In Memoriam: Krister Stendahl

By Deirdre Good and Jane Redmont

Krister Stendahl, New Testament scholar, ecumenist, former Dean of Harvard Divinity School, Bishop in the Church of Sweden, advocate for women and lesbian and gay people, and pioneer in Jewish-Christian relations, died on Tuesday, April 15 in Boston. A memorial service for Bishop Stendahl will be held at Harvard’s Memorial Church on Friday, May 16 at 3:00 p.m.

At his core, Krister Stendahl was a priest. A reverent and exquisite presider, he celebrated a weekly Eucharist at Harvard Divinity School, early in the morning on a weekday, with a cluster of students and a handful of faculty and administrators whose affiliations ranged from Unitarian Universalist to Roman Catholic. He did this when he was Dean and again when he returned to the faculty after his time as Bishop of Stockholm, faithfully. He preached short, beautiful homilies, choosing his words well, always giving time to silence.

As Dean of HDS in the late 1960s and 1970s, Krister –most of us called him by his first name– navigated a society, academy, and church in the throes of profound upheaval, the politics of Harvard, teaching, fund-raising, and leadership in the World Council of Churches. Yet it was his office we visited to talk about God. We were, of course, in awe of him –the Swedish accent, the fused spine, the slow, measured speech may have had something to do with that– but drawn always by his kindness, his attention to each visitor, his discerning wisdom, and his palpable involvement with the Holy One of Blessing, who lives with us in the world and whose mysterious ways remain beyond those of our human minds and hearts. A man of solid ego and strong speech, he also knew the limits of the self. In his later years especially, he reflected on them with his customary blunt honesty and love of the Bible.

Krister’s love of and skill with language translated into poetry as well as wit in the dialogue of daily life, in his practiced colloquialisms, in his sermons and lectures –and all this in English, his second language. He did not publish as many books as some of his learned colleagues, but when he did, his insights were memorable. Whether about the apostle Paul, the challenges of interreligious conversation, or the language of liturgy, they turned our thinking inside out and echoed down through the years. When Krister did not publish his words, we who were privileged to be with him at liturgies and lectures held the words and the sound of his voice inside us. There is a Stendahl oral tradition spanning at least half a century and only recently captured on video. One Good Friday in the 1980s or early 1990s, Krister preached the entire Seven Last Words of Jesus service at Harvard’s Memorial Church. After the service, one of us asked him whether he might be willing to part with a copy of his text. “I had no notes,” he said simply. So we carry his wisdom in our memories and into our own times in pulpit and classroom.

In his 1958 (Eng. 1966) book, The Bible and the Role of Women, written in the Swedish context of the debate on women’s ordination, Krister Stendahl addresses the argument that because Jesus called only male apostles, only males may become priests. “By what right is this act made binding in ministry and interpreted that only males may serve in ministry?” he asks. In the cultural context in which apostles were identified with the 12 tribes of Israel, he notes, what other cultural alternative was there? He confessed in a talk to a gathering of new bishops at General Theological Seminary that he was tempted to ask Cardinal Joseph Bernardin how many Catholic priests were Jews. Wouldn’t Jesus’ Jewishness, he asked, rank more highly than his maleness in traits of the incarnation?

Of course there are New Testament passages that support women’s subordination grounded in the order of creation. However, Galatians 3:26-28 breaks through this order of creation to describe a new creation in Christ overcoming separation between Jew and Greek, slave and free. The third pairing, “male and female,” alludes to the Greek translation of Genesis 1:27, “male and female created He them.” In Christ, says the Galatians passage, the basic division of male and female is overcome and the law of creation overturned. Krister points out that in the New Testament the question of any cultic role for women is never separate from the role of women in ordinary life, and that this role (subordinate, of course) is seen as founded in the order of creation.

It becomes extremely difficult then for us to assent to women’s emancipation in civil life and to hold to subordination in the ecclesiastical area unless we make the church the last bastion of the “biblical” order-of-creation view. Yet that stance too contains a contradiction, because it is in Christ, not in the world, that there is to be neither male nor female. Stendahl writes, “If emancipation is right, then there is no valid ‘biblical’ reason not to ordain women. Ordination cannot be treated as a ‘special’ problem, since there is no indication that the New Testament sees it as such.”

Two months ago, barely mobile and already on the short road to death, Krister Stendahl presided at the memorial service of Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John Strugnell, who had been his colleague at Harvard. In attendance was Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, who as Demetrios Trakatellis had been a graduate student in New Testament during Stendahl’s tenure. Krister, scheduled to give the final benediction, spontaneously ceded the place to the Archbishop and placed him at the center of the celebration, a small but powerful gesture, typical of Krister, ecumenical and gracious to the end.

Alumni and alumnae of the Stendahl era at HDS remember Brita and Krister Stendahl’s Christmas party with the punch bowl of glögg, the spiced wine of Swedish winters. But Brita was never just a hostess. Krister Stendahl was one of those men who like intelligent women, marry one, and love her to the end. In six decades of marriage Dr. Brita Stendahl, a scholar of Scandinavian philosophy, literature, and history, was steady companion, luminous presence, and sharp intellect. Brita and Krister gave workshops together on topics from religion and humor to women’s wisdom, traveled to interreligious convocations, and sat listening to the wisdom of others, year after year. Krister, lover and husband, was discreet and dignified in his Northern European way, but his and Brita’s presence and radiance as a couple were constant. To remember Krister is to remember this partnership.

Like all holy and learned people who are also public persons, Krister leaves behind spiritual and intellectual children. He was a mentor to hundreds of us, perhaps thousands. In his death we all feel related to him, but know the weight of his absence for his beloved children and their children’s children, living their private grief amid an international outpouring of affection.

Advocate and colleague, Krister welcomed the challenge of women at Harvard, in Stockholm, and at the World Council of Churches in the laborious journey to equal public, ministerial, and theological presence. He came to know that the God who calls us beyond our limits and into life abundant cannot be limited by gender in our visions or in our prayers. The language of liturgy, intimate as the language of love –Krister once called it “a caressing language”– changed even as Krister remained faithful to the traditions of Christian worship that formed him. He began, earlier than most, using gender-inclusive language not just to speak of humans but to address God: without fuss, without speeches, and with the blend of reverence, poetry, humor, and seriousness that characterized his stance before God.

The Church of Sweden, recognizing the historic episcopate, uses the word “priest” for its ordained ministers. In good Lutheran fashion, it also understands them as pastors. Krister Stendahl was both. The memorial website at his parish, the University Lutheran Church in Cambridge, shows only a fraction of the pastoral life of the man who led institutions but who, without fanfare, visited a friend’s relative in prison and prayed for a former student hospitalized for depression.

Asked why Jews and women became such a focus for his scholarly work, Stendahl replied: “The Christian Bible includes sayings that have caused much pain, both to Jews and to women. Thus I have felt called to seek forms of interpretation which can counteract such undesirable side effects of the Holy Scriptures.”

Think about it. Why would a white privileged European man concern himself with Jews and women? To graduate students he explained that what called him to this search was a concern for justice or righteousness as the Gospel of Matthew describes it. Justice is an imperative of God’s Kingdom. Jesus is about tikkun olam, the mended creation. For the dispossessed or oppressed, justice is grace. Only the privileged separate the two. Accordingly, Krister was often present among those ordaining first women and then gay men and lesbians to the ordained ministry in the Lutheran and Episcopal churches. When Gene Robinson was consecrated Bishop in 2003, there Krister Stendhal was next to Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. In pictures of the event he can be seen smiling and nodding. At the end of the ceremony, as the procession left the arena at Dartmouth, the hymn we sang was “For All the Saints, Who From Their Labors Rest.” When all eyes were on our new Bishop Gene Robinson, there before him with the other bishops, clergy, and presenters, walking haltingly with a cane, went Krister. This is how we remember him.

Café contributors Deirdre Good and Jane Redmont were both students of Krister Stendahl’s at Harvard Divinity School, Redmont as an M.Div. student, Good as a Th.D. student in New Testament. Redmont has also served as a staff member at HDS, a field education supervisor for its students, and President of the HDS Alumni/ae Council.

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