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Lutherans Elect First Female
BY SARAH PULLIAM BAILEY
©2013 Religion News Service
hat started as just another church assembly turned into a historic one for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as members elected the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton the denomination’s first female presiding bishop.
Eaton will take over from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who will step down after 12 years of overseeing the ELCA, one of the country’s largest denominations.
“I’m still in a state of shock,” Eaton said on Thursday (Aug. 15). “We wanted to open up a conversation, and as I said to the assembly, it looks like the conversation got out of hand.”
Eaton argued that incumbent Hanson paved the way for her election on August 15. “The election of the woman to the office of presiding bishop is a fulfillment of his ministry of making this church a welcoming place,” she said.
It was under Hanson’s leadership that the denomination voted in 2009 to allow openly gay and lesbian clergy. And in June, Lutherans elected the denomination’s first gay bishop. “It was a costly decision for our denomination,” Eaton said. The ELCA, which has lost members nearly every year since its founding in 1987, saw the biggest drop when it lost nearly half a million members in 2010 and 2011, as many conservatives upset with the decision to allow gay clergy defected to a new denomination, the North American Lutheran Church.
“We’ve thrived on paradox, that’s always been part of Lutheran history,” said Eaton, who received 600 votes against incumbent Hanson’s 287.
Eaton, who supported the denomination’s decision, said it’s important to include those who disagree. “We can disagree on decisions as long as we agree on the cross,” she said. “My goal is to make sure we make room for the possibility that people disagree, that they are fully Lutheran, fully valued and fully part of this denomination.”
The ELCA remains the largest Lutheran denomination with more than 4 million members.
“Do I have a killer app or program that’s going to change turnaround in six years? No, I don’t,” said Eaton, who has led the more 77,000-member Northeastern Ohio Synod since 2007. “I see a sense that we have to be missionaries again.”