In Denmark, a man of God, but without that ‘God’ part

New York Times, via The International Herald Tribune, July 8, 2003
Lizette Alvarez, NYT

TAARBAEK, Denmark Thorkild Grosboell, a popular Lutheran pastor in this village by the sea, drags on his pipe and clarifies, once and for all: “I do not believe in a physical God, in the afterlife, in the resurrection, in the Virgin Mary.

“And I believe that Jesus was a nice guy, who figured out what man wanted,” Grosboell added. “He embodied what he believed was needed to upgrade the human being.”

Grosboell, 55, a tall, gangly man who loves to bake rye bread and dotes on this small town, was suspended by his church on June 3, after he made similar remarks to a newspaper. His comments and suspension have sparked a tsunami of theological discourse across Denmark, a country where religion seldom penetrates the collective consciousness.

Unlike in America, religion in Denmark is almost never a defining political or personal issue, pastors and experts say. That is true of almost all of Scandinavia, a profoundly secular region. Church attendance in Denmark is a flat 6 percent, though some experts say the figure is even lower.

So it was no wonder that the plight of Grosboell, a laid-back man in Oxford tweeds who is beloved by this community, has prompted many here to ask: Must a minister believe in Christ and the resurrection to be a good pastor? Isn’t it enough to spread Christian values and help people in need?

“Danes, we don’t talk too much about God, and Christianity is not a big force here,” said Ulrik Spork, 44, a venture capitalist who said he never went to church until he moved to Taarbaek, which is about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Copenhagen, and found Grosboell. “His beliefs mirror mine. I don’t think the earth was created by God in six days. I don’t believe it’s a problem.” Grosboell’s own six-member parish council voted unanimously to keep him and wrote a letter of support to the Danish government’s Minister for Ecclesiastic Affairs. Then it held a rally that drew hundreds of people “on a football night,” said Larse Heilesen, the council chairman. “The people are furious,” he said.

But it appears that even Denmark and its Lutheran Church must impose limits on religious freedom. For a man of God not to believe in God is, simply, unacceptable. Grosboell’s words are “creating doubt and confusion about the church’s values,” Bishop Lise-Lotte Rebel, who oversees Grosboell’s parish, told Agence France-Presse on June 13. “A pastor is an employee of the state who has obligations, and he cannot say everything publicly just by claiming that his freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Danish constitution,” she added.

Rebel summoned Grosboell on June 13 to clarify his comments about God, first published in Weekend Avisen on May 22. Grosboell failed to recant and affirm his belief in a “physical God,” and so the suspension remained. The ultimate decision to defrock Grosboell rests with the Tove Fergo, the Minister for Ecclesiastic Affairs, who has so far sided with Rebel.

Grosboell was asked to turn over his church key the day of his suspension. “And I’m not allowed to talk to anybody as a priest,” he added, delighting in his predicament. “I must say, ‘I’m coming into your home as a private citizen’ when I knock on the door.” Grosboell explains that he does believe in “something divine.” But he does not believe in a physical God who “created Man and ant.”

Did he anticipate all the hubbub? “I’m a provocateur,” he said, relishing the role, but conceding that the current controversy is a bit much. In Taarbaek, Grosboell and his wife, Dorrit Moller, are popular dinner guests and know most of the church’s 1,500 members by sight.

“If he goes out as a priest,” said Peter Nielsen, the local postman, “I leave the church.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday July 9, 2003.
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