I first met Bishop Gärtner in 2004 through the Society of St. Birgitta, whom he served as Fader Visitator (father visitor). This year during the Mass on St. Birgitta's Day (that's where I took the attached photo) he preached. Afterwards and for the next couple of days people kept asking me, "Did you understand any of Bishop Bertil's sermon?"
"Not really," I replied each time, "but I know he preached about Jesus." That word I understood. At that point my questioner would tell me some point or detail from the sermon.
It was a deeply personal sermon, which was unusual for him. Actually, I'd suspected that, for there was a brief moment his voice halted and tears filled his eyes. Turns out that was the moment he spoke of his fears from earlier this year when his leg had to be amputated because of his diabetes. Yet even in that darkness, he was given the strength to trust in his savior, Jesus. A word that was helpful to all of us listening to him, for the faithful who have been so beset upon by the church we serve.
Later at the formal dinner, I shared with him the reactions I was getting from people who wanted me to know what he had preached. He smiled at my answer, and told me the story of refugees from Finland who had come to Sweden during the War. Every Sunday they came to church, even though it was all in Swedish and they spoke Finnish. Finally the priest, while pleased they were worshiping, asked them if they were getting anything out of it not understanding the language. "You preach Jesus," they responded, "and that's all we need." Thank you, Bishop Bertil.
Prior to his election as the immediate successor to Bo Giertz as Bishop of Gothenburg, Gärtner was known as an academic theologian, teaching at Uppsala University and then as Professor of New Testament at Princeton University (1965-1969) -- which meant that conversing with him in English was quite easy. After his retirement in 1991, he continued to be very active in the Swedish Church, particularly as a Bishop for various renewal groups and organizations within the Swedish Church.
He had been with arbetsgemenskapen Kyrklig Förnyelse (aKF or the Church Union, a "high church" renewal group) since its founding in 1959, and served as its chairman for many years. He was unable to attend aKF's Church Days at the end of August, but his written message was delivered and appears on their web site -- which, in reporting his death, also describes (at least as Google translate puts it) exactly what many of my SSB friends are feeling at this moment: "Many of us feel like sheep without a shepherd."
He was also active in Oasrörelsen i Sverige, an independent charismatic renewal group, since its beginnings. In their announcement, Oasrörelsen links to an article he wrote for their latest newsletter, "Vara kvar eller inte?" Google translates that as "to remain or not" and, while it needs a lot of polishing, you can get his answer here.
Do we leave the Swedish Church today? he asks. (Is that hitting home, fellow ELCAers?) Wrestling with that question since at least 1979-80, Bishop Gärtner had opportunity to meet Eastern and Western Patriarchs -- the Russian in Moscow, the Greek (the then Patriarch and the current one) in Constantinople, the Roman in Rome (the then-new Pope John Paul II). And in those conversations, he sought their counsel to this question.
Each Patriarch gave the same answer: remain where God has placed you. And that has been Bishop Bertil's conviction ever since.
The Bishop was active in the Free Synod throughout its existence. And from hospital on Saturday, the day before he was called to his eternal home, came his final post on Bertil bloggar ("Bertil blogs"), where he wonders why people knowing nothing about, or not believing in, the Christian Faith would seek election to next year's Church Synod -- and encourages his readers to vote for nominees from Frimodig kyrka.
A Churchman to the end,
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetuam luceat eis.