Friday, February 12, 2010

Christianity in Greenland

The icy northern country of Greenland has a population of just 57,000 centered mainly around the southern coast. It is currently part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but there have recently been moves towards full sovereignty, and it is considered inevitable (eventually) by many.

This article, from which the quotes below are taken, is a good summary of the history of Greenland and of Christianity there.

Christianity was first brought to Greenland in the year 1000 by Norse settlers, and a separate diocese was established there whose territory even included, titularly at least, Vinland (which is to say, the Viking territory in Newfoundland; the real first European discovery of North America):
In the early 12th century, plans for a separate bishop for Greenland were approved by the King of Norway. Arnaldur, who was consecrated by the Archbishop of Lund in 1124 as Bishop of Greenland and Vinland in partibus infidelum, arrived in Greenland in 1126 and built Greenland’s first cathedral, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. In all, 16 churches were built on the island, the biggest being the sandstone cathedral at Gardar (Igaliku), which was cross-shaped, 84 ft long and 60 ft wide.

The Diocese of Gardar was subject to the Archbishop of Lund until 1152, when the dioceses in Greenland, Iceland, the Isle of Man, the Orkney Islands and the Faroe Islands became subject to the new Archdiocese of Nidaros (Trondheim) in Norway.

The devout King Magnus Eriksson of Norway donated a large sum to Gardar Cathedral in 1347. In 1354, Paul Knutson was sent to restore the people of Greenland to Christianity and took with him as his navigator Nicholas of Lynn, an English Franciscan friar and astronomer. The last Bishop of Gardar, Álfur, was consecrated in 1368 and held office until 1378.
The medieval Norse settlers enjoyed prosperous trading of rare arctic goods like walrus-tusk ivory, eiderdown, and whale products. But as the Little Ice Age began and the ice-packs started growing again in the 13th-century, travel to Greenland from Europe become increasingly tough and the settlements began to dwindle. By the end of the 15th-century, the Norse had died out and the native Inuit were again the only residents of the world's largest island.

Greenland was reached by Scandinavians again in the 18th-century and settlement by Europeans resumed, though over 80% of the population to this day remain native Inuit. The Kingdom of Norway re-established Christianity in Greenland, but of the Lutheran variety.

When Norway and Denmark separated in 1814, Greenland remained Danish, though with a certain degree of autonomy necessitated by its remoteness. Americans expressed interest in Greenland after WWII, but Denmark refused to sell. Today, the Protestant Church of Greenland is still part of the State Church of Denmark, but with its own Lutheran bishop, 19 parishes divided among 3 deaneries, 40 churches or chapels, and 25 vicars or priests. The current Lutheran bishop is an Inuit woman, but she is interestingly vocal about the need for more males in her clergy:
“In my church, there are 25 pastors, but only nine of them are males,” she says. “What’s more there are three deans in our church and two of them are women … I really think that we miss our male pastors.
There are only about 50 Catholics in Greenland, and less than 10 are native Greenlanders. The Catholics comprise the parish of Christ the King in the capital city of Nuuk. The Little Sisters of Jesus also apparently established a fraternity there in the 1980's with 3 sisters.

Since its founding in the 1950's, the parish was led by Danish priests of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at the recommendation of Bishop Theodore Suhr, the Catholic Ordinary of Copenhagen (who has jurisdiction over Greenland). However, a new congregation (from Mexico oddly enough) was set to take over the cure of the parish in 2009 .

There is an article about the last Oblate pastor here. There is also an interesting article from the year 2000 describing a wonderful pilgrimage organized by the Catholic parish to three holy sites in Greenland important to the history of (medieval Catholic) Christianity there.


Mark of the Vineyard said...

If I find the link again, I'll send it to you. Apparently Christians reached the American continent as early as the 5th century. The article is about some sort of improvised church found burried in Conneticut, with greek inscriptions, etc.

A Sinner said...

You must mean this article:

I hope you don't really believe that or at least take it with a HUGE grain of salt. It is highly suspect revisionist history, and not given any academic credence. I think he's seeing what he wants to see.

The fact that all sorts of Byzantine Orthodox types have rallied around this "find" (because the church in question is allegedly Byzantine) and take it as very disturbing, and clearly just an "identity politics" move.

Perhaps yet another thing I could include in the "Greek Critique" I was mulling over in the comment section on the Suffocation thread..