Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was defeated yesterday in his bid for re-election. In his place, the ELCA has elected its first female presiding bishop: Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Northeastern Ohio Synod.

The election went to a fifth ballot, the ELCA notes , where Bishop Eaton received 600 votes to Bishop Hanson’s 287. Sarah Pulliam Bailey notes at Religion News Service that the election of Bishop Eaton was something of an upset: “The election was a surprise to many,” she writes, “as Hanson was expected to win an unprecedented third term after 12 years in office.” Before becoming Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, Rev. Eaton served as the pastor of Ohio congregations. She is married to Rev. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette  suggests both Bishop Eaton and Bishop Hanson are considered “centrists” in the ELCA. It noted that while Bishop Eaton “supported the decision to allow local options on partnered gay clergy,” she further expressed the opinion that “being an inclusive church meant respecting those who had a different understanding of Scripture and doctrine.” “These people also have voice in this church,” she said. “We need to make room for those who do not agree with us, but agree with our claim upon the cross.”

90.5 WESA (Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station)  adds some context from Bishop Guy Erwin, the man who became, earlier this year, the first openly gay person to be elected a bishop in the ELCA. He suggested Bishop Eaton’s election signals no change from the ELCA’s current stance (that same-sex pastors and marriages are a matter of “bound conscience” at the local congregational level). “I don’t know how she really feels about all these things,” he said, “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.”

The 2009 Churchwide Assembly saw the ELCA narrowly vote to allow the ordination of non-celibate gay pastors and the blessing of same-sex marriages. That decision led to a massive decline in ELCA membership  over the next two years, with critics contending the ELCA had abandoned the Scripture’s clear witness on human sexuality.

The 2013 Churchwide Assembly is taking place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from August 12-17.

Photo: ELCA News Service

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