Attending the worship service on Sundays was often the highlight of the week for Archbishop em. Dr Anders Wejryd when he grew up. It still is. But becoming a priest was not something he envisaged. It was not until returning as an 18-year-old to Sweden after a high school year in Michigan that this became a goal. He had realized how much the liturgy and living tradition meant to him. At 74, the recently retired World Council of Churches (WCC) president for Europe, can look back on a remarkable career – a career he never actively pursued. It just happened.
Fulfilment of duties and living up to expectations laid upon his shoulders, have obviously been important for Wejryd. God’s grace and a call of duty has driven him, along with – he jokes – a bit of vanity. Through respect for what has to be done and a willingness to take on new challenge, he has built an impeccable reputation.
“My philosophy has always been to do my very best in any given situation and solve the tasks I’ve been trusted with to the best of my ability,” he says.
In 1969, the year after the WCC assembly was held in Uppsala, Sweden, Wejryd was appointed chairman of the Christian student movement in Uppsala. In 1970, he got his first taste of ecumenism as a delegate for the Church of Sweden at the assembly of Lutheran World Federation in Evian, France. He completed his studies in 1972 and was ordained for the diocese of Västerås in Church of Sweden, later that same year, exactly 50 years ago. Eager to get more involved in the ecumenical movement, Wejryd participated as a youth delegate in the WCC 5th Assembly in 1975 in Nairobi, Kenya.
“The core values of a worldwide Christian fellowship and its international outreach appealed to me from very early on,” he explains.
After a few years of service in mid-Sweden, he was appointed vicar in 1976 at the age of 28, and rural dean in 1985. During those early years of his career, his passion for ecumenism was nurtured by part-time doctoral studies on the work of the 1930 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, archbishop Nathan Söderblom, who is widely recognized as one of the principal founding fathers of the ecumenical movement.
Wejryd is not man of bold gestures and high-profile public appearances. He prefers to focus on concrete tasks and let the result of his work speak for itself. His administrative skills and leadership qualities were recognized early on and eventually led to his appointment in 1987 as director of Ersta Diaconia, a leading Christian care- and concern-institution, with a university college, based in Stockholm.
“An extremely valuable experience, which widened my horizon and where I learned a lot about leadership in a diverse, non-profit organization,” Wejryd explains.
Along with previous merits, that experience served him well when he was elected bishop of the diocese of Växjö in 1995 and archbishop of the Church of Sweden eleven years later.
As such, he initiated and hosted the Interfaith Climate Summit in Uppsala in 2008, where religious leaders from all over the world gathered to champion a holistic approach to the challenges posed by global warming.
“Saving God’s creation from extinction concerns all of us and must be addressed from scientific, spiritual and ethical perspectives. Religious leaders, politicians and non-government organizations must work side-by-side with science,” Wejryd points out.
In his view, the Interfaith Climate Change Summit facilitated a much-needed dialogue and helped elevate an urgent issue to the top of the agenda of faith-based organizations.
“As Christian witnesses, we have an obligation to speak up when the planet we all live on is in grave peril,” he continues.
The Church of Sweden’s openness to same-sex marriages was another significant landmark during Wejryd’s tenure as archbishop. In 2009, the governing board of the Church of Sweden aligned itself with legislation passed by the Swedish parliament earlier that year and voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing priests to wed same-sex couples.
“I am proud of the clear stance we took on this important human rights issue and I am pleased that same-sex relationships have become recognized – also in legal terms – as equal to hetero-sex relationships,” Wejryd says.
More operative than visible
Parallel to his duties in the Church of Sweden his ecumenical journey continued and he served as a member of both the WCC central committee and the WCC executive committee before he was elected WCC president for Europe at the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan in 2013. According to the WCC constitution, a president’s role is “to promote ecumenism and interpret the work of the WCC, especially in their respective regions.” Although largely a representative function based on a long-time commitment to the ecumenical movement, WCC presidents play key roles in bringing perspectives from all parts of the world into the governing processes and thus making sure that every aspect of pertinent issues is taken in to account before decisions are taken and statements issued.
“We are often more operative than visible,” Wejryd says.
Local perspectives are key
During his nine-year tenure as president for Europe, he has witnessed a positive development where the WCC has become increasingly perceptive to local perspectives from churches around the globe.
“Listening and learning from the core of the Christian fellowship is extremely important. The local congregation is where ecumenism must thrive,” Wejryd says.
He is also pleased to see strengthened ties with the Orthodox churches, as well as the catholic and pentecostal churches. The pilgrimage of justice and peace is more relevant than ever before and continues to permeate just about everything the WCC does. Furthermore, climate change is high on the agenda and the ecumenical dialogue on human sexuality continues. A comprehensive resource document on that matter: “Conversations on the Pilgrim Way – an Invitation to Journey Together on Matters of Human Sexuality”, has been produced by a reference group chaired by Wejryd.
“There are inward and outward ecumenical perspectives, which are equally important. WCC membership entails a sense of ownership and profound commitment, which goes inwards to fellow member churches of different denominations and outwards to today’s most concerning issues,” Wejryd explains.
Being both priest and manager
Throughout his career, he has truly enjoyed the managerial part of church life, including leading different kinds of meetings, where strategies and actions are deliberated upon and where financial realities and budget boundaries are ever-present issues.
“Whether we like it or not, we are dependent on funds. We have to earn trust and credibility every day by delivering substantial results and making a difference in people’s lives. The right priorities, along with honest and trustworthy leadership, are critical factors for expanding our economic base,” Wejryd points out, adding that “a broad base of financial contributors means long-term economic stability, strength, and sufficient room to manoeuvre.”
Youths, women and common belonging
When summing up the WCC 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe, he highlights a strong ecumenical engagement by young people, not just because they are young but because they want to be seriously involved in shaping the future of a movement they believe in. Also, more and more women are stepping forward as leaders, which reflects a steady and welcome trend. Finally, Wejryd points at the participation of Orthodox churches in the common worships, underscoring a common belonging to the Christian fellowship. All in all, the former WCC president for Europe is not only content with this assembly, but also impressed by it:
“The ecumenical movement has passed its 100-year test with full marks,” he concludes, referring to the groundbreaking decision in 1922, championed by archbishop Nathan Söderblom, to arrange the World Conference of Life and Work in Stockholm in 1925.
2022 – a very special year
After almost nine years as WCC president for Europe, Wejryd is now looking forward to “finally fully retiring” and spending more time with his wife Kajsa, their three grown children, and ten grandchildren. A quieter life in their countryside home will also allow time to indulge in literature, music, and art and to stay on track as a longtime member of Clergy for Railways, a forum for train enthusiasts.
In his rearview mirror, Wejryd eyes a professional life filled with challenges and accomplishments. His final year as WCC president has been special for other reasons as well. In January he acquired a second PhD and in July he appeared in a role as the Lord God in the 80th anniversary of the yearly play “Himlaspelet” in Leksand, Sweden. It is classic play about a poor farmer boy searching for God.
Challenges of different kinds with one thing in common; they both required hard work and meticulous preparations.