The holy envy of Krister Stendahl and the Latter-Day Saint temple

Krister Stendahl, the former Lutheran bishop of Stockholm, Sweden performed an act of such grace to Latter-Day Saints during the dedication of the Stockholm temple. I first heard this story over at the LDS Perspectives Podcast, but this retelling of the story from Holy Envy by Barbara Brown Taylor is beautiful. It is an example of how one can come from beyond the tribe and bless it, as Taylor explains it. I think Latter-Day Saints could learn a lot in our approach to those from other faiths, and I would hope could also find moments of holy envy in our own lives. I have reproduced the selection from the Taylor, as well as provided a link to the video referenced in which Stendahl describes his holy envy for the Latter-Day Saint doctrine of temples and vicarious baptisms.

Several years after his tenure as dean [at Yale Divinity School, Krister Stendahl] was elected Bishop of Stockholm and returned home to Sweden. He had only been in place around about a year when he became aware of mounting opposition to a new Mormon temple opening in the summer of 1985. The antipathy was odd in some ways, since Sweden had a long history of welcoming religious strangers even then. It was predictable in other ways, since new religious buildings often cause more anxiety than new religious neighbors do– especially if their buildings are bigger and better looking than yours. The Stockholm temple was designed by Swedish architect John Sjostrom with a floor area of more than 16,000 square feet and situated in a leafy suburb of the city.

At a press conference prior to the dedication of the building, Stendahl aimed to defuse tension by proposing three rules of religious understanding, which have by now made the rounds more often than any of his scholarly work on the apostle Paul. Here is the most common version of what he said:

  1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and nots its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for holy envy.

No one is positive what he meant by number three, but Stendahl soon acted on it in ways that required holy courage. As a Lutheran, he found much to envy in the Mormon practice of vicarious baptism, by which a living Latter-Day Saint chooses to be baptized on behalf of a person who has died without completing this requirement for entering God’s kingdom. The practice provoked public outrage in the 1990s, when some members of the LDS Church by-passed the rules and submitted the names of Holocaust victims for baptism. Church officials responded by promising to remove those names from its geneology records. They also clarified that church teachings do not include coercing dead people to become Mormons.

The way it was explained to me, the dead person still gets a choice. When someone on earth is baptized in his or her name, the deceased– who is by now living in the spirit world awaiting Jesus’s resurrection from the dead– receives one last chance to say yes to the gospel. Those who are baptized by proxy may refuse, even from beyond the grave, but not without recognizing that someone on the other side has gone to great lengths to include them among the saints.

Since Lutherans have historically shied away from Catholic teachings about how the living might benefit the dead, Stendahl has nothing like vicarious baptism in his own tradition. Yet he saw value in it and proceeded to envy it from across the fence. He even when public with his scholarship on the subject, appearing in a Mormon video on vicarious baptism and contributing an article to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. At the moment I cannot think of a parallel in my own tradition for such a gesture. Perhaps if the archbishop of Canterbury went on record as envying the Quaker practice of silent meetings?

Stendahl’s decision to stand with the Mormon minority in Stockholm was about more than his interest in the afterlife, however. “In the eyes of God, we are all minorities,” he told a reporter shortly before his death in 2008. “That’s a rude awakening for many Christians who have never come to grips with the pluralism of the world.”

And here is the video mentioned in the text:

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