16 December 2015

16 December: Christmas and the Danish Church

church of denmark

Getting to Christmas mass well in advance is a must if you expect to find a seat in a Danish church. But for the rest of the year, space abounds on increasingly empty pews. Nevertheless, 4.4 million Danes remain members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark. So, what do the members get out of the church, both economically and culturally? Today’s researcher addresses just that.

Sidsel Kjems is a PhD student at the Department of Food and Resource Economics.

Area of research: Socio-economic perspectives of cultural institutions, including churches.

Christmas and church go hand-in-hand for many Danes. And today, there is a newfound tendency for Danes to consider and talk about going to church on the 24th of December, before heading back home for holiday meals. But for the rest of the year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark doesn’t have much to boast about with regards to packed houses of worship. Danes value the Church of Denmark, not for their ability to come in, but for its existence – its existential value. It simply needs to be there, and is something that Danes continue to use for special occasions.

Membership has fallen over time, but roughly 4.4 million, or seventy-seven percent, of Danes continue to be members of the Church of Denmark. While this is a far higher voluntary participation rate than for of any other organisation, being a Church member is not free.

The Church of Denmark costs about eight billion kroner a year, with more than six billion of that collected as revenue from church taxes. It costs as much as the University of Copenhagen, or the national police force. Because the Church of Denmark is a large organisation with many employees, it is interesting to study from a socio-economic perspective.

So what does the Church of Denmark provide us? On a personal level, it means that people may value being wed in churches, keeping with family tradition by baptising their children and marking their end of days with a funeral that includes a priest and everything that comes along with the church funeral.

On a more abstract level, it might be that the church provides Danes with a shared reference point that subsequently contributes to social cohesion. It is similar to how the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, ‘DR’, once used to be where Danes collectively accessed their television news and entertainment programming. Today, there are numerous television channels, and it is impossible to know if neighbours have been watching the same news programmes or not. Decreasing church membership means that the Church of Denmark’s place in society is not, as it once was, a given. And this raises the question: will the church continue to be a shared point of reference in in the future?

This is one of the issues that PhD student Sidsel Kjems works with as part of her PhD dissertation at the Department of Food and Resource Economics.

Kjem’s interest in the Church of Denmark’s finances and societal function was sparked while working as a government official at the Ministry of Finance:

“I look at the total economic costs of the church, and their evolution over time. I also study and attempt to quantify the opinions of Danes regarding the benefits of the church. And then, I also compare the finances of Scandinavian (majority) national churches.”

According to Sidsel Kjems, her research can be used as input for the continuing debate about how to best deploy societal resources.

 “My research can be used for debates and discussion between politicians, government officials, researchers and opinion shapers, as well as in the media, the social media and more generally, throughout the populace. My research can explain the extent of resources that we as a society have decided to allocate to the church, and point out what benefits the Church of Denmark provides to society and for Danes,” concludes Sidsel Kjems.”