My church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has a new presiding bishop–the individual who acts as pastor for the whole church. And there’s something different about her. Maybe it’s the pronoun–Bishop-Elect Elizabeth Eaton is, in fact, the first woman to be elected to this position in the ELCA’s 25 year history.
I’ve seen several comments either 1) rejoicing in, or 2) questioning whether Bishop Eaton was elected because she is a woman. I have two completely different reactions to this–and that’s OK, because I’m Lutheran, and we’re down the the paradox.
The first reaction is that Bishop Eaton is an imminently qualified person with a strong vision, a gift for articulating it, who is truly gifted for the work of pastoring (stated on the basis of observations I’ve heard from those who know her), so stop trying to mitigate her success by questioning the role of her gender in the election! Harrumph.
The second is: HELL YEAH, FIRST FEMALE BISHOP OF THE ELCA!
Because to me, her gender does matter. Watching the results of the fifth and final ballot streaming on the ELCA’s website, I cried 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 the incumbent Mark Hanson–who, it may be noted, has been a truly amazing presiding bishop throughout a very tumultuous 12 years. I do not cry when one qualified candidate for bishop is elected over the incumbent in a surprising turn of events. I cry because the person who did it is a woman.
And 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.
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, 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, why, he said, ‘Well, why, no.'”
The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
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, basically, because they had run out of options. They’d afforded women the right to vote in congregations a decade before. And they were late to the party: The UCC ordained Antoinette Brown in 1853. Some Baptist bodies started ordaining women in the 1920s. Methodists and Presbyterians started ordaining women in the 1950s (that’s PCUSA; Louisa Woosley of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was ordained in 1886). Look, let me put it this way: the only mainline Protestants who started ordaining women after Lutherans were Mennonites (’73) and Anglicans (’74).
And the ELCA’s first synodical woman bishop? April Ulring Larson, elected in 1992 (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 sardonically commented 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 those of us women (and men) who have been asking for our 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, made in faith that God can and does change us–glory be and hallelujah!
So no, Bishop Eaton’s gender shouldn’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 (in an excited, high-pitched “squeeee!”) call this a historic day. It’s why I cried. 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 decided to encourage churchwide conversation about immigrant reform and introduced a new social statement on criminal justice).
It’s another reason why I love my church, and feel proud to be Lutheran.
With grateful thanks for the dedicated service of Bishop Mark Hanson, and with prayers and rejoicing for the call of Bishop Liz Eaton. +
 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.”
 Pamela Ilott, prod. 1971. “The Ordination of Pastor Platz.” In Lamp Unto My Feet. Columbia Broadcasting System.
 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).