Church and state
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland has traditionally been labelled in two different ways: some speak of it as a state church, while others call it a folk church. Both labels are somewhat misleading and susceptible to propagandistic use.
Used in a critically evaluated way, though, they remain useful in that they still give a rough picture not only of the position of the church in Finnish society, but also of the relationship between the church and the state.
In order to understand the current religious situation and church politics in Finland, it is important to bear in mind the country’s strong state-church oriented tradition. This tradition is so long-standing and influential that the current situation is difficult to understand outside this context.
No longer state-church structure
The continuous state church situation has not only been a feature of the legal relationship between the church and the state, but in its time it set the tone for the nature of the state.
As in many other countries with state-church systems, the religious homogeneity of the people was seen in Finland as a condition for the success of the state’s policies of internal integration.
These days Finland no longer has a state-church structure in the precise sense of the term. The system has been dismantled step by step so as to give greater internal independence to the Lutheran Church.
Episcopal appointments and church law
The Lutheran Church’s autonomy in internal affairs is further protected by the fact that the national Parliament, which must ultimately ratify church law, has no right to alter the content of the proposals it receives from the Synod: all proposals must be either accepted in their original form or rejected altogether.
The most significant change has been the introduction of a new procedure for episcopal appointments. As a result, bishops are no longer appointed by the President of the Republic: the new procedure involves an election consisting, if necessary, of two rounds of voting, after which the winning candidate receives an official letter of appointment from the diocesan chapter.
Another significant area of contact is the system of guarantees for the church’s financial position. On the basis of its public rights in state legislation, the church is entitled to collect taxes. In addition to church members, societies and corporations are also required to pay church taxes, with the exception of registered religious organizations and free-thinker societies.
Apart from administrative and economic ties, the contacts between church and state are also seen in the maintenance of a number of cultural traditions of no economic significance. Examples of this include a worship service that takes place as part of the opening of Parliament.
Services provided by the Church
The church itself, in providing certain social services, is nurturing an ongoing relationship with the state. This is seen most clearly in that parishes continue to take responsibility for maintaining census registration data concerning their members, and for their funeral services.
Although the church is no longer officially responsible for maintaining a population register, the situation may well remain unchanged in practice for the foreseeable future. With rare exceptions, parish cemeteries are to remain the usual burial place even for non-members of the Lutheran Church.
In spite of the abundant and diversified contacts between church and state, however, it is not appropriate to classify our Lutheran Church as a traditional state church. The most decisive reason for this lies in the great internal autonomy of the Lutheran Church. State authorities cannot become involved in decisions concerning the church’s internal affairs. Local parishes thus have broad economic independence and autonomy, as does the Synod.