In January, 1990, The Persistent Voice began publication. At that time, just two years after the formation of the “New” Lutheran church in January of 1988, there were no women Lutheran bishops. Through the years, The Persistent Voice traced the progress not only of the full inclusion of women in public ministry but also towards the full partnership of women and men in the church. (PV Mission Statement for many years)
The ELCA saw a fulfillment of that mission statement August 14, 2013 at the biennial churchwide assembly with the presence together of Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson and Presiding Bishop Elect Elizabeth Eaton after her election and in their statements immediately following and when Bishop Hanson introduced Bishop Eaton at her news conference later that day.
Wartburg is represented at the churchwide assembly by President Stan Olson, faculty member Prof. Sam Giere and by a significant number of students who are voting members as well as by alumni and friends. President Olson immediately informed the Wartburg community electronically of the election: “Pr. Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, is the Presiding Bishop Elect for the ELCA. Let us give thanks for her servant leadership to come and give thanks for the servant leadership of Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson.”
Elected on the fifth ballot, Eaton received 600 votes, Hanson 287; 445 votes were needed of the 889 cast. Dr. Giere commented: “The final ballot went decidedly in her favor (approx. 2/3) It hasn’t gone unobserved among us at the seminary representatives’ table that the theme ‘Always Being Made New’ is being blown into reality by the Spirit. In her acceptance she acknowledged the witness and work of those women who came before her including in particular April Ulring Larson as the first female bishop in the ELCA. . . . It is important to note the image of the assembly’s work since the preparation for the third ballot when candidates began to address the gathering: three women and one man. Not to suggest that all things are equal in this church, but there is a profound symbolism in the final four candidates for presiding bishop standing together with the names Ann, Mark, Jessica, and Elizabeth. Last (for now) but not least, ELCA vice-president, Carlos Peña, announced the election of our new presiding bishop.”
Presiding Bishop Elect Elizabeth A. Eaton said, “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.”
Prior to becoming a bishop. Eaton served as pastor in Ohio. She has a M.Div. degree from Harvard Divinity School.
When The Persistent Voice began publishing in 1990, the ELCA was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA and predecessor bodies. Representational principles adopted at the time the ELCA began in 1988 (25 years ago) assured equal representation of women and men on boards and commissions and at synodical and churchwide assemblies, changing the nature of such gatherings tremendously. But the conference of bishops began as an all-male group.
Things had already changed at Wartburg Seminary. In the first issue of The Persistent Voice there was an article about Professor Elizabeth Leeper being installed as Assistant Professor of Church History, bringing the number of women professors at Wartburg to four (the other three being Norma Cook Everist, Anne Marie Neuchterlein, and Patti Jung), plus two more serving as instructors in biblical language (May Persaud and Cindy Smith).
Spring 1992 The Persistent Voice (PV): “Marie Jesper, 47-year-old minister in Hamburg, Germany has become the first woman ever elected a Lutheran bishop. When she was consecrated as spiritual leader of the 950,000 Lutherans who make up 60% of the population of Hamburg and more than 90% of the Protestants, she said, “I read and interpret the Bible with my experience as a woman. I want to be a sister among sisters and brothers.”
Summer 1992 PV: “Bishop-Elect April Ulring Larson will be installed October 11 in LaCrosse, WI, as bishop of the LaCrosse Area Synod of the ELCA. Rev. Larson, a 1977 graduate of Wartburg Seminary, was elected June 12 on the fifth ballot, the first woman elected bishop in the ELCA.” PV: “She will bring to the office a quiet wisdom, compassion and ability to listen. She has a strong commitment to justice and good skills in helping congregations resolve conflict.”
Summer 1995 PV: “The Rev. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl will be installed as bishop of the South Dakota Synod of the ELCA Sept. 24 on the campus of Augustana College. She was elected June 2 on the third ballot. In a phone interview she said, ‘God has worked such a miracle in my heart and life by this experience.’” Although she had been a candidate in Western North Dakota before, this was the first time South Dakota had a woman as a candidate. She is a 1977 graduate of Wartburg Seminary.
One might have thought the rate of change would then increase; however according to The Lutheran (August 2013) from 1988-2012, the total number of female bishops among all the 65 synods over the 25 years had been only 12.
Spring, 2008 PV covered the story of the election of Rev. Susan Johnson as the new National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), September 29, 2007, in Winnipeg. Because two of the five synodical bishops at that time were women, that brought the total to ½ male and ½ female. Bishop Johnson said in an interview with PV, “I think we take a fair amount of pride in that accomplishment. Does it mean we have conquered all gender issues? No, but it’s a visible witness to people that we are committed to full equality in the church.”
(One thing National Bishop Johnson and Bishop Eaton have in common, besides their gender? Susan was a high school music teacher before she entered seminary and Elizabeth’s undergraduate degree is in music education.)
At the press conference, following the churchwide election August 14 Bishop Hanson introduced Bishop Eaton as “My Colleague,” and Bishop Eaton said that all of Bishop Hanson’s work toward making the ELCA a more inclusive church had led to this moment of her election. She gave thanks for his leadership over the past 12 tumultuous years in the ELCA, referring in part to the 2009 churchwide decision on sexuality, noting also that no bishop resigned after that decision.
Bishop Eaton emphasized that the ELCA is a place where people hear the Gospel, “upon which we can all agree,” which has made this an inclusive church.
Ann Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked, “During your remarks you stated the importance of including the voices of those who had difficulty with 2009 decisions. How do you propose going about this?” Bp. Eaton: “This is one of the geniuses of the Lutheran movement—we thrive on paradox. As long as we agree on the cross of Christ, we can live together. If people believe they are being heard and there is a place for them, we will be OK.”
She was questioned by another reporter about the relationship going forward with the two break-away new Lutheran church groups. (NALC and LCMC) Bishop Eaton responded, “In baptism we are brothers and sisters in Christ,” but added that much work will need to be done before we can have a dialog because there has been much pain. “We will do what we can through God’s grace.”
With wisdom and wit, Bishop Eaton gave brief, clear answers to the questions of reporters both in the room in Pittsburgh and connected on the web. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune, who had covered the papal election, posed a question relating Eaton’s election to the election of the new pope in Rome, asking if she had a “room of tears” as the new pope had. Eaton said with a slight smile on her face, “Oh, this was just like that.” She went on, “We have nothing like that, no frescoes. I did weep at worship this morning.” The reporter had asked about her family. Bishop Eaton noted the presence of her husband, the Rev. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopalian priest, and spoke of their two daughters, now in their 20’s.
Asked what she thought the ELCA would look like in 5 or 6 years, she answered, “God only knows,” adding that we need to make space for those coming in while continuing to honor our heritage. She ended the press conference eloquently speaking about the need for the distinctive voice of the ELCA and Lutheranism in the current American religious landscape, not to be subsumed under Christian Protestantism or deism or the religion of popular culture, but a faith of the cross and resurrection in which true joy and freedom can be found.