Last week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America elected the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton as the first woman to serve as presiding bishop of the four-million-member denomination.It was an unexpected defeat for Bishop Mark Hanson, who has led the ELCA for the past 12 years. He led the church through such difficult decisions as allowing partnered gays to serve as clergy in the church.
The Rev. LaDonna Thomas of St. David Lutheran Church in Hanover was a voting member at the 2001 churchwide assembly and voted for Hanson.
“He led us with a strong pastoral presence through some very tumultuous times, as we became an inclusive church, welcoming the gifts and service of all,” Thomas said via email. “He has also been a strong leader in our ecumenical and inter-religious relationships. Knowing that he was willing to serve another term, I was surprised that someone else came to the forefront in the election process.”
The decision to permit gays has somewhat split the ELCA, with many congregations leaving to join the more conservative North American Lutheran Church. In York County, St. Jacob’s (Stone) Lutheran Church in Codorus Township and St. Paul (Ziegler’s) Lutheran Church in North Codorus Township left the ELCA.
Thomas said she was heartened by Eaton’s first message.
“Some things that I heard in her comments during the election process that will be key in her leadership are: a concern for unity in the church; a desire for conversations that help diverse groups find unity in Christ, even while maintaining different viewpoints on other issues; excitement about receiving the gifts and talents of youth and young adults, and a clear understanding of our Lutheran Identity as a prerequisite engaging culture and for ecumenical and inter-religious dialog,” Thomas said.
Eaton has been ECLA bishop of Cleveland. A graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, she is married to an Episcopal priest. The ECLA and the Episcopal Church are in full communion and at times share ministries.
She won on the fifth ballot with 600 votes, defeating Hanson, who is finishing his second six-year term. Hanson received 287 votes.
Eaton, at a news conference after she was elected, urged Lutherans to be welcoming to newcomers in their churches. She insisted the denomination could stay unified despite differences over what the Bible says about same-sex relationships.
“We’re not defined by that single issue,” Eaton said. “We don’t agree on everything in this church, but we do agree on the cross of Christ, and we do agree we’re going to stick together to have that conversation.”