The recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh was historic in many ways. Most noted in the larger culture was the election of Rev. Elizabeth Eaton as Presiding Bishop-elect of the ELCA. Too many news outlets wrote of it in the only terms they understood–as an election, a contest with winners and losers.
They don’t understand Church, and they don’t know Mark Hanson or Liz Eaton.
From the perspective of a reporter covering an election, the events in Pittsburgh were interesting to say the least–a presumed front-runner receives a smaller portion of the initial vote than most anticipated, and his number of votes continues to dwindle. A candidate further back in the “pack” continues to grow in support, until she “wins” and the incumbent is “defeated.”
For those of us who attended, however, and who are oriented toward the movement of the Spirit through ecclesiastical ballots, this was not a contest, and it wasn’t about winners and losers. No one framed that better than Bishop Hanson himself, who spoke of the honor and joy of serving in what he has called “the best call in the ELCA” for 12 years–12 often tumultuous, difficult years. He also spoke of the Spirit’s work in the call of Bishop Eaton, and she used similar language in speaking of what happened. Both exhibited great grace and the kind of solid leadership with which the ELCA has been blessed throughout its 25 years.
Some who watched the live streaming spoke of not understanding what was happening in the process. To be there at the assembly, though, was to perceive something tangible in the unfolding of events–a true sense that the Spirit was moving and calling us to a new day, a new direction and a new presiding bishop. That is definitely NOT to say that the assembly in any way rejected the leadership of Bishop Hanson. The persistent and nearly unanimous expressions of appreciation, support and congratulations for him were warm, frequent and sincere. No one who attended the assembly as a voting member would have said that Bishop Hanson was “defeated.”
So what does this mean for the ELCA? In truth, it’s way too soon to tell. I think we saw over the course of the election and in comments afterward the kind of leader Bishop-elect Eaton is likely to be. She speaks directly, passionately and with a keen wit. She values the unique contribution of the Lutheran Confessions to the Church as a whole, and sees preserving that heritage as an important element of being a good and true partner in ecumenical and even interfaith efforts. She has called attention to those whose “bound conscience” puts them squarely in disagreement with some of the decisions and actions of the ELCA as a whole, and has called us as a church to be mindful that, as in this election, there are no “winners and losers” in decisions of the church–only redeemed sinners who occasionally disagree, sometimes quite passionately. I am guessing that people who have felt the ELCA has become too “liberal” will find hers a more “moderate” voice, as unhelpful as those labels usually are.
I have no particular insight into Bishop-elect Eaton’s intentions, but I would be very surprised if there are any sudden or drastic changes within the ELCA. She is a thoughtful, intentional leader, and I believe changes in priorities, programs or personnel (most of which aren’t solely the prerogative of the Presiding Bishop) will be unrushed, thoroughly vetted and well-communicated.
Personally, I can tell you that Liz Eaton is “good people.” She is witty, honest, fun, thoughtful, self-deprecating and respectful. When you have the opportunity to meet her (and we will be getting her into the Nebraska Synod as soon as her schedule permits!), you will enjoy her.
More thoughts on the Churchwide Assembly are for another entry. For now, let it be enough to say that we are blessed to be part of an effective, Spirited and graciously imperfect church. Our leaders have consistently reflected that reality, and continue to. Please keep Bishop Hanson and Bishop-elect Eaton in your prayers.