Wineke: Lutherans elect female bishop

No one seems to have noticed the Lutheran body's new leader is a woman

A few years ago, this would have been front-page news on every paper in the country.

The nation's largest Lutheran body, the 4.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, elected an Ohio church leader, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, as its presiding bishop.

She replaced the Rev. Mark Hanson, who was seeking a third term, by a vote of 600 to 287.

One reason this may not have made the news is that few expected the development. Eaton, like Hanson, is considered a theological moderate. Each of them supported the denomination's decision to accept gay and lesbian pastors a few years ago. If there was widespread anger at Hanson's leadership, it didn't make national news.

For any number of reasons, however, this is a big deal.

As it turns out, I was at the 1970 convention of the American Lutheran Church, or TALC, when that denomination -- which is now part of the ELCA -- voted to ordain women as pastors.

It was a highly controversial decision, so much so that my newspaper sent me to Texas to cover it. Lutherans, by and large, are not considered to be theologically liberal. The year before the TALC convention in San Antonio, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod deposed its president, the Rev. Oliver Harms, because delegates thought he didn't take the Bible literally enough. A couple of years later, a Missouri Synod convention voted to affirm that Adam and Eve were historical figures and that Jonah was literally swallowed by a great fish.

Needless to say, the Missouri Synod did not vote to accept woman pastors.

But TALC did. Its future partner in the ELCA, the Lutheran Church in America, also did.

Now, the Lutherans weren't groundbreakers in this regard. Quakers have had female leaders since the early 19th century. The Congregational Church, which is now part of the United Church of Christ, ordained its first female pastor in 1853. Methodists have had female pastors since at least the 1930s and can actually trace the history considerably further back than that.

But Lutherans are conservative and they are biblical, and they have some trouble believing that if God wanted women to be ordained, Martin Luther would have ordained them.

That the nation's largest Lutheran body would elect -- by a 2 to 1 margin -- a woman as presiding bishop says a lot. That the woman they elected is someone with virtually no national visibility says even more.

At least, to me, what it says is that if the Lutherans think a woman can be trusted with their highest office, then the issue for the church is resolved. There will still be arguments and skirmishes, but time is on the side of equality.

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