On August 14, 2013, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America elected Elizabeth Eaton as its presiding bishop. She is the first woman bishop in American Lutheran history.
Eaton carried the vote with a two-thirds majority (600 of 889 votes) against incumbent Mark Hanson, a popular and beloved bishop who led the ELCA through a tumultuous 12 years, including the 2009 churchwide decision to ordain people in homosexual relationships, which resulted in a number of congregations leaving the ELCA. Hanson was widely expected to be elected for a third term; you could hear gasps in the Pittsburgh conference center when the penultimate ballot revealed that Eaton had taken the lead in votes.
I was watching the action unfold in Pittsburgh via the video streaming from the ELCA website—and, of course, via social media—and saw several comments that either rejoiced in Eaton’s gender, or else wondered whether she was elected because of it. I have two completely different reactions to this. And that’s OK, because I’m Lutheran, and we’re down with paradox.
The first reaction is irritation: Bishop Eaton is an imminently qualified person with a strong vision and a gift for articulating it. And based on the observations circulating through social media from those who know her, she is eminently gifted for the bishop’s work of pastoring pastors (and in the case of the ELCA’s presiding bishop, pastoring synodical bishops). It irks me that some people choose to point to her gender to mitigate her success in the election.
The second reaction is: WOOHOO, A FEMALE PRESIDING BISHOP!
Or, in the more elegant phrasing of the Huffington Post: another stained glass ceiling shattered!
Despite my annoyance at those who single out Eaton’s gender, it does matter. Watching the results of the fifth and final ballot streaming on the ELCA’s website, I was shocked to find myself crying big, wet, crocodile tears when I saw that Bishop Eaton was elected, not just with a majority of the vote, but with a two-thirds majority, over Mark Hanson, whom ELCA pastor Jennie Chrien succinctly describes as “the whole denomination’s sweet grandpa.” Believe me, I do not shed tears because I find the whole ecclesial ballot process so moving. I cry because the person who was elected presiding bishop of the ELCA was, for the first time, a woman.
Those tears didn’t simply come because I am a woman and a feminist, but also and equally because I belong to a church that, despite its commitment to inclusivity, perennially struggles with actually being diverse. The whiteness (“European”-ness) of our denomination was remarked upon by Bishop Eaton in her acceptance speech, and one has only to watch a few minutes of any given plenary session at this churchwide assembly to notice that, with few exceptions, the string of speakers is one (generally white) man after another.
On a historical side note, we also have a track record of being somewhat blind to this problem. When dealing with the possibility of women’s ordination in 1970, the president of the American Lutheran Church (a predecessor body of the ELCA) met with American Lutheran Church Women–a powerful auxiliary group–to discuss a recommendation that women’s ordination would be discussed at a churchwide convention:
ALCW officers asked how the report would be “transmitted to the [ALC’s] general convention.” Schiotz replied that it would come in the usual way, through the Executive Committee of Church Council. At this point, Evelyn Streng of the ALCW leaned across the table and “pointedly inquired”: “‘Dr. Schiotz, are there any women on this committee that’s dealing with the ordination of women?'” Streng later reported that Dr. Schiotz “looked as if he had been thunderstruck. He paused, and just hesitated, and, he said, ‘Well, why, no.'”
Related historical sidenote: the Lutheran Church of America (another predecessor body of the ELCA) convened in 1970 to change the language of a bylaw in such a way that women would be eligible for ordination (literally, all they did was change the word “man” to “person”). When the edit passed (easily), their president, Rev. J. Marshall, waited until the tumultuous applause had died down before sardonically observing:
The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
Not exactly inspirational words, Marshall.
But back to my unashamed weeping. Those tears are also because women’s ordination was historically a very big deal for Lutheran bodies–it remains one of the huge divisions between the ELCA and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Lutheran bodies started ordaining women in 1970, more or less because they had run out of options. They’d afforded women the right to vote in congregations a decade before, and in doing so, had vacated the authority of interpretations of texts like 1 Timothy 2:12 that denied women any official voice in ecclesial processes. After that, it was only a matter of time.
Yet it still took another 22 years until Lutherans elected a woman bishop of one of the 65 synods of the ELCA. April Ulring Larson was elected in 1992 as bishop of the La Crosse Area Synod. Do you know what else happened in 1992? Hurricane Andrew, Rodney King, and Aladdin. Remember those? I can, and I wasn’t alive when Michael Jackson wrote “Thriller.” 1992 wasn’t that long ago.
That “proof in the pudding” that Marshall noted would be necessary has been shown time and time again by the female pastorate of the ELCA, and in the wake of the success of women’s ordination, there are women (and men) who have been asking for their own proof: proof that in this denominational pudding, there is recognition and celebration of that success, and a commitment to its continuance.
Those of us in ELCA seminaries, which are about half-male, half-female, have started to look askance at the pastorate, of which only 23% is female–and those women are disproportionately to be found in smaller, declining congregations instead of robust or urban calls. Bishop Eaton’s election is proof, not just for Marshall’s camp, but for this latter one as well. The motto of the Churchwide Assembly, “Always being made new,” isn’t an empty platitude—it’s a promise.
Bishop Eaton’s gender shouldn’t (and doesn’t) stand in for her actually being able to do the job, but it does matter. It’s why the people I’ve talked to about the election call this a historic day. It’s what those surprising tears were about. It’s why the movement of the Spirit seems especially powerful at the churchwide assembly (which, lest you think this is all about pastors in pantyhose, also moved to encourage churchwide conversation about immigrant reform and introduced a new social statement on criminal justice).
It’s another reason why I stay with the church I was raised in, and in the midst of so much tumult, feel hope and pride.
Thank you, Bishop Hanson, for your impeccable service; and blessing, Bishop-Elect Eaton, on what is indeed a historic day.
A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog, http://lutheranmoxie.wordpress.com
Image source: Michael Maggs (Attribution via Wikimedia Commons)
 Evelyn Streng, “Interview with Evelyn Streng by Paul D. Opsahl,” January 10, 1985, Archives of Cooperative Lutheranism, Lutheran Council in the USA, ELCA Archives, Chicago, 44 and Schiotz, “Interview,” 302–03. Both Streng and Schiotz recall the incident. Quoted in McArver, “The Americanization of American Lutheranism.”
 Mary W. Anderson. 2010. “The fortieth anniversary of women’s ordination in the Lutheran church.” Dialog 49, no. 4: 354-357. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 15, 2013).