Geoffrey Rowell reflects on the life and writing of the church historian Alf Härdelin

The name of Alf Härdelin, the church historian who died in his native Sweden a few weeks ago, is not likely to be familiar to many in the Catholic tradition in the Church of England. Yet he was the author of a very significant book on the eucharistic theology of the Oxford Movement, and its relationship to the wider theology of the church and sacraments. The Tractarian Understanding of the Eucharist, first published in 1969, deserves to be more widely known.

Alf Härdelin was born in 1927, the eldest of five children of a priest of the Church of Sweden serving in the remote far north of the country. Later his father moved to a parish on the outskirts of Stockholm, and when he was 18 he had a conversion experience which brought him into the High Church Catholic tradition in the Church of Sweden. He studied Theology at Uppsala, and was particularly influenced by the study of the Fathers of the Church.

From Sweden to England

Ordained in the Church of Sweden in 1954, he served for a time in a country parish, until he returned to the university for his doctoral studies in 1958, which he had already determined were to concentrate on the Oxford Movement. This brought him to England, to work in the Newman archives at the Birmingham Oratory, and in the rich Oxford Movement collection at Pusey House in Oxford. There he discovered Pusey’s unpublished 1836 Lectures on Types and Prophecies – a strong defence of revelation as given through a divinely ordained pattern of image and symbol, which Newman thought was the only compelling response to the subjectivism of D. F. Strauss’s Life of Jesus, which undermined any sense of Christianity as a revealed and saving faith.

In The Tractarian Understanding of the Eucharist Härdelin made good use of Pusey’s Lectures. He was followed in this by Donald Allchin, David Jasper, and, most recently, by the present Principal of Pusey House, Fr George Westhaver, whose doctoral thesis is the first full in-depth study of Pusey’s lectures, showing how they anticipate the theological work of Henri de Lubac and Austin Farrer.

As a Catholic in the Church of Sweden Alf Härdelin espoused a ‘branch’ theory of the church, similar to many Anglo-Catholics. Through reading Karl Rahner he was, he said, cured of all liberalism, but he increasingly found himself drawn to the Roman Catholic Church, and he was received into that Church in 1963. His academic distinction was such that he was appointed as a professor in Uppsala in 1966, only the second Roman Catholic to hold a post in the Theology Faculty there. He taught and wrote over the years in church history, historical theology, liturgy and spirituality, including books on liturgical poetry and Marian devotion.

Revelation and Mystery

In the introduction to The Tractarian Understanding of the Eucharist, Härdelin reminds us that ‘the Oxford Movement was…no system of abstract ideas worked out in secluded studies, but a movement of men deeply engaged in the spiritual welfare of their Church… It arose above all as a protest against what the Tractarians themselves called the ‘rationalism’ of the day.’ ‘Their battle was for ‘the Catholic faith’ and ‘authority’, and against ‘rationalism’ and ‘private judgement.’ As Härdelin emphasizes, Tractarian ecclesiology is sacramental, in which the Gospel is, as Newman said, ‘not a mere form of words, a string of sentences which may be written on paper and learned, and then professed.’ The object of faith is not a certain number of articles, but Christ. This means that Revelation and Mystery go hand in hand.

In the core of his book Härdelin shows how important the centrality of the Eucharist was to the Tractarians and the way in which their theology of the Real Presence of Christ developed. John Keble in his tract, On Eucharistic Adoration clearly declaring that ‘wherever Christ is, there he is to be adored’, and he is therefore to be adored in the bread and wine of the Eucharist through which he gives his life to feed and sustain the Church which is his body. As Pusey taught, in the Eucharist the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is ‘without us, not within us only’; there is a ‘real and objective Presence.’ There was caution about the language of transubstantiation, because it seemed to define what was in the end a mystery, and Pusey could argue against both transubstantiation as akin to rationalist distortions of religion and against Evangelical theology which could reduce the objective reality of the sacramental gift to a subjective spirituality of attitude or feeling.

Sacrificial dimension

In writing of the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist Härdelin notes that for the Tractarians the Eucharist ‘is neither merely an appropriation of the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, nor merely the self-oblation of the individual’, rather ‘the eucharist is the means whereby the latter is taken up and joined to Christ’s sacrifice, and so made holy, lively, and acceptable to God.’ Or, as the ARCIC Statement on the Eucharist puts it, ‘we are drawn into the movement of his [Christ’s] self-offering.’ So Härdelin concludes:

‘In the Eucharist, both as sacrament and sacrifice, Tractarian religion found an external object and a focus in which all its intentions were gathered up. For as faith and justification could not be divorced from love, obedience, and sanctification, so neither could sacramental grace be from sacramental worship and self-dedication through it. The Church was not only a channel of grace to men, but the mystical body, humanity incorporate in Christ to be dedicated to God. What Newman in 1830 thought to be the only acceptable sacrifice to God, namely the self-offering of obedient worshippers, [Robert Isaac] Wilberforce, two decades later, taught to be acceptable only as assumed in the body of Christ, sacramentally present, and offered up to the Father through his priests’ (p. 219).

Worship and spirituality

The final section of Härdelin’s book explores how worship and spirituality flow out from this sacramental understanding. He notes, as James Pereiro has done more recently, the importance of ‘ethos’ for the Tractarians. ‘Catholicism is not only a system of doctrine, but a temper…or ‘ethos.’ He cites with approval Frederick Oakeley’s words that ‘the demand that all parts of the Divine Service should be intelligible to every capacity’; that there should be no ‘mystery, nothing symbolical in its ceremonial or decorative accompaniments, nor of especial sacredness in the language in which it is solemnized’ is only another instance of the rationalist temper which sees worship ‘as something directed rather to man’s instruction than to God’s glory’ – words which still need to be heard in many parts of the church today.

Sacramental gifts

The Eucharist is a Mystery of Awe and Love, to be received with penitence and with joy. The sacramental gifts were given that we should grow in holiness and in likeness to Christ. With all their desire for a reverent celebration of the Eucharist, the Tractarians were alert to the dangers of both fashion and formalism. The awesome wonder of the sacramental presence of Christ, as the Church celebrate the Eucharist and the faithful receive the life-giving and transforming mysteries is indeed a recognition, as de Lubac would famously put it, that ‘the Eucharist makes the Church as the Church makes the Eucharist.’

Our heritage

Alf Härdelin’s study of the Tractarian Understanding of the Eucharist is a reminder of our Anglican Catholic heritage. It is also a reminder of how there were significant links between the Catholic revival in England and a parallel but much later, sacramental revival in Sweden. Oloph Bexell, in a study of the reception of the Oxford Movement in Sweden (Kyrkhistorisk Årskrift, 2006), describes how in nineteenth-century Sweden, as earlier in England, worship was marked by the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

‘The main service in the parish was primarily a service of preaching, surrounded by short altar devotions. The Eucharist was at a low point and in many parishes there were towards the end of the century hardly any communicants at all….Ecclesiological awareness was very low. For many people it was the legal regulation of the church that was at the forefront rather than its divine origin and function as the place for God’s presence and intervention.’

Inspiration and influence

In 1908–9 a young priest, Samuel Gabrielsson, visited England on a university grant secured for him by Nathan Söderblom, later to be Archbishop of Uppsala and a distinguished ecumenist. His visit coinciding with the 1908 Lambeth Conference, he gained a considerable knowledge of Anglicanism, writing of the impact on him of cathedral worship, of churches in Oxford and elsewhere influenced by the Catholic Revival, of the social gospel of Charles Gore and those influenced by him, and of the religious orders, especially the Cowley Fathers.

Scholarly study

A decade later, in 1920, after the end of the First World War, another priest, Albert Lysander, from Malmö, also visited and imbibed much both from the Cowley Fathers and from Mirfield, and was deeply moved by the beauty of the liturgy. At the same time, again encouraged by Nathan Söderblom, Yngve Brilioth, later to succeed Söderblom as Archbishop of Uppsala, also visited England, and, as a result of conversations at Pusey House, embarked on a scholarly study of the Oxford Movement, first published in Swedish, and then published in an English translation as The Anglican Revival (1925). It is still a significant scholarly study.


The influence of the Anglican religious orders led to Swedish counterparts, the Brotherhood of St Sigfrid in 1915 and the Societas Sanctae Birgittae. Otto Ende, who had spent a year in England as Youth Secretary to the Swedish Church in London before his ordination, was another influence in liturgical and ceremonial revival in Swedish worship as a result of his encounter with Anglo-Catholic churches in London, and the same could be said of Elis Schröderheim, who taught that ‘in our religion, we need that which speaks to ears, eyes and our immediate senses, not least to our sense of beauty and our spiritual being’.

All of these contributed to the High Church Movement in Sweden, but Bexell points out that it was Gunnar Rosendal, Rector in Osby, who is usually seen as the great pioneer of the Movement. For him Catholicity was central. It was not a matter of building up the national church, but of building up the Church of Christ, and that was centred on a sacramental and Eucharistic renewal. The holy Catholic Church ‘became visible through its liturgy, in the form in which it met God the Holy Trinity.’ In his book, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ (1938), Rosendal drew on Pusey’s defence of the Real Presence, and Gore’s The Body of Christ.

As Bexell demonstrates, from the early years of the twentieth century, the discovery of the Oxford Movement and the Catholic revival in the Church of England shaped in a significant way a similar renewal in liturgy, theology and ecclesiology in the Church of Sweden. ND