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Utah pastor applauds as Lutherans elect first female presiding bishop

Published August 16, 2013 2:24 pm

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The nation's largest Lutheran denomination has made history by electing its first female presiding bishop, and a Utah pastor couldn't be more thrilled.

The elevation of the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton is another sign that "new winds are blowing" in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, according to the Rev. Jeffrey Louden, pastor of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Taylorsville.

"What does it mean for me as a 15-year Utahn?" Louden writes in an email. "That we have chosen the best candidate for interesting and challenging times, that at the highest levels of our church we embrace all people, that our ecumenical partners will have the pleasure (and if they don't ordain women or 'let' women be in positions of authority) and the challenge of working with a woman who is committed to a church which is inclusive and concerned about justice and mercy not only for people, but for the creation."

Louden is attending the historic ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, a city of many bridges where three major rivers merge. "Electing a woman as presiding bishop," he says, "is a bridge to people that did not exist before."

Eaton, bishop of the ELCA's Northeastern Ohio Synod, prevailed on the fifth ballot over the Rev. Mark Hanson, who has led the denomination for a dozen years.

Hanson, Louden notes, guided the ELCA through "some tumultuous years, including public acceptance of our gay and lesbian members."

"The sense of the assembly was that a new leader was needed for new challenges," Louden writes. "We didn't elect her because she was a woman, but because of her ability to lead."

Religion News Service writes that the ELCA voted in 2009 to allow openly gay clergy. Later, it elected its first gay bishop.

"It was a costly decision for our denomination," Eaton told RNS, one that prompted many conservatives to bolt in favor of a new denomination, the North American Lutheran Church.

"We are a church that is overwhelmingly European in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic," Eaton told the assembly soon after her election, according to a news release. "We need to welcome the gifts of those who come from different places, that is a conversation we need to have as a church."

The ELCA remains one of the nation's largest Christian denominations with more than 4 million members.

Louden says Eaton's election shows that perhaps members "should not be concerned with 'numbers' of Lutherans, but with the quality and substance of our witness."

The Utah cleric also trumpets another first at the Pittsburgh gathering: A Sikh spoke to the assembly, the first time a non-Abrahamic faith has done so.

To view Louden's photos from the assembly, go to this Facebook page.

The Salt Lake Tribune