheran church … and he invited me to their regular 11 a.m. service.

I said I would see him then.

Around the world, Lutherans number in the millions. Most live in Germany and the Scandinavian peninsula, and Denmark, and also in Iceland.

This particular church is named after the neighborhood where it stands, overlooking the sea. The Seltjarneskirkja Church, part of the state-supported Icelandic Lutheran Church.

The church is of modest size, with room for perhaps 150 worshipers, but it has a balcony, and a fine old organ, and a choir of four and some really interesting architectural touches — the building seems to be made up of pentagonal pieces knitted together. From the outside, it looks almost as if it has huge white wings.

An inviting place.

So, I returned at 11 and listened to the choir and the organist. I could not understand them, but I thought that might change during the service, when the usual order of events was was laid out in a couple of small books.

I flattered myself. I thought I would be able to follow along, as I do in Germany. But Icelandic? Hah!

I was lost almost immediately, in terms of words, though I was able to keep pace with the motions of main events. Readings from the Bible, the sermon, the choir, the congregation singing, a confirmation of a teen girl, all in white. The Eucharist.

But knowing what was being said … not going to happen.

Icelandic is part of the north German language group, which includes Denmark and Norway and Sweden, but it really is out there pretty much alone.

The minister was confirming what I had read — that the Vikings who had moved to Iceland about 1200 years ago decided to keep intact the Old Norse — “Viking,” he said — language.

That is helpful, and not so helpful.

The Icelanders (some of them, anyway) apparently can read documents from all those centuries ago because they kept the language they arrived with and had very little outside influence on how they spoke.

Thus, Norwegian and Danish and Swedish now have more in common, linguistically, with German and English than they do with their Icelandic cousins, with whom they share DNA — but very little of a word hoard.

So, I was lost; I could read (or guess at) maybe 10 percent of the words. I was glad to be at the service, and watch and listen, but I felt sheepish that I understood none of it.

After the service, the minister saw me again and invited me to “a spread” that the congregation puts on after the service, with the emphasis on coffee and on pastries, several of which looked quite sinful in their richness.

The minister had some questions for me: How I got there, where I lived, but some information, too … and then he turned me over to a nice older gentleman, a retired civic official, who answered questions I had about Iceland and its economy and its language.

Earlier, when I saw the minister, he invited me to the post-church-service gathering, and I said I didn’t think that would be fair, with my speaking English and not knowing 10 words of Icelandic, and he said, “But we all speak English!” Which is pretty much true, we found, especially among the young.

Even given all that, I thought I would slip out of the church, afterward, but the minister spotted me again (!) and there I was, eating some nice cake and drinking juice.

Back to the Icelandic language. I suppose it is a good example of how languages used by only a few hundred thousand speakers can survive for a thousand years, and more: When they are geographically removed from most of the world; when they receive few visitors and even fewer outsiders; and when they have a written language and lots of content to read, especially about their own heroes and historical figures, in the Icelandic sagas.

In the parish hall, where the pastries were put out, we never got around to talking about the former pagan religion, which was quite similar to that of the other Scandinavian religion, with Thor and Wotan, all that.

Iceland became Christian with the stroke of a pen around 1000 A.D., when the king of Norway decided that is how they should worship … and then Lutheranism displaced Catholicism in the mid 1500s, urged on (this time) by the king of Denmark.

The minister said Iceland has something like 300 churches (in a country of about 350,000 people), which works out to one church for each 3,000 people. Curiously, it has very few old churches, but that can be explained: Most of the churches were made of turf, and the roofs essentially melted after a few decades. The oldest standing church was built in the 1700s — and not made of turf. (The church where we live in France is older than any church in Iceland.)

As in many European countries, the Icelanders are not particularly religious. Attendance is down in churches, especially among the young, but the church is state-supported, and people can choose to have some of their tax money sent to the church, and many do that, even if they rarely attend.

I was glad I went … even if it was by far the least comprehensible (for me) Lutheran service I have ever attended. I got to see how Iceland’s Lutherans roll, and then I had coffee cake, too.



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