Antje Jackelén is Archbishop of the Church of Sweden

Issue I: Trans­forming Tomorrow

I-7 | Antje Jackelén: “Too many people are drinking from a very poisonous cocktail”

"Too many people are drinking from a very poisonous cocktail"

Antje Jackelén

Learn, what’s behind the five Ps that make the poisonous cocktail too many people are drinking of right now. The Archbishop of the Church of Sweden also explains, why she recommends cultivating resilience, coexistence and hope to deal with this poisonous cocktail.

An interview by Alexander Görlach 12|9|2020

Görlach: This year’s conference was about women in faith and diplomacy. How can a conference like this bridge the different realities that women around the globe find themselves living in?

Jackelén: I think it is possible via the deliberate attempt to build a capacity to create networks sharing experiences from different contexts and also making visible the role that women are already playing and have been playing. All this together makes for an empowering atmosphere that will have consequences far beyond the conference.

Görlach: One part of these realities is the different approach religions take regarding women. Obviously in the Catholic Church there is still neither female leadership nor access to sacramental service. And in parts of the muslim world where Islam is dominant the situation is precarious for many women. How is an advancement possible for women within the realm of religion?

Jackelén: A catholic would differ and say that there is indeed a lot of female leadership in the church. But sadly, it does not include access to the ordained ministry of word and sacrament. I would say in most religious traditions there is a message of equality and human dignity as part of faith. But there is so much cultural garbage and so much of patriarchal traditions that you sometimes have to unearth this teaching of equality and human dignity against what has become the actual practice of religious tradition. I would like to say that the critique of religion and the self-criticism of religious tradition is very important.

Görlach: How so?

Jackelén: Concerning my own tradition we have made progress in acknowledging the equal dignity of all people. Secular society has confronted us with the fruits of our own teachings. We have to realize: yes, we have preached it, but we haven’t really lived up to it in every respect. So I think there is a lot of potential in religious traditions. But then again I have had for quite some time the reason to say that part of the problem of the world right now is that too many people are drinking from a very poisonous cocktail which has five dangerous ingredients. They all start with the letter P: polarization, populism, protectionism, post-truth, patriarchy. The first four of them are pretty contemporary so to speak. Whereas patriarchy is more or less the background noise throughout history. But these other four Ps develop quite a destructive synergy together with patriarchy. We have to confront this both from inside the religious traditions but also from outside and in-between the religious traditions. This notion of empowering each other is key.

„Some people were crying at the sight: a woman in a bishop’s gown. This gives us hope.”

Antje Jackelén

Görlach: It feels as if the patriarchal model is the rule rather than the exception. The progress made in the Anglican or Lutheran church leads to disruptions in the ecumenical dialog for instance.

Jackelén: Yes and no. I have some experience of being a woman and a leader for a major church. What I have found in ecumenism is that being the first female archbishop of the Church of Sweden has not made ecumenical relationships more difficult. Rather the other way around. Because there is also some curiosity in finding out how this works. And since I have been the Archbishop we have had Pope Francis himself being in Sweden for the Lutheran-Catholic joint commemoration for 500 years of reformation, and he was very well aware that the leader of the hosting church was a female archbishop. Whenever he meets me he is very deliberate in calling me archbishop. We have had Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Church visiting Sweden and inviting me back to Egypt. We have had the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew visiting as well as the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Aphrem II. In that sense being a woman is not hindering ecumenism. It is encouraging and empowering, and I am sometimes very moved by the experience when I am invited. For instance, I was once invited by a catholic convention in Muenster, Germany. I was asked to give the sermon in the ecumenical service at the convention which was in the Muenster Cathedral – a symbol of catholicism. They even asked me to preach from the pulpit which hadn’t been used since 1965 and some people were crying at the sight: a woman in a bishop’s gown. This gives us hope. Not denying that if my first name was Anton instead of Antje some things wouldn’t have happened to me. It goes both ways. It’s about doing what I can to enable the blessings and trying to resist the attacks.

Görlach: One of your fields of interests is the dialog between science and religion. What do you make of the current events where there is a lot of anger and resentment towards science when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. What do you make of this rebuke of science? And how can women in terms of diplomacy tackle this?

Jackelén: It is part of the post-truth phenomenon that we have in some places more or less this attitude that perception is reality. So why care about the experts? There also are powers that might benefit from discrediting science. So I think it is really important to take science seriously and to debunk the myth about faith and science being each other’s opposite. It is important to clarify that the pursuit of truth and trying to understand how creation works is actually a way of serving God. In the Christian tradition one can clearly see that many pioneers of modern science often saw it as a vocation and said that their work is also a way of worshiping God by understanding how creation works. To recover that and stand up for it is important. And it is a task that women and men can share equally.

„I think we need to cultivate resilience, coexistence and hope. With the framework of resilience I think we will be able to make sense of the fights of women and men for the health, wellbeing and future of their children.”

Antje Jackelen

Görlach: The public role of religion in democratic societies is declining whereas in authoritarian regimes such as China, Turkey or Russia religion is used again to fuel a narrative of us vs. them. It is the ultimate goal to secure the dominance of the ruling regime. Would one in such a world not wish for less religion?

Jackelén: People have done that before: they have said that religion is the problem, religion is the trigger. It is not only happening in China, Turkey or Russia. Even in Europe there are powers that want to fuel the hate against Muslims for political reasons. Without religion people would definitely find other markers to foster conflict. In many conflicts that seem to have a religious component it is more about socioeconomic and ethnic rather than religious differences. There is a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Religion is like a knife; you can either use it to cut bread or stick it in someone’s back.“ Science and religion are two of the most powerful forces that have shaped our culture. These forces can do enormously good things but if they go wrong they can do a lot of damage as well.

Görlach: Your last book offers spiritual advice to console us in times of the pandemic. Why have we gathered in Lindau amidst this global disaster? Every faith will try to steer humans through this time of turmoil. What thoughts would you like to share in these trying times? How can we keep up confidence and strength in the various communities we find ourselves in?

Jackelén: I think we need to cultivate resilience, coexistence and hope. With the framework of resilience I think we will be able to make sense of the fights of women and men for the health, wellbeing and future of their children. And we will also be able to confront the five destructive Ps: polarization, populism, protectionism, post-truth, patriarchy. With a framework of coexistence we will be able to revisit some of the borders that are harmful to our working and living together. We will also be able to foster more adequate views of nature and listen to the groaning of creation and to the voices of indigenous peoples. And with the framework of hope we still can expect change. It is important to say that hope is something different from optimism. Optimism builds on what we already know: it’s an extrapolation, a continuation of a trend. Hope is not indifferent to what we already know but more than knowing, hope can constructively relate to uncertainty. And hope does it by keeping an eye on the horizon and beyond the horizon. To cultivate that attitude of hope we need to deliberately say: hope can harbor anger about all the things that are not going in the right direction. Hope needs to harbor the anger. Hope also needs to reflect humility in the sense that we need a good way to relate to our vulnerability, our weaknesses, our limitations and to our mortality. The third ingredient is courage. These three together can help us cultivate hope. It is not passive. It liberates, makes us free to act courageously.

Antje Jackelén

Short Biography

Antje Jackelén is Archbishop of the Church of Sweden since 2014 and before that bishop of the diocese of Lund. She was Professor of Systematic Theology/Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, USA, from 2003 to 2007. Archbishop Antje Jackelén has also been the director of Zygon Center for Religion and Science and president of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT). Her research interests include the dialogue between science and theology, the role of religion in society and Trinitarian theology. She is honorary doctor at the University of Greifswald, at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and at Virginia Theological Seminary. Her most recent books are Together in hope(2016) and Otålig i hoppet (‘Impatient in hope – theological reflections in the time of the pandemic’) (2020).

Her international engagements include the office of Nordic Vice President of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and member of the LWF Council.


I-1 | Annette Schavan: “Strengthen the com­­­­­­­mitment of women at all levels”

The future of religions will be determined by how they integrate women, says Annette Schavan, former Federal Minister for Research and Education. The committed Catholic was also the Federal Republic’s ambassador to the Apostolic See.

I-2 | Margot Käßmann: “Real encounters are often a mutual encouragement”

Margot Käßmann has retired from many offices. Her engagement with Ring for Peace is an exception. Alexander Görlach talks with the former regional bishop about peace, women, fundamentalism and why the assembly in Lindau can make a difference.

I-3 | Margrit Wettstein: “All the women here have done something about it, something that has made a difference”

Margrit Wettstein works for the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm. Only few people know better than her, which women ever received the Nobel Prize and which fates are behind these women. Alexander Görlach asked Margrit Wettstein to tell us, who she thinks are the most important award winners.

I-4 | Azza Karam: “Working with religious actors makes sense”

Learn why Prof. Azza Karam thinks that it is inevitable for the UN to work with religious leaders and movements. And find out what challenges Azza Karam identifies for women, if they pursue religious leaderships.

I-5 | Gunnar Stålsett: “Rights of women is a religious, moral, and political imperative in the 21st century”

The ecumenical unity of the churches depends in particular on the question of the extent to which women and men are equal, explains former Bishop Gunnar Stålsett. Stålsett believes that for women in the Orthodox Church to have more rights, a religious leader is needed who is willing to risk his own future for the future of the Church.

I-6 | Sima Samar: “I believe women are one of the main reasons for continuation of humanity”

She was the first Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan after the Taliban lost power in 2002. Ever since, for many women in Afghanistan almost everything changed, as Sima Samar recapitulates in this interview.

I-7 | Antje Jackelén: “Too many people are drinking from a very poisonous cocktail”

Learn, what’s behind the five Ps that make the poisonous cocktail too many people are drinking of right now. The Archbishop of the Church of Sweden also explains, why she recommends cultivating resilience, coexistence and hope to deal with this poisonous cocktail.


I-8 | Sharon Rosen: “Collaborating side by side on a joint problem provides religious actors with a sense of purpose”

Read, what Sharon Rosen thinks is the difference between practical work and dialogue. And what is necessary for a fruitful conversation between religions.

I-9 | Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati: “I used to think God only lived in the mountains”

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati tells us, why she moved to India and why she thinks that the situation of women in India has improved in the past 25 years.

I-10 | Rachel Rosenbluth: “I call on men to speak less and to listen more”

Rachel Rosenbluth is one of the first Jewish women to be ordained as a rabbi by an orthodox institution in Israel. Read why she sees herself as a bridge builder and how she accepted the invitation to participate in a ten-day Sufi pilgrimage festival in India.

I-11 | Ani Zonneveld: “Universal human rights values and true Islam is one and the same”

She is the first Malaysian Grammy winner and founded the non-profit organization Muslims for Progressive Values. This organization calls for Muslim societies to pay more attention to human rights. Learn why many young Muslims like Zonneveld believe Islam needs reform.