The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) elected Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA’s bishop for the Northeastern Ohio Synod, as the denomination’s first female presiding bishop on August 14, 2013. Despite Eaton’s professed desire to unite Lutherans divided over contentious issues such as homosexuality, however, analysis and evidence indicate that her historic election has little chance of altering the “liberal-leaning” ELCA’s ongoing woes.
Eaton paid homage to the first women ordained in the ELCA after her election during the first part of Plenary Session Five (video here) during the 2013 Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center. She recounted how, as a lone female pastor amidst male clergy, she often received the comment that “you don’t seem to be strident like the other women.” She would respond, “I don’t have to be because they were the pioneers who made it possible for me.”
Looking forwards during her convention statements before the final ballot, Eaton had worried about losing a “distinctive Lutheran voice” amidst America’s “sometimes cacophonous culture.” In particular, a “good ecumenical partner” needed to be “absolutely clear” about its “denominational identity and heritage.” For the ELCA, Eaton sought a “coherent and cohesive way” of church existence.
Eaton emphasized ELCA unity in light of ongoing membership loss, particularly after a half million conservative exodus following 2009 decisions on case-by-case congregational approval of homosexual unions and clergy. “We are stronger together than we are apart,” Eaton stated. Despite deep divides over human sexuality, Eaton wanted wide-ranging “inclusion for everyone, because we all agree on the cross.” Recurring to these recent divisions during her acceptance speech, Eaton thanked her predecessor, Mark Hanson, for his leadership during “12 of the most tumultuous years of our history” in the ELCA.
Further analyzing ELCA membership during her acceptance speech, Eaton worried that her fellow Lutherans “do not reflect the vision and revelation of all nations and tribes and tongues streaming to the throne of the Lamb.” “We are an overwhelming European, American church in a culture that is increasingly becoming more pluralistic.” Yet Christianity had an important message that a “cruciform shape of service and suffering…is actually the only way to true joy.”
Eaton elaborated on many of these themes during a press conference shortly after her election (video here). She described her election as a “huge change” and something that seemed to be “all a dream.” Eaton credited much of her success to Hanson, with her at the press conference, because “it has been his passion and his work that makes this an inclusive church.”
Eaton described Lutherans believing in a “theology of the cross which flies in the face of the theology of glory” at times exhibited by an “almost deist culture” in America. This culture presented a “siren song” of “name and claim it, health and wealth, you believe in Jesus, your life is going to be perfect.” In contrast, Eaton discerned “true joy and freedom…in obedience to the Gospel and in suffering shown to us by our Lord on the cross.”
Questions kept returning to ongoing controversies concerning ELCA’s recent 2009 affirmations of homosexuality. Discussing the ELCA breakaway congregations that formed the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) and the Lutheran Church in Mission to Christ (LCMC), Eaton described the “manner in which these denominations were formed” as “extremely painful to our church.” Nonetheless, “in baptism we are brothers and sisters in Christ and we do claim the same Lutheran heritage.” With a “lot of work” mutually from ELCA, NALC, and LCMC, they could “come to a place” of “open and civil dialogue.” Speaking again of Hanson, Eaton likewise praised that “you kept us together” with “12 courageous years of leadership” during “one of the most tumultuous” periods “in our brief 25 year history.”
Withstanding disagreements was for Eaton “one of the geniuses of the Lutheran movement.” The Lutheran Church “not only lives in paradox, but also thrives on paradox…as long as we agree on the cross of Christ.” Defining controversies over human sexuality in Lutheran terms as “part of God’s left hand kingdom” of secular matters as opposed to the “right hand” realm of spiritual affairs, Eaton argued that Lutherans are “not defined by that one single issue.”
Conservatives could and would stay in the ELCA so long as “they believe they are being heard and there is a place for them.” “We will stick together to have this conversation.” “What’s important, I think,” Eaton stated in contemplating ELCA’s future, “for all of us is to be flexible.”
In response to my question about tension between Eaton’s desire to reach out to non-white groups and sexual controversies, Eaton felt that the ELCA had “weathered that very well.” While “some communities…are conservative, politically and theologically, on that issue,” people “want a place where they hear the Gospel…where they hear that they are valued,” and “they have been made new in Jesus Christ.” Eaton reported “strong growth” of the ELCA among African-American and other minority communities.
Eaton’s emphasis on inclusion appeared earlier in her August 25, 2009, letter written while she was Northeastern Ohio Synod bishop days after the ELCA approved its new homosexuality policies in the 2009 Churchwide Assembly. These policies “were a shock to the system no matter” if people were “completely opposed to” or “completely in favor of” the policies. Eaton had “strongly encourage[d]…a breathing period” with “no action to leave the ELCA.” Eaton had emphasized that opponents of these homosexuality policies “will not be regarded as anything less than faithful, valuable partners in the gospel.”
At the Churchwide Assembly, ELCA pastor Rev. W. Stevens Shipman was “very encouraged” by Eaton’s statements “to reach out to dissenters” within ELCA. As executive director of the evangelical Lutheran revival movement Lutheran CORE, Shipman stood ready to “offer the resources of Lutheran CORE to help” Eaton.
Like the Episcopal Church, ELCA now has its first female presiding bishop and also its first non-celibate homosexual bishop in the form of Guy Erwin, elected bishop of ELCA’s Southwest California Synod on June 1, 2013. Indeed, the similarly declining Episcopal Church in which Eaton’s husband, Rev. Conrad Selnick, serves, has a full communion agreement with ELCA allowing for joint ministry and shared clergy.
Addressing the assembly during part one of Plenary Session Seven (video here) the day following Eaton’s election, though, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori seemed to show little of Eaton’s conciliation or worries. For Schori, the “inclusion of all human beings” by the Episcopal Church’s policies on homosexuality “reminded us that God is always at work.” While “some have passed judgment on our smaller numbers as faithlessness,” Schori thought that this might “actually be the way the Spirit prunes us for greater fruitfulness.” “If we can see ourselves standing at the foot of the cross,” Schori summarized, “judgment will be far less important than our response.” Schori nonetheless looked forward to “further growth as we seek to serve God’s mission…particularly in new contexts and populations.”
Doubtless there are many in ELCA who, like Schori, think that embracing homosexuality and other liberal innovations are the work of the Lord, something to be pursued no matter the opposition. Yet even Eaton’s conciliatory desires cannot overcome fundamental divisions of Biblical and moral principles. Despite the difference in Eaton’s tone from Schori’s, substantially similar policies under both female bishops will effect the same diminishment of their denominations.