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A great archbishop-ecumenist

02 September 2016

John Arnold reads the new biography of a Nobel-prizewinner

Making friends: Archbishop Söderblom at the Stockholm Conference in 1925

Making friends: Archbishop Söderblom at the Stockholm Conference in 1925

Nathan Söderblom: Called to serve
Jonas Jonson
Eerdmans £32.99
Church Times Bookshop £29.69



BORN in 1866 and deeply rooted in the Lutheran piety of his father, the uniquely gifted Nathan Söderblom brought the Church of Sweden from the periphery into the centre of world Christianity, and did more than any other individual to give the Ecumenical Movement its eventual scope, coherence, and effectiveness.

He was an accomplished linguist, mastering ancient Persian, lecturing in English, French, and German, and even speaking in Latvian and Estonian at the installation of bishops. He was a poet, musician, and captivating public speaker. He was destined for a brilliant academic career as a professor of the History of Religion, developing a univers­alist view of revelation without sacrificing the centrality of Christ.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, he was called by the King of Sweden, but without the support of the other bishops or the diocesan clergy, to be Arch­bishop of Uppsala. Through his sheer goodness, entrancing person­ality, and astonishing energy, he eventually won (almost) everyone over. He was an exemplary dioce­san, diligent in visitation, and inspiring in personal contact. He took seriously his duties at national level, and was in the forefront of efforts to reform relations with the State, frustrated until 1999, but now resolved in a way that may prove exemplary for others. He also over­saw a rapprochement between an essentially conservative Church and the workers’ movements, paving the way for the welfare state.

He is best remembered, though, for his work at international level. He loved and learnt much from the Church of England; and his protégés, Gustaf Aulén and Yngve Brilioth, made substantial contri­butions to Faith and Order later. The Porvoo Communion is surely rejoicing his heart in heaven now.

Still, his heart on earth was in practical Christianity, and in the movement for Life and Work, cul­minating in the Stockholm Confer­ence of 1925, of which he was the architect and organiser beforehand, the life and soul in action, and the inspiration for his successors, Bishops Temple and Bell, afterwards. We owe it to him, and to his ability to make friends like Arch­bishop Germanos and Patriarch Photios, that modern ecumenism embraces Eastern Orthodoxy, and that it eventually found a viable form in the World Council of Churches.

Worn out by his exertions at home and abroad, he died in 1931, just as his work for peace, for which he had received the Nobel Prize, was doomed to temporary frustration by the rise of the dictators. Much of his vision, both for peace and for unity, was vindicated only later. He is commemorated in the calendars of the Lutheran and Episcopal Churches.

Jonas Jonson, a fellow Swede and former Bishop of Strängnäs, writes sympathetically but not uncritically, and with personal knowledge. His book is worthy of its subject, and it has been fluently translated by Norman Hjelm for our instruction and enjoyment.


The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

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