UPDATE: August 15 5:00 am
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has a new leader. Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the Northeast Ohio Synod was elected as Presiding Bishop of the ELCA at the church's national conference in Pittsburgh. Bishop Eaton was elected on the fifth ballot with 600 votes compared to 287 for Bishop Mark Hanson who has led the ELCA for the last 12 years.
Rev. Eaton, who becomes the first woman to lead the ELCA, addressed the issue of inclusion in her remarks to the assembly following her election. “We are a church that is overwhelmingly European in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic. We need to welcome the gifts of those who come from different places, that is a conversation we need to have as a church.”
As the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) continues its gathering in Pittsburgh this week, some members are addressing concerns regarding full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer members.
Issues include understanding transgender people and same-sex marriage and families. For some, full inclusion is a biblical imperative, as cited by scripture. One example can be found in a passage in Isaiah which states, “All are welcome to the blessings of salvation.”
“It is important that when a church says that all are welcome, that it doesn’t have an asterisk next to it that says, ‘except these people down here,’ because that’s not what Christ says,” said Phil Soucy, spokesman for Reconciling Works, an advocacy group working for full inclusion within the ELCA.
The church as a whole has been in a years-long transition toward more openness. In 2009, the ELCA voted to allow openly gay men and lesbians to serve as clergy. This year, Guy Erwin was the first openly gay man elected as Bishop of the Southwest California Synod. The decision to allow gay and lesbian clergy led to a drop in congregations within the ELCA.
“Overall, there was in that year some loss both of congregations and of membership in the national church,” said bishop-elect Erwin. “That is actually the case for most of the mainline denominations. Ours might have been a little stronger that year, but it’s part of a general trend. I don’t think it’s exclusively because of that decision.”
The offshoot group the North American Lutheran Church was formed following ELCA’s decision. The group said the ELCA “abandoned biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality.”
The gathering of the ELCA in Pittsburgh, which wraps up Saturday, includes the election of a presiding bishop. After several ballot attempts, the incumbent, presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, had not received the needed votes.
In the third ballot, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of Cleveland moved into first place. She is considered more of a centrist and has said those within the ELCA who oppose gay and lesbian clergy should have a role in the church.
Still, Erwin said he’s not sure whether her election would change anything in terms of inclusiveness.
“I don’t know how she really feels about all these things, but I don’t think you should confuse the fact that she’s trying to hit a conciliatory tone in her address to the assembly with the idea that there’s any kind of intention to change the policies as they’ve been established,” Erwin said.
Reconciling Works will ask the assembly to approve resolutions including asking the church to support immigration reform that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, support a fully-inclusive employment non-discrimination act that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, and asking the church to open dialogs about resource material and best practices so that pastors and congregations who want to minister to same-sex couples can do so.
“For us, the most important thing is that the message of God is love,” Erwin said, “and we don’t feel that we need to prove that God loves us or that we love God by condemning the behavior of other people.”