Religiously, my childhood was an interesting one. I both did and did not grow up in the church. Raised Catholic, my parents eventually made the decision that the Catholic church wasn’t for us before I was confirmed. I don’t know why the decision was made and I never asked, but later in my life, I turned to different churches due to an inherent curiosity about religion and spirituality.
Eventually, I found a Presbyterian church that I really liked and attended there for a while. Soon after, the musical director of the church came out as gay. This wasn’t a big deal to me, but it was to the church leaders. They asked him to step down from his position as musical director, saying that it was inappropriate for him to keep a leadership position because of his sexuality. I never went back to that church again, and decided I wouldn’t go back to any church until the highest of leaders could figure out the whole “love thy neighbor” thing and accept everyone into their congregation, no matter what.
It turns out that I am not alone. One of the most dividing issues in all Christian churches right now is the issue of sexuality. Many LGBTQ parishioners are craving the acceptance of their faith-based organizations, and many others are fighting for the acceptance of their peers.
Last week, the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church of America — the largest Lutheran denomination in the nation — took a step in the right direction for both LGBTQ individuals and women when it elected its first woman leader. Northeast Ohio Bishop Elizabeth Eaton defeated Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. Hanson had held his position since 2001, but Eaton, a moderate leader who supported the denomination’s 2009 decision to ordain openly gay clergy but allowed room for individual churches to disagree, adds a diverse voice to the church leadership that many members are looking for.
In fact, the ELCA has seen a steady decline in membership from 1987 and has lost nearly 500,000 members in 2010 and 2011 alone. Many believe this declining membership to be a reflection of the fact that church leaders are mostly old, white, male and straight and, therefore, members do not feel their views and values are being recognized by church leadership. Eaton’s election is a historical and important one, not only because she is the first woman leader elected, but because she adds a more diverse voice to the church leadership.
At the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh after the election, 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.”
Though the other bishops didn’t necessarily agree with her election, not one of them resigned in protest, a fact that made Eaton “proud.” The defeated Hanson was also gracious in his loss, saying, “When I stood before you 12 years ago, I told you this is not an election won, this is a call received. And now this call has been extended to Bishop Eaton.”
It will be interesting to see how the ELCA moves forward from here with Eaton among the leaders of the pack. I can only hope that we will begin to see more movement toward tolerance and acceptance of women and LGBTQ church members as the ELCA sets an example for other faiths.
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Photo Credit: Phillie Casablanca
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