Bishop Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir has been sitting in her office in Laugavegur in Reykjavik city centre preparing the Sunday’s sermon in peace and quiet. Now she is sat facing me, answering my questions quietly and to the point. The first question goes straight to the point; what is it like being a bishop?
With a surprised laughs the Bishop explains that it is a very rewarding job.
“You have to work hard all the time. There is no downtime in the church. My work tasks are stimulating,” answers Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir.
“A bishop’s work is mainly administrative. If I were to compare my work with the state hierarchy, the Bishop is both prime minister and president,” she explains.
Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir was elected Bishop of Iceland in the summer of 2012 as the country’s first female Bishop.
She has not noticed any prejudices against women within the church. But she has noticed that there are differences between the sexes when it comes to how you are treated. Women and men are not always treated in the same way.
“I don’t think this is about prejudices against women. But there is always a difference depending on whether the church leadership is male or female. Women’s words are not trusted to the same extent as men’s,” says Agnes.
It’s about power. There is a power struggle between different factions within the church. Some are conservative and fight against change, others prefer the church to change.
And the differences between the sexes has made itself known in that power struggle. Agnes explains that some times it has been unclear who has power and who has not, or how the person with power will use that power. This has led to disagreement within the church.
Sometimes she wonders how she would have been treated if she were a man. Would men talk to her in the same way? The church is coloured by the political power struggle. And that is not nice for a woman who has avoided politics all her life.
Women make up nearly 40 percent of Iceland’s priests. The first female vicar was appointed in 1974, yet despite this just under 20 percent of vicars are women today.
The male way of thinking is still strong. This is evident in the language. But Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir stresses that feminist theology is now a subject at the University of Iceland’s faculty of theology.
The parishioners want to be able to choose between a man or a woman. The low number of women can result in a lot of pressure on the women within the church.
“it is necessary to have both women and men in church jobs. But sadly this is easier said than done,” the bishop says.
“Parishes decide who runs for the job as a vicar. This does not always result in what you might wish for,” says Agnes
“The rules also make it more difficult for young and well educated theologians to get jobs. People with experience come first,” she says.
There is high unemployment among Iceland’s theologians, despite the fact that many of them now work abroad, especially in Norway. In 10 to 15 years time a large group of Icelandic priests born between 1945 and 1955 will retire, which could mean better times for the unemployed theologians.
The church of Iceland has had financial problems which have worsened in the past five years. It has had to make cuts because the state has not managed to keep it’s financial agreement with the church.
The state collects membership fees for all of the country’s parishes, but has not handed over the entire sum to the church because of the financial crash in 2009. This has led to cuts and redundancies in the church.
The church can be compared to a giant oil tanker which is slowly turning. The Bishop is keeping a steady course and at the same time tries to improve the unity among the church’s representatives. She is making her mark on the church with her “spring clean”.
“I have tried to bridge divides and create agreement within the church and to sort out issues which are invisible but still being felt,” she says and compares her work in the church with a spring clean.
“I consider the church to be my home. I need to clean my home, both the living room, the kitchen, sort out the store room and the boxes. Right now I’m spring cleaning the church one room at the time.”
Church workers’ hours are unpredictable and it can be difficult to coordinate work and family life. The Bishop believes it is important that church staff are happy and healthy. That shows in the church community.
“My wish is that everything should function well within the church, that we know for sure who does what and when in the cooperation between vicars and parishioners or parishioners and the church leadership.
“If these things don’t work, other things within the church aren’t likely to work well either.”
Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir
Born in Ísafjörður in western Iceland on 19 October 1954. Graduated from the faculty of theology at the University of Iceland in 1981. Has studied theology in Uppsala and in Iceland. She has also studied music and singing.
Agnes worked as a priest and provost in Iceland until 2012. She was elected Bishop of Iceland in 2012. She is the first woman to become a bishop in Iceland.
Agnes is separated. She has three children and one grandchild. She has been active in Iceland’s music life, playing the piano, organ and singing in choirs.
Which book are you currently reading?
I had just read a chapter in the Bible when you came. Apart from that, I have just read Áhrifasaga Saltarans by Gunnlaugur A. Jónsson which has just been published. It is about The Book of Psalms in the past and now. Before that I read Vonarlandið by Kristín Steinsdóttir. It is about young women who moved to Reykjavik for more than 100 years ago and worked as cleaning ladies.
What is your favourite tool at work?
The computer, I can’t manage without it.
As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?
When I was very little I wanted to be a librarian or work in a shop. When I was 17 I decided to become a priest. That never changed. And here I am.
What is your hidden talent?
I don’t know what to say. You have to ask my children, I can’t think of anything.