About the year 1000 Sigmund Brestisson introduced Christianity in Faroe. He is said to have had a church built on his farm on Skúvoy, and no doubt other chiefts and big farmers did the same as they converted to the Faith. But there was hardly a church structure until the islands after 1100 became part of the Nordic church hierarchy with the arch bishopric in Lund and about 50 years later of the Norwegian structure with the arch episcopal see in Trondheim. It thus took just over a century for the Faroe church to become a structured part of the general Roman Catholic Church.
The episcopal residence was at Kirkjubøur, and there the bishops lived til shortly after the Reformation, when the bishopric was abolished. The last Catholic bishop was Ámundur Ólavsson, and his successor was Jens Gregersøn Riber, who in 1540 was appointed the first Lutheran bishop of the Faroes. In 1557 Jens Riber moved from the islands. With him the Faroe episcopal see disappeared, and the islands became a deanery, first in the diocese of Bergen, then from 1620 in the diocese of Zealand and from 1922 Copenhagen. In 1990 the bishopric was restored, and Faroe again became an independent diocese.
Since the Reformation the church in Faroe has been Evangelic-Lutheran with the same five symbolic books as the Danish popular church. The Faroe church is part of the Danish church and under the Constitution of Denmark. The Faroe popular church is administered by the Danish authorities, who pay between half and a third of all expenses. The contents are the same as is the church structure with a bishop, dean and ministers and with diocese authorities, deanery committee and church ministry (“landstýri”). All church laws are Danish parliamentary laws, which by royal statute are enacted for Faroe with the appropriate amendments for Faroe circumstances.
All peoples have their particular culture, and it gives the nation its special character. As the spiritual foundation of the Faroe people Christianity has made its mark on the popular culture and daily life. The people also has its language, but not till 1948 did Faroese become the main language of the church in Faroe. In Roman Catholic times Latin was the language of the church even if the mother tongue was used as a help to make people understand its preaching and teaching.
Although one of the main purposes of the Reformation was to preach the gospel in the mother tongue, Danish rather than Faroese became the language of the church in the Faroes. But teaching and education in the Christian faith have always to some extent happened in Faroese before and after the Reformation. Therefore the native language also in Faroe played a certain role within the church. It was the sole means of communication in most Faroe homes, and there it was also used in the service of the church and Christianity.
From the Reformation until 1913 there were only 7 ministers to serve the islands. So there were strict limitations on the number of times every year that the minister could visit each church in his parish. No doubt it became cus
tom shortly after the Reformation that the clergyman visited each village in his parish six times a year. On these visits the minister first and foremost performed church
services with communion and baptism.
Besides he made funeral speeches and officiated at the graveside ceremony of the deceased since his last appearance. He married people and paid visits to the sick and elderly. He gave holy communion in the homes of people who were too weak to attend church.
The clerics were educated at the University of Copenhagen, later also in Århus, as is still the case. But since 1975 the Faroese have also gone to other countries to study, e.g. Iceland, Norway and Britain.
As said above the minister after the Reformation held church services six times a year in each village, and no doubt, especially at first, people missed attending church and hearing the word of God. Relief came in the form of the domestic homilies, which were meant to be read at home. Quite likely they were taken into use in Faroe soon after the Reformation. We don’t know exactly when they began to be read aloud in the churches on the Sundays and holidays when the minister could not be there.
These particular “services” were in Faroese and called “lestur” (“reading”). When the minister performs the service, the parish clerk reads the opening and closing prayers, but during these services he also reads the prayers and Bible texts which are normally read by the minister. And instead of the minister’s sermon the clerk also reads a sermon from a book collection of sermons as well as the church prayer and the Apostolic blessing. But the clerk does not go inside the altar or up on the pulpit, but reads from a desk which has been set up for the purpose in the choir.
The clerical church service has had and still has great importance for the church and service in the Faroes. It underlines that the church service is the responsibility of the congregation. It is the people of the village who make sure that the word of God is heard amongst them. In the same way as it was the villagers’ duty to hold the service, so the homes were mainly responsible for the teaching of the faith. The two were intertwined.
Present and past
Even if the church hierarchy in Faroe has largely been the same as in Denmark, it has not in the 20th century quite kept up with developments in the rest of the Kingdom. In 1990 the Faroes became an independent diocese with their own bishop and authority, and in 1992 steps were taken to implement a needed change of structure and an equally necessary modernization of the church laws.
With the exception of the clergymen almost all church servants in Faroe are employed on a voluntary basis. Discounting the major villages and towns, where the employees get a modest remuneration, the others perform their functions for free. This voluntary effort is inestimably valuable for the Faroe church.
One of the innovations of our time is that the church is expected to preach, mean and do almost anything between heaven and earth. This change of form, which I suspect will not only have positive effects on church and Christianity, is about to make its appearance in the Faroes. Here people are also beginning to ask what the church says and does. Does it not raise the question why it took almost 350 years from the Reformation before people began to ask these questions. What did the church say and do all these years? It preached the Gospel as law and Gospel and performed the sacraments for people, and with this spiritual equipment they were capable of meeting daily life with its at times very tough demands.
Trolls and Christianity.
Many faroese fairy-tales and legends about trolls and elves include elements from Christianity. The symbol of the Cross makes all supernatural creatures lose their power. Here is a tale from the island of Mykines:
The Trolls on Mykines
The trolls on Mykines used to dance every Christmas night at a place called Skálavøllur in the valley of Borgardal on the eastern part of the island. There you could hear them sing:
“Trum, trum, tralalei, the land of the trolls is cold, there is much warmer here in the house on Skálavøll.”
And they always chanted the same refrain:
“The mat is in the hallway, trum, trum, do the dance right.”
The mat they were singing about was their own, and it was always in their house at Skálavøllur.
Once the men from Mykines offered a heifer to any person who dared to go to the trolls and steal their mat. A man from the village was ready to try, took a horse and rode to the valley of the trolls. There he took the mat from the doorway, jumped back on the horse, and rode as fast as he could back towards the village. But the trolls came after him. They bounded over the mountains, and soon they were very close.
When the man and his horse reached the ridge above the village, he screamed:
“Here is God and the church!”
Right at that moment, one of the trolls got hold of the horses tail and ripped it of, but the man was saved.