Beliefs

Lutherans elect Elizabeth Eaton first female presiding bishop of ELCA

Elizabeth Eaton was elected presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

(RNS) The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Wednesday (Aug. 14) elected the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton as the denomination’s first female presiding bishop. Eaton received 600 votes against incumbent Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who received 287.

Eaton, the current ELCA bishop of the Cleveland-based Northeast Ohio Synod, is married to the Rev. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest. Like Hanson, she is considered a moderate who supported the denomination’s decision to allow partnered gay clergy while allowing room for churches to disagree, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

A native of Cleveland, she received a master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School.

Elizabeth Eaton was elected presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Elizabeth Eaton was elected presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Photo courtesy ELCA News Service

“We are a church that is overwhelmingly European in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic,” Eaton told the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh shortly after the election.

“We need to welcome the gifts of those who come from different places, that is a conversation we need to have as a church.”

The ELCA, which has lost members nearly every year since its founding in 1987, experienced a dramatic drop when it lost nearly half a million members in 2010 and 2011.

Hanson is credited with leading the nation’s largest Lutheran body — with more than 4 million members in 9,638 congregations — with a steady hand during turbulent times as the ELCA wrestled with the gay policy that Hanson favored but was hesitant to push on the larger church.

Even so, under his watch the Chicago-based ELCA saw a small but significant schism as conservatives upset with the decision to allow gay clergy defected to a new rival denomination, the North American Lutheran Church.

The election was a surprise to many, as Hanson was expected to win an unprecedented third term after 12 years in office. Hanson was the third presiding bishop in the denomination’s history; three of four finalists for the position were women.

(RNS) The Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, delivers a sermon at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. Religion News Service file photo courtesy of ELCA News Service.

(RNS) The Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, delivers a sermon at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. Religion News Service file photo courtesy of ELCA News Service.

“When I stood before you 12 years ago, I told you this is not an election won, this is a call received. And now this call has been extended to Bishop Eaton,” Hanson said at the assembly. “This is a humble and a holy privilege to serve the gospel as the pastor of this whole church.”

In June, Lutherans in Los Angeles elected the ELCA’s first openly gay bishop, four years after the denomination voted to allow openly gay men and lesbians to serve as clergy.

Eaton joins Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who in 2006 became the first woman to lead a church in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The two churches share a full communion agreement that allows shared clergy and joint ministry.

Eaton will serve a six-year term beginning Nov. 1.

About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.

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