08 November 2006

Canon Dr John Toy writes:

A SWEDISH church historian, well known to many British church people, Professor Lars Österlin died on 17 October in his home town of Lund in Sweden. Born in 1923 in China, where his father was a Church of Sweden missionary (the family returned home soon afterwards), he grew up in Lund, where he went to school and studied at the university.

After he was appointed a lecturer in church history, his interests soon became European. In 1959, he attended his first Anglo-Scandinavian Theological Conference as Scandinavian secretary. He became one of the longest-serving members of this conference, and attended on more than 12 occasions over a period of 30 years.

The importance of these contacts cannot be over-estimated: a group of leading church people and academics from the four Scandinavian Churches and the Church of England, meeting every two years, discussing issues in the peace of informality, not as representatives. They became friends, and were a great factor in creating the mutual confidence that eventually led to the Porvoo Agreement.

After a spell of teaching in India and a parish, Österlin became Dean of Linköping Cathedral in 1982. In his six years there, he transformed a chapel, dedicated to Thomas Becket, which he described in his cathedral booklet as representing “a link between the Church of Sweden and the Church of England”, into a chapel of all the martyrs.

He became a founding member of the Conferences of Northern European Cathedrals, another meeting held every two years, where many cathedral staff gathered to exchange ideas and best practice. This helped them to see the ministry of a cathedral as different from that of a parish church.

Retiring, aged 65, Österlin became Assistant Professor of Missions and Ecumenical Theology at Lund. He wrote a history of Anglo-Scandinavian church relations. The first edition was entitled The Church of Sweden in Profile, and he had to be persuaded to widen the second edition, especially as it was after Porvoo and was to be produced in English. This he did, and the English edition is Churches of Northern Europe in Profile (Canterbury Press, 1995).

He starts with the British, largely English, contribution to the Christianisation of Scandinavia, continues with the post-Reformation contacts, and then focuses on the Church of England’s negotiations with the Church of Sweden from the mid-19th century onwards. For this, he did much research in the Bell papers at Lambeth and elsewhere, and his book is the treatment of this early ecumenical movement.

Around 2003, he was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw. It gradually got worse, and he died after a fall at his home. His funeral was in a packed Lund Cathedral on 3 November. A lifelong bachelor, he is survived by his elder brother.

The Church has lost a genial, learned Swedish churchman with a European perspective, but an especial love of the Church of England. Many here mourn him.

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