Sørmoen, Oddbjørn, “The Power of the Sacred Space”

All eyes were turned to Norway this summer, because of the terror attack in Oslo and the massacre at the Labour Party’s summer camp at the island of Utøya. An unthinkable event like this had never happened in Norway, at least not since WWII. The bomb went off at the end of the busy, working hours in the government quarter and the Prime Minister’s office, and killed 8 people and devastated the surrounding buildings as well as some thousand windows in the central part of the capital. The massacre left 69 highly dedicated, mostly teenagers, dead. The terrorist did it as a part of his private war against a modern, open, multicultural society. People all over the country were in shock. Norway had lost its apparent innocence.

In such circumstances people have a great need to express their emotions and grief. They react on reflex, contrary to any media supported “political correctness”. In secular Norway, hundreds of thousands gathered in public places all over the country, and especially in the capital. Flowers, candles and greeting cards were left in the squares, parks and streets, but the greatest magnet for grief was the square outside the Cathedral of Oslo, where fresh flowers were piling up in numbers never seen, every day for weeks. People queued up for hours every day to enter the cathedral, to feel the silence, light a candle in silent fellowship. Even a committed atheist, the crime novelist Anne Holt, publicly defended the use of the church for this purpose, and other non-believers called themselves “Christian Atheists”.

People’s reflex did not lead them to the government offices where the bomb went off, but to the church square and the three hundred year old sacred building. It was as the power of the place and the power of the building was the best answer to their needs. This phenomenon occurred in churches all over the country, showing the instinctive link between modern, secular people and the timelessness of the sacred buildings, as if they still carry meaning and significance not expressed our everyday lives.

The value of religious heritage or sacred sites and buildings cannot be estimated in money. In Norway this summer, it was a part of the glue that kept the society together, and made us move forward, together; for a more open and democratic society.

This was also emphasised by another occurrence in the aftermath of the massacre: One of the Muslim girls killed at the summer camp was buried from her local community’s medieval church. The ceremony in the church was Christian, conducted by the local vicar; the ceremony at the grave was Muslim, conducted by the imam. The girl’s Muslim parents felt this was natural, and the imam and the vicar made this possible.

Oddbjørn Sørmoen
Director, Department for Church Buildings and Heritage Administration
KA Association for Employers in the Church of Norway and Church-related NGOs

Photo: Stortorget Cathedral Square in Oslo, Norway, summer 2011.