I joined the nearly 2,000 other church nerds yesterday who watched the live feed from the Churchwide Assembly (CWA) of the Evangelical Church in America (ELCA). This week, around 900 Evangelical Lutheran Christians are gathered in Pittsburgh, PA to discern together how we do God’s work with our own hands.
One of the appointed tasks was to call a Presiding Bishop. We have been served by Bishop Mark Hanson for 12 of the 25 years of the ELCA. Bishop Hanson has been an incredible leader during tumultuous times. He has led with grace, wisdom, courage, humor, humility, honor, a great taste in music, and a fierce passion for evangelism (sharing the gospel, the story of God) and catechism (teaching what it means to be church). He had kept himself available for a third term as Presiding Bishop if invited to do so.
Through the conversations and prayers and deliberations of the assembly, it was decided that Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, would become our new Presiding Bishop. The first woman to hold that office.
In keeping with the Assembly’s theme, we are “Always being made new.”
I was encouraged by Bishop Eaton’s words and presence and I trust she will continue the tradition of faithfulness and exceptional leadership. Plus, she’s refereed basketball, so a) she knows a good game, and b) she’s had to put up with a lot of garbage with fairness and patience. I would love to shoot hoops with her someday.
It’s hard to understand that what happened wasn’t a defeat. The Bishop election isn’t a campaign. It is a discernment, one we believe is guided by the Holy Spirit. There is great excitement for what lies ahead under the service of Bishop-elect Elizabeth Eaton. There is also deep gratitude for the leadership of Bishop Hanson.
My bishop, Larry Wohlrabe, a true pastor’s pastor, said it best:
When the results of the fifth and final ballot were announced yesterday afternoon, Bishop Eaton received a thunderous ovation before addressing the Assembly. Moments later, though, Bishop Hanson also received a long standing ovation–with enthusiastic shouts of praise and affirmation, to boot. It was very clear to me that this Assembly was embracing both our current Presiding Bishop and his successor, with great joy and gratitude.
As I mentioned above, I watched these proceedings from afar, on my computer screen, via a live feed that Gulf Coast Synod Bishop Mike Rinehart tweeted. I was one of almost 2,000 others who were doing so. This CWA has been marked by its use of Social Media, so it was only natural that those watching from afar carried their own conversations via #elcacwa (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ChurchWide Assembly).
People were engaged in the conversation, quoting snippets of speeches given by Bishop Hanson, Bishop Eaton, and Bishop Crist. No one was campaigning. No one was cutting others down. People were sharing words of hope as they heard them.
When Bishop Eaton was elected, Social Media erupted. (Well, I mean, for Lutherans). It was great to join in the celebration and the new thing that was happening. But I couldn’t help but feel a sense that we were missing the fullness of Bishop Eaton’s election. It’s not just about her being a woman. It’s not just a good day for my daughter.
Yes, my daughter will be born into a church where a woman can be bishop and where a woman, as of November, will be bishop. But I would be just as proud of my church if I was having a son. Because it would have been a good day for him too. And not because of our Bishop’s gender, but because of her faith, her fidelity to the gospel, and her call to listen, lead, and love the world that God so loved.
Yet it is a momentous occasion. She is the first, and that is to be appreciated. This moment is one that has been worked for through many years, and tears, and far too many conflicts. Bishop Eaton noted that men told her that she wasn’t as strident as the “other women” (I’m amazed she didn’t respond with an eyeroll, because I would have). She responded that she didn’t need to be strident because the women who went before her were trailblazers, making a path that she could more easily walk.
She hinted at a truth we far too easily ignore: we all stand on the shoulders of giants, both men and women, and we see into a world, into a church that they (those giants) may not get to see, a world that is evolving before our very eyes: first in Pittsburgh, then to Chicago, and Cleveland, and Minneapolis, and Austin, and New York, and Seattle, and Glyndon, and Fayetteville, and Spring Valley, and Ann Arbor, and Pietermaritzburg, and Ramallah, and Arusha, and Tokyo, and Cuernavaca, and to the ends of the earth.
This is an Acts 2 moment for the ELCA. It is also a moment of words becoming flesh, of conversation becoming action.
For all of our theologies around women and ordination, the church has moved from conversation into action, remembering the power of the incarnation when the word became flesh. The life of faith is more than an idea, more than words, it is the reality of something new breaking out upon us that serves God’s kingdom in and for this world.
And that’s why Bishop Eaton’s call was a good day for my daughter and a good day for all of us. We are a church that follows what it believes. It may take time and tears, but the courage that comes from faith can become action that is discerned in assembly. We saw it in 2009. We saw it again in 2013. What will we see and do next?
Praise be to God.