Recently I returned from my third visit to Iceland. Each time we visited a different part of this enchanted island. Each region had a slightly different climate, different geology, and history of settlement. But over time I noticed a common theme - an abundance of neat little churches sprinkled over the breathtaking countryside. Each prominent farm or a small group of farms would have one such little church. Each church would have its name and be dutifully marked on maps.
It is a lovely and peculiar reminder of a different church history in Iceland. In the year 1000 (some say in 999), the Icelandic parliament (Alþing at Þingvellir) voted to adopt Christianity. From that date Iceland has had a state church. For instance one of the sinister (and recently hardly ever enforced) remnants of the state church - a state blasphemy law - has been revoked only this year on behest of MPs representing the Pirate Party, and it must be said that with full support of the Church of Iceland. But the State Church remains very much in place in Iceland and it brings with it a completely different spirituality than we know in America.
Each larger family or small community maintains a representative place of worship; it is a matter of their communal pride. These little churches are hardly ever used for any kind of regular service. Their function is in their very presence, and in being there for occasional weddings, funerals and family reunions. In the thinly populated Icelandic countryside only churches in large places offer regular services and a few historical or famous churches have worship on high holidays. These same historic churches are clearly maintained from the state budget and the state flag flies in front of many of them in a sign of national pride. Children in schools learn about and from ancient Icelandic Sagas their national as well as their church history...
America loves to brag about its religious freedom and separation of church and state. The result is a highly sectarian, often fanatical, deeply ignorant and intolerant form of religiosity. It is said that the alternatives are worse, that state religion leads to oppression, sectarian strife and bloodshed. Looking at Iceland and its state church, I did not notice anything of it but rather tolerant and cultivated spirituality, albeit different from ours. I am starting to have some doubts about Jeffersonian propaganda, but on the other side, it might just be our best local solution, the only way to keep peace among American religious nuts.