Of course. People were gathering for “Holy Communion with the Installation of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” Elizabeth A. Eaton, in Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago. Oct. 5, 2013, was a historic day but it felt more like a joyful, “Of course.”
As the magnificent organ swelled with Bach and Britten, hundreds came on line to watch the live video. A bagpiper played “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” while the ELCA Church Council, bishops, ecumenical and global partners processed. Paris Brown sang Dottie Rambo’s gospel favorite, “I Go to the Rock.”
The bells of the great chapel pealed. The time was now. Choirs, many singers from Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill., grand piano and drums, everyone sang, “Come, all you people, come … .” The Lutheran church is a global church.
Then still Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson welcomed those in the chapel and online in the name of Christ and said, “We have come together from many places to mark a new season of ministry in the life of this church … Let us enter this celebration confident that through the Holy Spirit, Christ is present with us now, as we pray that this servant may fulfill God’s purpose in her life and in her ministry among the whole people of God.”
I have been invited to write this reflection in personal historical context. Many stories came together on this one day. I invite you to reflect on your own.
I heard those churchwide words of welcome and remembered my pastor saying one day in confirmation class when I as a youth was new to the Lutheran church, “Of course women cannot be pastors,” adding in a hushed tone, “They have babies.” But that same pastor helped me go to college.
Less than a decade after that first “of course,” while attending Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, one of two women among 800 men, I heard from my homiletics professor, “Of course you cannot preach. You are a woman. Your assignment will be an ‘inspirational address’.” But I did receive an “A” in the course (before The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod turned radically to the “right” theologically) and graduated with a Master of Arts in religion in 1964. I served in deaconess ministry in St. Louis, and then for over a dozen years with our family in inner city ministry in Detroit (I preached one day at Concordia College, Ann Arbor — while pregnant) and New Haven, Conn. The degree provided a Lutheran foundation for later pursuing a Masters of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, (and still later a Ph.D.) and an invitation to teach at Yale.
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s we were exiled from the The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod over issues of more open interpretation of Scripture and more inclusive mission and ministry. Although I served on the board of Seminex, I heard an implied “of course just some of us are free,” when told in regards to women’s ordination, “Can’t you wait a few more years?”
The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America had begun ordaining women in 1970 and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches would follow a few years later. Women kept responding to God’s call, even when churches through the ages said, “Can’t you wait a few more years, decades, centuries?”
There were all kinds of fears and barriers in the 1970s in reaction to women being ordained as pastors in Lutheran and other church bodies: “Jesus was a man; women cannot represent Jesus.” “If we ordain women, all the men will leave the church.” “What will happen to your children?” (They turned out fine, thank you.) “These women are Communists.”
Of course there were fears, but they were unfounded. Women did not want to take over the church or push out men. Women’s goal was inclusion and partnership, not hierarchical power.
On Oct. 5, 2013, with the welcoming words of Bishop Mark Hanson and the entire ELCA, with brass horns, a procession with candles and cross made its way up the center aisle to welcome Bishop Elizabeth Eaton at the door of the chapel. Red banner ribbons furled overhead. Signers were singing. Everyone proclaimed, “Christ is made the sure foundation.” I saw historian Martin Marty’s face in the crowd.
Vice President Rodney Sprang and Secretary John Sleasman of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA said, “We bring before you the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton who has served among us faithfully as our bishop, chief pastor, and sister in Christ … we send her forth to serve as the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” There were tears in my eyes.
In Thanksgiving for Baptism we were reminded as sisters and brothers, “God frees us from the bondage of sin, unites us together as one body, and calls us forth to new life and mission in the world.” To the Canticle of Praise, Elizabeth was led into the chapel as the assembly was sprinkled with baptismal waters by Presiding Minister Mark Hanson, Preacher Jessica Crist and Assisting Minister Yolanda Tanner, vice-president of the ELCA Delaware-Maryland Synod.
The First Lesson, Isaiah 42:5-9, was read by Rev. Chienyu Jade Li in Chinese: “I have given you as a covenant to the people … To bring out from the prison those who sit in darkness …”
The soloist led in chanting Psalm 121, “My help comes from the Lord.”
Of course, of course.
“The lord will watch over you … from this time forth forever more.”
The Second Lesson, 2 Corinthians 4:1-12 was read by Dina Tannous Vega in Arabic. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart …”
In the Gospel procession and acclamation, “Halle, Halle, Hallelujah,” global women’s voices sang, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.”
Of course, of course.
Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest and husband of Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, read the Gospel, Mark 4:1-9.
Of course. Ecumenical partner and marriage partner, he represented ecumenical and full communion guests and family of Bishop Eaton this day as he also served communion.
At my ordination in 1977 in the chapel of Yale Divinity School, a very ecumenical setting, my husband, Burton Everist, a pastor, preached. Various people from all three predecessor bodies of the ELCA had tried to stop or impede my ordination. Roger Fjeld of the American Lutheran Church prevailed and presided at the ordination rite.
Just a few years before, July 29, 1974, Burton and I had attended the service where 11 women were “irregularly” ordained priests in The Episcopal Church in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, with 2,000 in attendance. The ordinations were considered “invalid,” but one of the four bishops who participated said the ordination event “stands as a prophetic witness on behalf of and for the oppressed.” The service was interrupted by those who stood in opposition.
One of those 11 women participated in solidarity at my ordination at Yale three years later.
Two years after that Wartburg Seminary called me as a professor, first among the three American Lutheran Church seminaries to take the risk of calling a woman. In 1979, although one by one women were becoming pastors, other people were still using the Bible to claim that women could not be teaching theologians over men and could not assume any headship role because Eve had tempted Adam into sin and, “It is clear in the Bible that women can never rule or lead.” And, “We cannot use ‘inclusive language’ because God is male.” Of course!
But one young woman at the 1979 fall Warburg alumni convocation came up to me after I spoke and said, “I’ve been waiting years for you to come.” Her name was Andrea DeGroot Nesdahl. Now, 35 years later, I continue to teach at Wartburg Seminary. Challenges remain for us all to be the church God is calling us to be.
This October in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, Jessica Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod, chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, preached. “A sower went out to sow.” She said this simple story could be modified, amplified, contextualized, but added that all were here today because someone sowed seeds. “Look at the plants that have grown.” She told the assembly that the impediments to success didn’t bother Jesus. She challenged, “You may be tired of rocky soil.” “You may be frustrated by thorns that accompany your every effort. What’s with it with those thorns? Why is there evil? Pain? Just keep on sowing. Does it seem birds keep eating seeds? Your words are twisted? Just keep on sowing. What matters is that we sow.”
And Crist added, that “We do not sow alone. We are part of a community. We are here to install, to sow in a wider field. Each is empowered. Each is sent. Go sow.”
The ELCA has come far since its beginning in 1988. Look at all the plants that have grown.
Representational principles adopted at the time, addressing representation of laity and people of color and whose first language was other than English, assured equal representation of women and men on boards and commissions and at synodical and churchwide assemblies. Beyond the more threatening token stage, overnight our ELCA gatherings looked, well, normal, just as God created us to be together.
But the Conference of Bishops began as an all-male group. I happened to be one of three teaching theologians to address the first Conference of Bishops meeting in 1988 and I told them it was not healthy, (perhaps I said “dangerous”) for the church and themselves that there were no women among them. I said other things, of course, about leadership as partnership, and about the liberation of men as well as women and about all the baptized being called out for vocation in the public world. At the time, there were worries that women might gain too much power. Whenever two of three of us sat together, almost always a man would come up and say, “We’ll have to break this up.” There were fears about “letting all ofthose people in” to change things and make decisions. But what was the fear? Inclusivity was not about breaking things, even “stained-glass ceilings,” but about new, healthy ways of being partners together. That’s why I was so pleased to see the September 2013 issue of The Lutheran magazine, with male and female bishops Mark Hanson and Elizabeth Eaton hand in hand.
Full partnership would come slowly, but it would come.
In the spring of 1992, Maria Jesper, minister in Hamburg, Germany, become the first woman elected a Lutheran bishop.
April Ulring Larson was installed Oct. 11, 1992, in La Crosse, Wis., as bishop of the La Crosse Area Synod of the ELCA. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl became the second woman elected an ELCA bishop, serving the South Dakota Synod.
Susan Johnson was elected the national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada on Sept. 29, 2007, in Winnipeg. This past weekend she was among the global and ecumenical partners who came forth to lead in saying the Nicene Creed together and to lay on hands at the installation of the fourth bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton: Lutheran churches of Canada, Nicaragua, Sweden, South Africa, the United Church of Christ, Moravian, Reformed, United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Church of Christ, Thailand, and The Lutheran World Federation.
“We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church …”
“Elizabeth Amy Eaton has been elected and called by the church, for installation into the office of presiding bishop.”
No objections voiced. No interruptions to the service. Nothing called irregular or invalid. No impediments. Historically speaking, this was much more than, “Of course.”
After biblical words from John, Matthew, Acts and 2nd Timothy, Elizabeth was asked, “To you is being given the care of the bishops, pastors, deaconesses, diaconal ministers and associates in ministry; the synods, congregations and other communities of this church. I ask you in the presence of God and of this assembly: Will you assume the office of presiding bishop?”
Elizabeth A. Easton responded: “I will, and I ask God to help me.”
More questions of her and then of us: “People of God, will you receive Elizabeth as a servant of God and a shepherd in the church of Jesus Christ?”
“We will.” The assembly joined in the Prayer of Thanksgiving to God: “By your Holy Spirit you sustain the church … Strengthen and sustain your bishop Elizabeth with patience and understanding … Pour out your grace that she may love and care for your people and teach the faith… .”
And after hearing, “The office of presiding bishop is now committed to you,” all were invited to extend their hands in blessing. People across the miles extended their hands too, some with tears in their eyes, seeing what few could have imagined not many years before but that which the Spirit had been guiding all along. Women had been there all along, from the time of the empty tomb, even if at first, their words were not believed.
The Prayers of Intercession were in many languages. It was clear we are a global church. Bishop Eaton was presented a cross: “Remember to rekindle the gift of God that is within you … .” Acclamation. Applause. Smiles! She shared the peace, “La paz de Cristo sea siempre con ustedes.”
And then, “Let us go now to the Banquet.”
Bishop Eaton and Assisting Minister Tanner were at the altar. We had always been so careful to not have two women at the altar together, but today it was just fine. Sure, most of the bishops are still men. But women and men served communion together today. Phyllis Anderson, the first and only ELCA woman seminary president represented them. There was Beth Lewis and Kalleb Miler and Karin Graddy and Carlos Pena, and more. The oldest and newest ELCA congregations were represented.
We need not be a danger to each other. “Taste and See, Taste and See That the Lord is Good” sang Larry Clark and Paris Brown.
After all had been fed, the assembly broke into “Blessed Assurance,” the old, old song with a new beat with clapping, and people swaying, even at the altar — not too much of course. “This is my story, this is my song.”
The Sending blessing was in Spanish, “The God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus … .”
In just short of two hours, in full voice, the assembly went forth. God calls us out for vocation in the public world again. The recession was long, the Church Council, the bishops filing out from their pews two-by-two, many leaders together, not just one up front, to the music of the bagpipe’s “Highland Cathedral.” As newly installed ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton left at the last, smiling, looking calm and confident, people waved. Applause. Full organ. “Now Thank We All Our God.” Of course!