The Bishop's residence in Nørregade has housed the bishop’s office since the Reformation. It is located vis-á-vis the historical main building of the University of Copenhagen in the city center leading up to Nørreport station. This part of the city is non-stop pulsating as the street houses several discos and bars.
Peter Skov-Jakobsen, the bishop of Copenhagen, has lived and worked here since 2009, when he is not conducting services in the cathedral across from the Bishop's Palace, or travelling around the country on various errands.
According to Peter Skov-Jacobsen the churches of the Copenhagen Diocese have managed to attract the Copenhageners with their versatile range of cultural and other leisure activities. "They the churches offer great diversity in this manner, which in my opinion also seems to be consciously aimed at the city, the city that I know," the bishop says proudly.
It is exactly this purposefulness and diversity in reference to their versatile offers of activities that seems to be the hallmark of the Copenhagen churches in these years. On the musical side of things, there are of course still traditional church concerts, but there are also electronical concerts with lights installations, songwriting workshops, as well as pop, jazz and rock concerts.
Furthermore, in regards to activities, there is communal dining, film and hyper-niche clubs as well as hiking and other open-air activities, and so-called ‘night churches’ that offer various late night musical experiences. Every single month there are hundreds of activities and events that the Copenhagen churches have to offer, which target audience are the city's children as well as their families.
On the other end of the scale there are ‘grief groups’ for those who have lost a loved one or others who experience heartache. Most recently, Stefanskirken (Stephen's Church) on Nørrebro established a ‘grief group’ for those who mourn the climate, looking into the uncertain future of our planet.
If you are new in Denmark and don’t speak Danish, don’t despair! The National Church in Denmark has since 2021 consciously aimed at opening its doors to the city's new and international citizens, in the project Folkekirken for Internationals hereby offering the Danish Evangelical Lutheranism in English.
"It is yet another exciting way of being ‘contemporary church’, however it also requires double the effort particularly in comparison to what was required by the national church in Denmark in the 80’ties," says Peter Skov-Jakobsen.
The many activities are managed locally by priests, organists and parish associates, and they are very busy.
In 1980, back then when the bishop was a student at the University of Copenhagen, the agenda in the churches of the Copenhagen Diocese was quite different.
"They were constantly trying to revitalize a church life that had once been and which at that given point in time had been suitable for the city and its inhabitants.”
Copenhagen – the Copenhagen that once was – does, according to the bishop, not spark up a nostalgic memory.
"From the middle of the 19th century, the National Church in Denmark reflected its city, Copenhagen. It was a very old city where there was great need, a very poor city and a more over in many ways a motionless city, which was reflected in all aspects of church life.”
The city's widespread poverty shaped the way in which the church in Copenhagen conducted itself. There was a widespread need and urgency to help.
"The need was so great that talking about ‘grace’ had no true meaning and value if you did not have anything proper to offer; people needed to be fed, be safe and have clothes on their backs."
If you wish to work as a priest in a metropolis like Copenhagen, you need to be very opened minded and contemporary.
The great social task at hand created a church life where the church was very close to the city’s population. However, as the population's socio-economic conditions improved and the city’s character changed, the church had difficulty finding its place and role in society. It created a discrepancy between what the church had to offer and the actual needs of the city’s population.
”Church life did not reflect, that the city went through remediation from 1960 to 1990, as 360.000 Copenhageners moved out of the city, becoming citizens among other in urban areas west of Copenhagen as well as Northern Zealand.”
At first the city shrunk, yet the 90’ties were defined by urban renewal followed by the district areas. Small apartments were merged, bathrooms became mandatory in each apartment, and all the while the demographic of the city changed. The church needed time to overcome this challenge by first and foremost cutting out the nostalgia reminiscing its ‘good old days’ and instead focus on the actual current needs of the Copenhageners.
"Around the turn of the millennium, this nostalgia was left in the past, where it belongs; behind us. If you put history in front of you, you are trying to revive that, which others have already lived. There is something forced about that," says the bishop.
With the past finally behind them, the churches set about creating a new repertoire that suited the current population of Copenhagen. One significant change was the increase in families with children that had moved to the city.
People had previously moved from the city with their children, whereas now they stayed. Copenhagen Municipality alone grew, according to Statistics Denmark, by 6,600 families with children from 1990 to 2000. On top of that adding a more current growth of 21,000 families that have moved to the city. The church's focus on these newcomers has resulted in a creative boom.
”This all happened around the turn of the millennium; grief groups, activities for babies and their parents in the form of ‘babysalmesang’ and more importantly the so-called ‘spaghetti services’, were particularly families with small children would join after Sunday service for communal lunch”, the bishop notes.
Babysalmesang and ‘spaghetti services’ are two innovations typical to Copenhagen, which have spread countrywide. Babysalmesang was firstly introduced in Sankt Pauls Kirke (Saint Paul’s Church) and Frederiksberg Kirke (Frederiksberg Church) in 2002. In 2016 Center for Contemporary Religion estimated that around 55 to 60 percent of Danish pastorates offer babysalmesang.
The concept of ‘night church’ is also a more contemporary concept; its target audience is Copenhagen’s young adults. The first ‘night church’ was established in 1999 at Vor Frue Kirke (Church of Our Lady), and here too the phenomenon has spread out to more urban areas of Copenhagen as well as other larger cities throughout the country.
“If you wish to work as a priest in a metropolis like Copenhagen, you need to be very opened minded and contemporary”, says Peter Skov-Jakobsen.
The city and its people initially mold the activities that the church has to offer, and the city has changed a lot throughout the decades.
”If you look at the city today, Copenhagen has become a wealthy city, a city in constant motion and movement where a large part of the population lives individually, completely alone. I’d like to see the modern human being as a mature being; a being that in every aspect lives a life with passion, common sense, awareness as well as problems.”
To be relevant to contemporary urban human beings, the church must be both sensitive and accommodating to the complicated reality of the human experience, including the sorrows, joys, and different phases of life that individuals go through.
To be relevant to contemporary urban humans, the church must be sensitive and accommodating to the complexities of human existence, including sorrows, joys, and the general phases of life that any individual goes through.
"There are people who run to the art museums and galleries, that go out Friday night for dinner, that go to jazz clubs, get married, have children and then get divorced. All these wonderfully complicated lives –that sometimes also crash. This menagerie is what we as a church must tackle, all the while there are wars going on in the world, famine, climate change, refugees, and the world economy. We also need to be a church in this context.
The core of the church IS the mass; however, it would greatly sadden me if whatever we do was for the sole purpose of forcing people to church
“Naturally the church moves towards the reality of the present. We have had a various degree of success throughout the years. At this moment we are doing well in this regard. There are also many theological disputes in this regard but that is all right”, says Peter Skov-Jakobsen.
He refers to the debate that occasionally arises regarding the theological quality of the many activities. Because there is nothing to suggest that the many activities equal an increase in regular church service attendees.
“The core of the church IS the mass; however, it would greatly sadden me if whatever we do was for the sole purpose of forcing people to church. That’s thinking purely in terms of business.”
It is out in the diocese's 94 parishes – locally and accessible to the population – that the development of the many new initiatives takes place.
"That specifically unique thing required from a priest, organist or parish associate, in a place like Copenhagen, is that you’re in tune and have a sense of what is happening, but also a sense of where we’re headed. You need to dare to go all the way, even if the path is not yet fully illuminated.”
Having the courage to dare is according to Peter Skov-Jakobsen fundamentally crucial.
"When you are in trial phases, you sometimes find yourself over the edge. As a church, you just must have that courage. If we only do what we know is safe and dogmatically secure while hiding behind the armored hood, well then, we won’t get anywhere.”
One of the newer initiatives is the so-called ‘drop-in’ baptisms, where during a given time and day people can just enter the church directly from the street and get baptized. The first ‘drop-in’ baptism took place in 2017. At first, the bishop was skeptical. He was worried that "drop-in" equated to superficiality.
However, the initial skepticism completely faltered. Today, he acknowledges that such a concept as ‘drop-in’ is not fast food for the soul, but an effective way of inviting those, who have experienced that the threshold to the church was too high for them to cross.
Having a church that is open to everyone is important. However, the bishop is equally concerned for the exact same reason. That the church does not reach everyone.
"The church must also reach those people who have difficulty taking hold of life, this is part of a church’s DNA, however, and regrettable I will have to ascertain that here is where we lack. The church is also there for the less privileged as well as those who are not cultural interested, so we are constantly challenged. We need to be accessible and approachable to the entire population. Regrettable we just don’t have the impact that we should have," says the bishop.
One population group which the bishop is concerned about are the younger men. According to a large population survey in 2021, men attend church less than women. They are less likely to participate in the various activities that the church has to offer, and it is within this group of young men that most choose to leave the church altogether.
For the bishop, the task at hand is therefore dialogue with men between the ages of 20 and 45.
“Perhaps we could get much better in regards to having that specific conversation. I think it is clear to everyone that it would benefit society if we were better in this regard. The conversation needs to build on respect and trust, and not on fear of eternal damnation - the church constantly needs to evolve and practice having those respectful conversations."
This article was part of 'Gejst' - a yearly magazine published by the Diocese of Copenhagen. Return to Folkekirken for Internationals to read more.