Last week marked a turning point for women in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). On Wednesday, August 14, the ELCA elected the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton as new presiding bishop of the church. Eaton is the first female presiding bishop in the church’s history, beating the incumbent 600 votes to 287. The term for this position is six years. Mark Hanson has served twelve years and, well liked by his church, expected to make it eighteen. Eaton’s win was a bit of a surprise. Three of the four finalist in the vote, all but Hanson, were women.
Eaton earned her Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School and was previously the bishop of the Eastern Ohio Synod. She is married to an Episcopal priest. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman to lead a church in the the worldwide Anglican Communion in 2006. Eaton now joins her, the two churches able to share clergy and ministry through a full communion agreement.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), the other major branch of Lutheran churches in America, does not ordain women in ministry. The two churches have found it difficult to work together in the recent past, and the ELCA electing a female leader may further the schism. The ELCA and LCMS do come together through pan Lutheran organizations like Lutheran World Relief or Lutheran Social Services. Many Lutherans in both churches hope that these dogmatic decisions of the two churches will not get in the way of doing justice work together.
Another difference between the ELCA and the LCMS is their stance on homosexuality. The LCMS does not ordain homosexual individuals. The ELCA voted to ordain homosexual persons in committed relationships in 2009. They previously did ordain homosexual persons if those persons agreed to remain chaste. The ELCA saw a drop in membership in 2010 and 2011 because of this decision and currently have a membership a bit over 4 million in the United States. Four years after the vote in 2009, this past June, ELCA Lutherans in California elected their first openly gay bishop.
Bishop Eaton is articulate, intelligent, well-read and grounded in her theology. She speaks about opening her church up being European to reflect our growing pluralistic society. She believes Jesus meant it when he said that all people can serve. She speaks about asking young people, “What are you longing for? What brings you joy? What keeps you up at night? Well, let me tell you a story.” Her election to the position of presiding bishop is noteworthy. It is an interesting time in the Lutheran church.
It’s an interesting time for Catholics as well. Female leadership in the Church and homosexuality have been two difficult topics for Catholics. On his recent plane ride back from Brazil, Pope Francis told reporters, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He did not stray from Church teaching, yet the compassionate comment had a marked difference in tone in comparison to some of our other recent leaders. And as for women becoming ordained leaders, Francis said that while Pope John Paul II had closed the door to female priests, he is open to a greater role for women in and sought a “theology of women.” Similar to Eaton, Pope Francis seems to be committed to open conversation so that the Church can be vibrant and relevant in the world. Francis is embracing simplicity and direct communication, which many people– Catholic and non-Catholic alike– are finding extremely refreshing.
Both Eaton and Francis seem to agree that it is time for Christians to really engage with the secular world and reignite the Church. It is the Church, they believe, that can offer hope and meaning to our lives. This, I believe, is good news.