Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay
General Secretary, World Council of Churches

I am delighted to contribute to this publication marking 150 Years of International Engagement by the Church of Sweden. I wish not only to celebrate this vital legacy but also to reflect on its evolving character, the ways in which it has shaped the larger ecumenical effort, and its signal importance today for the worldwide fellowship of Christian churches.

The journey of the Church of Sweden over more than a century beautifully demonstrates that effective international presence and engagement for peace and justice by churches are built on ecumenical openness and commitment.

Milestones in International Engagement

In fact, this anniversary reminds us of the important part that the Church of Sweden particularly has played, over the last century and more, in the evolution of ecumenism and international ecumenical advocacy and service. In retrospect, we can see that pivotal role as it played out in key events, sites, and figures in ecumenical history. We believe that these milestone events and personages also converge and point to the most promising features of our future engagement for justice, peace, and reconciliation.  Among many such signposts, we recall some of them here.

  • The pioneering  vision and example of Nathan Söderblom, Archbishop of Uppsala and Primate of the Church of Sweden, although prefigured in missionary activities and societies from as early as 1860, as well as in ecumenical initiatives, truly set the Church of Sweden upon an internationalist course. Söderblom’s concern for the social action of the churches, culminating in the World Conference on Life and Work in 1925, proved instrumental also in energizing efforts toward the World Conference on Faith and Order in 1927. From the start, then, international engagement and action for social justice and human rights were inextricably linked to Christian faith and Christian unity.

  • Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, although not a churchman, stands out as a kind of secular saint for his daring and dogged determination to save Hungarian Jews during World War II.  A businessman, diplomat, and humanitarian, Wallenberg housed thousands of Jews in properties he designated as Swedish territory in Budapest and granted Swedish paperwork to approximately 4,500 Jews to help them escape deportation to death camps. His work therefore exemplified dedicated work for human rights and against anti-Semitism and racism, even in the most trying of circumstances. In 1963, the Israeli museum Yad Vashem designated Wallenberg one of the Righteous among the Nations for his rescue efforts.  Said former Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of him,  “[When] Jews, Muslims, and Christians are attacked for their beliefs, when politicians in Europe and Sweden try to score points by creating fear and separation between people – then, we regular people – must search for that inner compass that was so strong with Raoul Wallenberg.”

  • When Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld became the second secretary-general of the United Nations in 1953, he brought with him a deep understanding of and solid convictions about the role of religion in international affairs. In fact, he had already participated in the Life and Work conference of 1925 and worked closely with his mentor, Nathan Söderblom. In 1954, when addressing the WCC’s second assembly, in Evanston, Illinois, USA, Hammarskjöld pinpointed the fundamental relationship between ecumenically open religious life and international engagement. “The United Nations stands outside—necessarily outside—all confessions, but it is, nevertheless, an instrument of faith. As such it is inspired by what unites, and not by what divides, the great religions of the world.”—especially by faith in human dignity and the possibility of peace.

  • When the Church of Sweden joined the Lutheran World Federation as a founding member in Lund, Sweden 1947, it formalized its international, ecumenical , and humanitarian aims and obtained a new venue for its ecumenical  collaboration and a new stage for its global efforts at humanitarian relief.  Membership brought the church into fellowship with all other Lutheran churches, and the Church of Sweden has been a chief participant in and supporter of the LWF ever since.

  • As the site of the World Council of Churches’ 4thAssembly in 1968, Uppsala came to symbolize the decisive commitment of Christian churches to action for social justice and racial reconciliation.  A highpoint in postwar Christian history, and in ways that would prove controversial yet consequential, the ecumenical movement in Uppsala shifted its focus outward, toward the world and all humanity, embracing the liberatory trends seen in post-colonial Africa, Latin American theology, and the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.

  • The Church of Sweden first ordained women to the priesthood in 1960, a move that validated the centuries of female participation and leadership in Swedish Christianity. More than just a formality, it has led to new forms and foci in church leadership, especially as the Church of Sweden moved beyond its state-church status. In 1997, the Church of Sweden obtained its first woman bishop, after the Swedish Parliament ratified the election of Rev. Christina Odenberg as the bishop of the diocese of Lund. Then, in October 2013, 850 years after its beginnings, the Church of Sweden elected Rev. Prof. Dr. Antje Jackelén as the first woman to become Sweden's Archbishop of Uppsala and Primate of the church. Distinctly, her tenure witnessed real affirmation of the compatibility of Christian faith with modern science and commitment to programmatic ecological action against climate change. Today, woman priests outnumber their male counterparts in the Church of Sweden.

  • In its ever enlarging ecumenical cooperation, the Church of Sweden has worked domestically, since 1992, through collaboration with the 28 other member churches and denominations in the Christian Council of Sweden. Social commitments are part of the council’s DNA: “The work … is based on a Christian view of the human being, which defends the inherent dignity of every person, as all humans are created as an image of God. Human rights are a concrete manifestation of human dignity. Therefore, [the church] believes that it is a Christian duty to safeguard human rights and avoid their violation, as well as to work towards upholding them.”

  • Bilateral relations with a host of churches within Sweden have also nurtured solidarity and ecumenical understanding among Swedish Christians. Dialogues with the Methodist Church in Sweden and the Baptist Union of Sweden, as well as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Stockholm, have sought deeper common understanding of theological issues. Many forms of cooperation exist with Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic churches, as well as a formal agreement of cooperation with the Uniting Church of Sweden, while full communion has been achieved with the Old Catholic Church in Sweden.

  • Beyond its borders, too, agreements of full communion have marked the Church of Sweden’s most recent 30 years, expanding its international partnerships. The Porvoo Communion in 1992 committed the British and Irish Anglican churches and the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran churches to “share a common life in mission and service.” In 1995, full communion was achieved with the Philippine Independent Church, the first and oldest Filipino-led church, established after the revolution in 1902. Then in March 2023 Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Primate of the Episcopal Church (USA), and Archbishop of Uppsala Dr Martin Modéus, Primate of the Church of Sweden, signed the Paris Agreement, for full communion and deeper relations of the two churches. These are highly commendable initiatives fostering Christian unity. 

  • Research on justice and peace is also internationally focused through the Life and Peace Institute, founded in Uppsala in 1985. Its research and other work for peace and justice are shared with churches and groups around the world.

  • Formative actions for international aid, building on the Church of Sweden’s early missionary and medical missionary activities in the 19th century, were furthered by the Church of Sweden’s early participation in predecessor bodies of the ACT Alliance. The latter was formed in 2010, merging two organisations: ACT International, formed in 1995 to work on delivering humanitarian aid, and ACT Development, formed in 2007, towards a more coordinated approach to humanitarian assistance and development cooperation. The alliance is defined by its relation to the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation combined with a mandate to work on humanitarian assistance and/or development issues worldwide.

  • A prophetic witness by the Church of Sweden can also be seen in the work of its congregations and church leaders to welcome and integrate successive waves of immigrants and asylum-seekers. The first wave was mainly people displaced from Syria, while more recent immigrants have been from Ukraine. At its peak, in 2015, 162,000 migrants arrived, and, especially in rural areas, it has been local congregations who have attempted to enfold the new residents into Swedish life, through helping with jobs, language learning, housing, family services, social activities, and church fellowship groups. Here the local and the global meet in concrete circumstances and challenges for Christian faith and hospitality. That is truly transformative discipleship.

  • The influx of refugees also led the church to initiate “A World of Neighbours,” to create a welcoming, open, and humane posture for refugees and migrants throughout Europe. The program gathers innovative ideas and practices from around the region that make practical, concrete differences in the lives of migrants. One beautiful example is found in language cafés, the informal exchanges that allow language learning by migrants while building personal relationships and community.

  • Its religious and social commitments have also led the Church of Sweden to begin reconciliation in its relations with the indigenous Sámi peoples. In 2021, the Church of Sweden apologized for its abuse of Sámi people over several centuries, including forcible Christianization, the mistreatment of children in Sámi schools, and collecting the remains of Sámi people for research on scientific racism and eugenics. The Church of Sweden described their ’dark actions’ against the Sámi as ’colonial’ and ’legitimized repression.’”

  • Lund  and Uppsala  in 2018 again marked important points in the church’s ecumenical and international journey. In Lund, the Lutheran World Federation and Pope Francis met to commemorate and celebrate the 500th  anniversary of the European Reformation, setting a new level of ecumenical amity.

In Uppsala, the general assembly of ACT Alliance met jointly with the WCC’s executive committee to mark the 50th anniversary of the WCC’s 4th Assembly and to recommit to the diaconal ideals enshrined in the latter’s theme, “Behold, I make all things new!”

Marking the anniversary and hosted by the Church of Sweden, the Uniting Church in Sweden, and the Christian Council in Sweden, the WCC’s executive committee joined with ACT Alliance in November 2018 to sponsor a joint day on Ecumenical Diakonia and Sustainability and an Ecumenical Weekend. In some respects, the events also marked a renewed and expanded collaboration of the WCC with ACT Alliance, fuelled by a new and deeper understanding of ecumenical diakonia specifically conceived to merge gospel values and the imperatives of discipleship with the work of international agencies and initiatives .

An Engaged Future through Reconciliation

We see, then, that the Church of Sweden has displayed initiative, innovation, and inspiration to the larger ecumenical movement, advancing the evolution and ambition of the ecumenical role in international affairs for the betterment of humanity.

Looking out to the future, we see enormous challenges, specifically in the international arena. They range from climate to economic inequality, from racism to xenophobia, from responsible governance to interreligious conflict.  But we also believe that the very qualities exhibited in the Church of Sweden’s evolving international profile, briefly sketched above, are values shared with the World Council of Churches and indeed the whole oikoumene.  Human dignity, social justice, unabashed inclusion, Christian service and hospitality: these are the hallmarks of the reign of God and of Christian faith and discipleship in the Church of Sweden and the WCC. In fact, we trust that those very values are embodied in the Pilgrimage of Justice, Reconciliation, and Unity as detailed in the WCC’s 2023-2030 Strategic Plan, into which the Church of Sweden has had input and which is now being implemented.

Apart from the specifically humanitarian and disaster-relief work that the Church of Sweden does with ACT Alliance and the LWF, the church is a full partner in the international work of the WCC. It`s engaged work covers a wide range from the peace and security efforts of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (particularly in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) to the programmatic activities related to environmental, economic, gender and racial justice, from the dialogical work of the Faith & Order Commission to education, formation,  interreligious encounter and cooperation, and on to the work with churches to address global health, food security, and HIV and AIDS. 

Ecumenical Christianity serves as an instrument of transformation, not only by renewing the churches themselves but also by lifting up the prospects for all humanity.

What unites these ambitious and wide-ranging  ecumenical efforts are their collaborative character (formulated and implemented with the churches themselves) and their prophetic intent. As the 11th Assembly said in 2022, the struggle for justice and peace is itself an agent of Christian unity and authentic discipleship. “Deepened relationships should lead to radical change, to conversion, reconciliation, justice, and even reparations,” the assembly report stated. ”We affirm an ecumenism of the heart, but also an ecumenism of the feet in which we walk in the sandals of Jesus Christ.”

Thoroughly equipped by 150 years of increasing international engagement for unity, justice, and reconciliation, the Church of Sweden has become a world church. It reaches globally in its international partnerships with churches, agencies, and the WCC, while remaining rooted locally in the activities of congregations. We look forward to our continued, shared work in faith for the justice, peace, and reconciliation for which Jesus himself longed when he said, “My peace I give you” (John 14:27). 

We offer our congratulations to the Church of Sweden for it 150 years of ministry and service and pray God`s continued blessings upon you in your continued work and witness in the world.