Folke T. Olofsson:
T.D.  S.T.M., Rector emeritus of Rasbo, Associate professor


Bertil Gärtner   Bishop Bertil Gärtner in memoriam

Bishop, Professor, Confessor, Soccer enthusiast

An abridged version will soon be published in Touchstone Magazine


Bertil Gärtner, who died recently at the age of 84, was all that, but much more than that. A respected New Testament scholar of the famous Uppsala School who wrote his doctoral thesis about The Areopagus speech and natural revelation (1955). The title reveals much of his own life program: the proclamation of the Gospel as something radically new and different and yet something in continuity with manīs deepest longings and needs. As a scholar he also knew about other voices then than that of the Christian Gospel; he wrote about Gnostic texts: The Theology of the Gospel of Thomas (1961), and the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Temple and the Community in Qumran and the New Testament (1965). Thus, he was not ignorant of the subjects he was talking about when he entered into debates and discussions.

Bertil Gärtner was invited to teach at Princeton, (1965-69) but after some years the timid Princeton professor was called back to Sweden to became the Dean of Gothenburg (1969) before he was consecrated that see's bishop, Bo Giertzīs successor (1970). As a bishop Bertil Gärtner did not stand in the shadow of his great predecessor. As a Servus Jesu Christi (his Episcopal motto), he continued Giertz's work in the same faith and spirit, and he certainly cast a shadow of his own. The title of his Pastoral Letter was Crisis leading to Christ.

Bertil Gärtnerīs faith and theology deeply rooted in the Bible, had consequences that created controversy: he was a peace activist, he showed great social concern, he visited churches in South and Central America in a Liberation theology context, he promoted international diaconal work and worldwide Christian mission and local evangelization. His wide interests and commitments can be clearly seen in the titles of the many books, pamphlets and articles he wrote over the years.

Bertil Gärtner would probably have become the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, had he not had one big fatal flaw: he was against the ordination of women to the priesthood. That hotly debated issue was ever present in the Church of Sweden during his episcopate and no doubt darkened it. He became the symbol, figurehead, even hate object, of all those who were in favour of and for different reasons promoted this view; but at the same time he also became the unofficial leader, the bishop and confessor of all those who believed that the Bible and the Tradition carried more weight in theological matters than personal opinions, political ideologies and various -isms.

No bishop in last century of the Church of Sweden besides Bo Giertz has been more reviled than Bertil Gärtner. Perhaps, no other bishop besides Bo Giertz has been so revered and respected as Bertil Gärtner-eventually also by some of his opponents. He never aspired to become a church leader, he may not even have liked it, but there was no one else. In the end Bertil Gärtner was the only one, the last real bishop in the Swedish episcopate whom many Christian could see as their bishop. Personally modest and unassuming, and without any professorial or episcopal airs, he had the ability to meet and speak with the man on the street treating him with a hot dog while discussing the latest soccer results for his favorite team ("the blue whites") as well as giving a learned lecture to the most academically qualified audience.

One of his early books bears the title Illness and Suffering in the New Testament (1958). Bertil Gärtner certainly had to learn about this subject in a personal way as his old age was beset by bodily weakness and illness. The last sermon he gave was this summer, when, his leg newly amputated, he sat in a wheelchair and preached when the Society of Saint Birgitta (SSB) celebrated the memory of St Birgitta on 23th of July 2009 in Vadstena. The title? "The Lord is near!" A strong testimony from a man who called himself a servus Jesu Christi. Bodily frail, he remained spiritually strong up to his last day, encouraging his flock; the night before he died, he wrote on his blog: "I hope that many persons will be voted into the General Synod who KNOW what the Church of Christ is...!!!".

These were his final words into a situation in which the General Synod with an overwhelming majority decided to make same sex marriages a part of the praxis and belief of the Church of Sweden. Bertil Gärtner certainly knew what the Church of Christ is. Why did he not, then, lead his flock out of this lapsing dilapidating Church of Sweden into something new. He seems to have anticipated this question by reprinting an address he gave to a Conference gathering mainly "charismatically renewed" and Evangelical people (the OAS-movement).
He had asked international church leaders, he said, the Pope, the Ecumenical Patriarch, other leading churchmen, what to do about the situation of the faithful. Stay or leave? And the unanimous answer that had been given was: "Stay!". And he did. Some have interpreted his seeming passivity not taking swift and resolute action as the vacillation and irresolution of a typical intellectual person. Other have recalled the prudent advice: in dubiis non agendi. Bertil Gärtner wanted to be a servant of Jesus Christ, and he was recognized as such a servant which was made abundantly clear when more than a thousand mourners gathered at his funeral service in the Cathedral in which he had preached, celebrated the Eucharist and ordained so many priests and deacons.

His episcopal device could just as well have been Jesus is Lord, and in this confession of the lordship of Jesus Christ lies his lasting legacy to all those from various religious traditions and spiritualities ranging from from Evangelicals and Charismatics to High Church and Catholics within the Church of Sweden. Jesus is Lord! The Lord who once said: "Lazarus, come forth!"

2009 © Folke T. Olofsson


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