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 “It had to be the Nordics” – why a Danish priest chose Norway

“It had to be the Nordics” – why a Danish priest chose Norway

| Text and photo: Line Scheistrøen

Anne Anker Bolstad is one of many Danish priests working in Norway, where there is a great priest shortage.

Just before Christmas a few years ago, Norway’s national broadcaster’s news bulletin in Northern Norway had this as their top story: 

“Nikolaj from Denmark and a group of pensioners saved Christmas service”.

The shortage of priests in Norway has not improved since then. On the contrary, the situation has become even trickier. It is estimated that the Church of Norway is short of somewhere between 100 and 200 priests.

The districts are hardest hit, but larger cities also lack priests. Each year, several dozens of Norwegian priests retire while not enough new ones are coming in. Interest in theological studies is falling. The University of Tromsø even closed its theology program down due to a lack of interest.

Anne Anker Bolstad 2

When Danish Anne Anker Bolstad started studying theology at Aarhus University, neither she nor I had any idea that one day, several decades later, we would meet at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Campus Gjøvik, and talk about everything under the sun.

Secured a Nordic scholarship

Anne comes from a farm on Bornholm in Denmark. After finishing her upper secondary education, she spent a year in the USA followed by six months at a Danish folk high school. She started studying theology at Aarhus. 

“While I was studying, I was thinking that life must be about more than this,” says Anne. 

She applied for and secured a scholarship to study for six months at the Theological Faculty at the University of Oslo. She is fairly sure the scholarship was financed by the Norwegian Council of Ministers. She and another Danish student travelled to Oslo to take up their studies.  

Why did you choose Norway?

“I was attracted to the nature, culture and the language,” says Anne. 

When she was a child, her mother had also told her about the time she had hitchhiked all the way from the south of Norway to Narvik in the north.

Because she comes from Bornholm, an island in the Baltic Sea, nearby Sweden did not have the same appeal as Norway. It was somehow a bit too close. It is not without reason people from Bornholm are called “reserve Swedes”.

Anne says the six months turned out to be fantastic. She enjoyed living in Oslo, a student city that offers both nature and culture. 

Sharing mine and yours

While she was studying in Oslo, a young man joined the same course as her. He was Norwegian and called Oddgeir. By amazing coincidence, Oddgeir had applied for and secured a scholarship to study in Aarhus the next semester. That is how they ended up studying together also in Denmark. 

“Love decided that it should be the two of us,” says Anne.

She is happy about the fact that Oddgeir has lived in Denmark. It is important to be able to share both home countries – not only mentally but also physically. 

“When you find love, it is easy to forget what is yours and move to the other person’s home country. But we all have roots somewhere and we cannot erase them. Sharing each other’s culture, you experience what is mine and I experience what is yours, and it is important,” she says.

Like student life and culture.

Anne Anker Bolstad 3

“There were many similarities between studying in Denmark and in Norway, but there were also differences. Not only between the two countries but also between the different universities. New opportunities arise. 

Why travel far when you can choose the Nordics?

As a student priest in Gjøvik and Lillehammer, Anne meets students who debate whether they ought to go on an exchange, and she also welcomes students from other countries who come on exchange to Norwegian universities. She believes exchange students represent a big resource for any place of study. 

You do not have to travel very far, however, says Anne. Why, for instance, must a Norwegian student travel to Australia when you might as well travel to Denmark, she wonders. 

“I believe we can learn much from spending time in our Nordic neighbouring countries. I was always drawn to them, to the languages, nature and the different temperaments of their peoples. We share a common history and are similar in many ways, but we are also different,” says Anne. 

Language of the heart

When Anne talks fast, you hear that she is Danish even after many years in Norway – and before that other countries. She is a proud speaker of the Bornholm dialect. The island’s proximity to Sweden means it has a sing-songy quality. With a mix of Bornholm intonation and a sprinkling of Norwegian words, Anne makes herself easily understood in Norway.

“The Bornholm language is my language of the heart,” she says.

Anne graduated from her theology course both in Oslo and in Aarhus. There were many common subjects, but some were also specific to the country students were planning to work in – such as Norwegian church law and Danish practice. When entering the workforce, she wanted to be able to work in both Denmark and Norway. 

Norwegian life abroad

After graduation, the question was: Where do we work and live? Both were eager to travel, and rather than settling down in Denmark or Norway the priest couple went to Liverpool in England.

Here, they shared a pastoral position and parts of a housewife position. They were employed by the Norwegian Seaman’s Church, which was as much a Scandinavian seaman’s church with visitors from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finns.

Anne Anker Bolstad 4

Anne describes those years as a beautiful journey through everything Nordic.

“It was an educational journey in Nordic cultural life. We are alike but the differences also become clearer. Yet because we are in a different part of the world, we become more generous with each other.”

They celebrated Nordic holidays such as Swedish Midsummer, Norwegian 17th of May, Danish and Finnish national days and St Lucia on 13 December. The years also turned into a journey through Nordic food experiences.

“We were one big family. It was enormously valuable to be allowed to experience that,” says Anne.

Although the married couple were Norwegian priests on paper, it did not matter in terms of how they met different people. Today, the same goes for the students. It does not matter where they come from and what they believe in, she does not ask.

“It is the meeting with the human beings that shapes us,” says Anne. 

Returning to Denmark or Norway?

After six years in Liverpool, they moved to Switzerland and worked as priests at the Norwegian Church in Geneva. At the end of another six years abroad, which once more gave them many great experiences with people from the Nordics, they had to choose whether to stay in Switzerland or move home. By now they had three children. 

“We did not quite see our future as a family to be in Switzerland. We felt we belonged in the Nordics and we wanted our children to spend their childhood and youth at home,” says Anne. 

But where was home? Denmark or Norway? They would have been happy with Denmark but chose Norway because both could work there. 

“It was simply easier to find two priest jobs in the same place in Norway. And both of us wanted to work as priests.”

That is how the family ended up in Lillehammer where both applied for and got jobs as priests. The husband in Lillehammer church and Anne as student priest at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences and NTNU in Gjøvik. As a matter of fact, she has never worked as a priest in Denmark. Perhaps something in her makes her want to try that?

“Perhaps I sometime could take a temporary position in a church on Bornholm?”

Anne says a lot of things are the same in the churches of Norway and Denmark, but there are also traditions and practices that differ.

The job as a student priest

Anne had always envisaged a slightly alternative priest position. As a student priest, she is employed by the Church of Norway but works in places of study. As she welcomes me to the university in Gjøvik, one of the first things she says is:

“Of course, I have no church building. The campus is my temple.”


She has been a student priest for 16 years now. She is known to host some rather untraditional activities on campus – such as inviting students to walk on a labyrinth mat. It is a copy of the labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral in France. The idea is to walk and develop some good thoughts and get to know yourself better by navigating the labyrinth.

She also makes sure to mark important days, like Lucia. 

Once a Dane, always a Dane

Two years ago, Anne got Norwegian citizenship. She now has dual citizenship – both Danish and Norwegian.

When we ask why she applied to become Norwegian, she says:

“I think the main reason was I feel Norwegian." 

At the same time, she is Danish.

“Although I have lived and worked for many years abroad and in Norway, I am Danish and proud of it." 

And although Norwegians and Danes are similar in many ways, they are also different according to Anne. 

“When I sometimes do something in a different way from what a Norwegian would have done, I can almost hear what the Norwegians are thinking: ‘She knows no better, she comes from Denmark’,” says Anne with a smile.

A little example to end on: Danes love singing both in everyday life and when there is a party. This is a tradition that Anne has brought with her wherever she has lived, including Norway. It is not necessarily something Norwegians are used to. 

“In the middle of a meeting I might blurt out: ‘Let’s sing, everybody! Let’s do Surfbrett by Vazelina Bilopphøggers.’ When I do stuff like that, I think Norwegian put it on the ‘she’s Danish, she knows no better’ account.”

(Vazelina Bilopphøggers is a famous Norwegian band from Gjøvik, where she works.) 




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