The founder of one of Sweden’s largest Protestant congregations is converting to Catholicism. This past Sunday Ulf Ekman announced to the Word of Life church he founded that he and his wife would swim the Tiber. Major news even in secular Sweden, the Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest daily, printed a statement by Ekman detailing his conversion and the reasons behind it. Ekman and his wife Birgitta explained what they saw in the Roman Catholic Church:
We have seen a great love for Jesus and a sound theology, founded on the Bible and classic dogma. We have experienced the richness of sacramental life. We have seen the logic in having a solid structure for priesthood that keeps the faith of the church and passes it on from one generation to the next. We have met an ethical and moral strength and consistency that dare to face up to the general opinion, and a kindness towards the poor and the weak. And, last but not least, we have come in contact with representatives for millions of charismatic Catholics and we have seen their living faith.
Ekman explained that his conversion was a personal matter and that he had not attempted to bring Word of Life into union with the Catholic Church because “that would be unreasonable.”
In addition to the main church of over three thousand members in Uppsala, Ekman built a network of churches extending into Eastern Europe. Anders Gerdmar, president of the theological seminary connected to Word of Life, tells me that there will be a congress for pastors next week at Ephesus in Turkey in which they will discuss Ekman’s announcement and how the network of churches can move forward without their founder. They are helped by the fact that Ekman had already facilitated a transition to a new group of leaders after stepping down as president last year.
Originally ordained in the Swedish Lutheran Church, in the early 1980s Ekman embraced a version of the prosperity gospel propagated by Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland. In 1981 he attended Rhema Bible Training Center, home of the Word of Faith prosperity Pentecostalism in the United States. Ekman’s early preaching focused on the healing of the body and the advancement of the kingdom as central to prosperity rather than financial blessings. At times, he also engaged in anti-Catholic rhetoric for which he has since apologized.
As Ekman’s congregation in Uppsala grew, much of the leadership came from former Swedish Lutheran priests. This resulted in a movement that combined a strong sacramentalism with a charismatic ethos. Indeed, the heart of the Word of Life church resides in an effort to place these two streams within a focus on mission and evangelism. The Eucharist is performed two or three times a week in the context of a liturgy.
Friendships in the broader Catholic charistmatic community, especially with Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., Preacher to the Papal Household, led Ekman to re-think his understanding of the church as a visible embodiment of the Kingdom of God, which in turn led him to ask where the most faithful expression of that visible body was. It was ecclesiology and a concern for Christian unity that led Ekman to cross the Tiber.
Ekman’s conversion shows how global Pentecostalism has become a conduit by which Christians move between traditions. It functions within Christianity much like evangelicalism does within conservative Protestantism in the United States. It is an umbrella movement in which most members maintain a dual identity with one foot firmly planted in their ecclesial or theological tradition and another foot firmly planted in the soil of charismatic spirituality. This is the case for Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and many forms of Protestantism. Some like Ekman convert to Catholicism while others move in the opposite direction.
The dual identity of charismatics makes traditionalists nervous, because it can introduce change into liturgical forms of Christianity on the one hand and introduce liturgy into non-liturgical forms of Christianity on the other hand. In converting to Catholicism, Ekman felt that he did not have to relinquish his charismatic commitments and thus it was not a loss for him in the same way that many Evangelicals can move from Baptist to Methodist without perceiving it as a loss. Aletheia, a group critical of Ekman, pointed out that they had been tracking his move to Catholicism since at least 2007.
Charismatics do not all end up converts, of course. Their dual charismatic identity has aided classical Pentecostals, Catholics, Orthodox, and various Protestants in discovering a common language in Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit in the life of the Christian. This has resulted in an ecumenical exchange of gifts that has allowed charismatics of all stripes to remain within their own ecclesial traditions while benefiting from the riches of others. It has served as a form of renewal within ecclesial traditions rather than calling for persons to come out of their own traditions.
Ekman’s conversion shows how these exchanges tend to tie individuals to historic Christianity. One can also see this at work in Peter Halldorf’s attempt to fuse classical Pentecostalism with Orthodox spirituality in Sweden. Halldorf remains firmly committed to the Swedish Pentecostal Movement (distinct from and predating Ekman’s Word of Life movement) and yet has tried to push it toward sacramentalism and the broad stream of historic Christianity. While Ekman and Peter Halldorf diverge on the question of conversion to Rome, they both see the connections in spirituality and have utilized those connections to promote ecumenism.
The global pentecostal movement may lead to a resurgent Christianity in Europe if the sacramental and the charismatic can be held together. Under the current pastor Joakim Lundquist, the Word of Life church in Uppsala continues to see growth in its efforts at evangelism and mission. The charismatic and sacramental dimensions move the notion of mission beyond initial conversion to a life-long process of discipleship that aims for the transformation of the whole person (the Catholic charismatic movement has reinforced the same ethos within Catholicism).
News of Ekman’s conversion comes at an interesting moment of convergence. Pope Francis has been stressing the notion of the church as the people of God, and thus has begun to call for further implementation of the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church from Vatican II. The Holy Father has also utilized the relational networks that are the informal structure of the global pentecostal-charismatic movement to extend a hand of friendship to forms of Christianity that might otherwise remain in isolation. None of this changes the structures of the Catholic Church, but it does begin to accentuate different parts of those structures. Ekman represents the other side of the equation insofar as there are those within church networks who are pushing toward a more robust sacramentalism and even a stronger ecclesial structure.
Ekman’s conversion and Pope Francis’ extended hand of friendship do not mean that visible unity is on the horizon, but it does promise greater cooperation in mission and global witness. The prayer for such cooperation is one that no Christian should hesitate to utter, and it begins with repentance over past rhetoric that has traded on caricatures and one-dimensional portraits. I can think of no better time for repentance than the current season of Lent.
Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that Ekman was founder of Sweden’s largest congregation.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University and co-editor of Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies.