Archbishop Antje Jackelén

By Claus Grue*


Born and raised in Herdecke, a small town in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, Antje Zöllner came to Sweden as a student on a scholarship in 1977. Two years later she married Heinz Jackelén, an office-machine technician who also happens to be German, and whom she’d met at a lecture at the Theological faculty in Uppsala.

“The first time we met, we were about 50 meters from where we live now,” she recalls. He was pursuing a new education and eventually they were both ordained in Sweden.

Growing into her faith

Although her fascination for theology had been steadily growing since her childhood, devoting her life to preaching the Gospel wasn’t a self-evident choice, at least not until she had been admitted to studies at the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the prestigious Tübingen University in 1976. In that environment, where the renowned theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, was professor at the time, and Konrad Raiser, former general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), had concluded his education, young Jackelén thrived. Her interest in theology flourished into passion and she later went on to pursue a PhD in systematic theology, the same topic as Moltmann.

“Theology covers so many aspects of life, which I guess is why I became fascinated by it,” she explains.

Being the daughter of a civil engineer in chemistry and a medical doctor’s assistant, there were no clerical traditions in her family and no one expected her to pursue that profession. There were, however, protestant virtues and strong Christian values and traditions. Jesus was a household name and expressions of faith were a natural part of everyday life, from early on. Meals were always graced, evening prayers read and Sunday school attended.

“I didn’t wake up one morning with a sudden call to become a priest. I had the privilege of growing into my faith and it took quite a bit of contemplation along the way to make it mine, rather than something I inherited from home,” Jackelén explains.

A part of something big

Still, the foundation for her future choice of profession was laid at an early age and she particularly recalls two occasions, which have had a lasting impact on her. The first was when her father, who served as a trustee in the local parish, one day took her to the parish house to listen to a presentation by missionary who had just returned from Tanzania. Slides were shown and little Antje was so thrilled by what she saw that she asked her father if girls also could become missionaries? His matter-of-fact reply, “yes, of course they can,” encouraged her, and although she never became a missionary in that sense herself, she has been an ambassador for gender equality ever since.

The second occasion was when her confirmation priest quoted the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians: And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

“It was a message that filled me with both joy and respect. I felt I was part of something big and exciting, but not frightening,” Jackelén says.

The seeds for her future studies were sowed and after high school and a year of practical work in Switzerland she enrolled at Kirchliche Hochschule Bielefeld-Bethel, a widely respected institution known as a pioneer of institutional diakonia. Here, theoretical studies were combined with practical work, which included night shifts.

“Being on constant alert to help people in need, was a valuable experience which gave very concrete meaning to being a Christian witness. It further strengthened me in my faith and encouraged me to learn more, which was why I continued to Tübingen,” she explains.

Settling down in Sweden

And from there on to the University of Uppsala, Sweden, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1979. At the very same university as her renowned predecessor, archbishop Nathan Söderblom, an ecumenical pioneer and Noble Peace Prize winner, who hosted the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work in Stockholm in 1925.   

“The ecumenical traditions of Uppsala and the reputation of its university appealed to me when I applied for my scholarship. Learning a new language was also a decisive factor,” explains Jackelén, by then already proficient in English and French.

Little did she know then, that Sweden was where she would raise a family and settle down permanently. After her ordination in Stockholm in 1980, she earned her wings as a young priest in totally different contexts around the Swedish capital, as well as in Lund, where she later was to become bishop.

“I encountered the diverse realities of people’s daily lives in cities, suburbs and rural areas. Serving in different congregations for almost 15 years was a pivotal experience; they are the heart and soul of the church,” Jackelén says.  

During that same period, she also became a mother, twice.

“The second time in 1983 was a bit peculiar. My husband was away on a confirmation camp, so I took a taxi on my own to the maternity ward. I was a little premature and my first priority after giving birth was to call my vicar, so that he could bring in a substitute for me for Sunday’s confirmations. After that, I tried to get in touch with my husband to congratulate him to his second child,” she recalls. 

Such strong sense of duty and commitment has always characterized her professional life. Although always ambitious and eager to learn, Jackelén never anticipated becoming neither bishop nor archbishop, particularly not in a foreign country. She refers her accomplishments to the grace of God and to always doing the best she can in any given situation.

“I follow my divine call as a servant of the Church and the Christian fellowship. That is what drives and inspires me,” she says.

Spiritual perspectives on urgent issues

That’s the way it has been for four decades of service, mostly in the Church of Sweden, but also in the academic world. Shortly after earning her PhD at the University of Lund in 1999, she served for six years as professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, USA.

“A remarkable, very enriching experience, both professionally and socially. An environment where it was easy to develop a sense of belonging,” she explains.

Since she was elected bishop of the Diocese of Lund, Sweden, in 2007, she has gradually positioned herself as a strong, spiritual voice in the public debate, particularly on issues concerning interreligious dialogue, gender equality, educational matters and the dialogue between science and religion, which is her speciality. 

Today’s lack of education in the Christian faith worries her immensely, and she admits being a little impatient about her own church’s achievements so far in that field: “Kids no longer learn about Christian faith, neither in school nor at home, so there is a gap to be filled by the church. We can do better and be more systematic and coherent in our approach to that. Children have the right to learn about religion,” she says.

Interreligious dialogue is an equally urgent issue, which she regards as just as important in our time as ecumenism was in archbishop Söderblom’s time.

“Christians and Muslims comprise more than half of the world’s population. Evidently, good relations between the two leading religions are critical for peaceful co-existence. Together, we must stand up firmly against all attempts to instrumentalize religions as tools for oppression or pretexts for conflicts,” she points out.

Challenging current trends

Recently, it became headline news internationally, that while female clergy are now in majority in the Church of Sweden, male clergy are on average better paid. Part of the explanation is that men still predominate in higher clerical positions. But as long as the trend towards more gender equality prevails, it doesn’t worry Jackelén that much: “We’ve had female clergy for only a couple of generations, so there are natural causes for this backlog which will fade over time,” she explains.

Finally, she sees a vigorous dialogue between religion and science as critical for a holistic approach to contemporary challenges, such as climate change, migration, racial discrimination and digitalization. 

“It is our task as a church to challenge current trends and developments from a theological perspective and to be vigilant about their consequences. It is a question of mobilizing a spiritual resistance and being a voice of hope, which inspires courage and action. The COVID-19 pandemic has confronted us with our own vulnerability in a new way. On the one hand, we are all in the same boat and equally vulnerable, on the other hand, some of us are better positioned than others to cope with the situation,” Jackelén points out, underscoring that whatever main challenges society face today are main challenges for the church as well.

One sad trend, which profoundly upsets her, is the post-truth reality, where lies, slander and campaigns of vilification in social media draw attention away from core issues.

“Apart from the indecency of it, it obstructs serious conversations about viable solutions to today’s challenges, and entails contempt for science,” she says.  

An unforgettable commemoration

In her mind, the proudest moment so far of her tenure as archbishop is undoubtedly the 500-year commemoration of the Reformation in 2016. The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), where Jackelén serves as vice president, celebrated side by side in Lund and Malmö, Sweden.

“It was a joyful manifestation of strengthened friendship between our denominations. Having participated in that, alongside Pope Francis, LWF general secretary, Rev. Dr Martin Junge and then-president bishop Munib Younan, and to see efforts to improve relations bear fruit, is unforgettable,” she concludes.

With the official Swedish retirement deadline only a few years ahead of her, Jackelén can look back on a remarkable journey and start looking forward to spend more time with her loved ones, including four grandchildren. It is however fair to assume that her voice will be heard once in a while in the public debate, and that more book-releases from her will appear on the shelves in the future. All in line with what Paul wrote to the Philippians… he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.