by Kristine Greenaway
The first female presiding bishop of the Church of Norway says she has had to learn to be clear about where she stands on controversial issues, such as the marriage of same-sex couples – which she supports –while at the same time expressing respect for the point of view of colleagues who oppose it.
This skill, which has earned Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien the confidence of her peers, is something she attributes to her experience as General Secretary of the YWCA/YMCA of Norway.
“Working with young people, I learned to embrace a lot of diverse opinions on issues such as sexuality and family life,” Haugland Byfuglien says. “I learned about leadership, about working with a team of colleagues rather than as an individual.”
This small, quietly energetic woman is a ground breaker – one of the first women ordained in the Church of Norway and is now the first woman to serve as Presiding Bishop for the church’s council of twelve bishops.
Her role and her presence have caught the interest of churchwomen from other parts of the world who are attending the Central Committee meeting of the World Council of Churches currently underway in Trondheim, Norway. They want to know who she is and so, I am here interviewing the busy church leader in a cab on the way to the airport.
The bishop smiles when I ask her to describe who she is, then answers with typical openness and clarity: “I am a Norwegian woman, raised in a Christian family, married with three children and five grandchildren. I am a person with two feet on the ground, very conscious of what is important in my life. Family and church are the two pillars of my existence.”
When I ask the bishop who her female role models are, she answers without hesitation: “My mother was my first and foremost model of how a woman can succeed. She was widowed at 38 and raised six children alone. She was wise and strong, a leader in the congregation but not self-serving. That is my way too.”
As a young woman, Haugland Byfuglien noted how young men would take the stage at youth events, play guitar and be charming while the young women took responsibility for the event and worked offstage away from the spotlight. As an adult church leader she has had to learn the importance of speaking up and having a public profile. In her role as presiding bishop of the Church of Norway, she is now very much in the spotlight and frequently contacted by the media to speak on matters of public interest. It has not been easy to speak about issues that are divisive in church and society. In those times and in times of personal sorrow, her faith sustains her.
“My faith is based on the belief that I am not alone. I believe my God knows my sorrow, pain, sin and failure when I am not as I should be. But God does not turn away. This love of God who remains with me is where I get my strength,” she says.
Haugland Byfuglien says it is a gift that in her position she is invited to take part in global ecumenical events such as the WCC assembly in Busan, South Korea, in 2013. She serves as well as Vice-President for the Nordic Region in the Lutheran World Federation.
“It strengthens my faith to meet other Christians living in quite different contexts, to sing new songs, to hear how others interpret biblical texts, and to listen to prayers from elsewhere. As I said in my greetings to the WCC Central Committee earlier this week, ecumenism is an answer to Jesus’ prayer that ‘they all may be one.’”
The taxi driver – an African American to judge by his accent – glances in the rear view mirror, clearly listening. Later he tells me, “It was a most interesting conversation!”