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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America installs new presiding bishop

By David Skidmore
[Episcopal News Service]  Against a musical backdrop of handbells, a guitarist, a brass ensemble, and a 40-voice choir, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) installed its new presiding bishop, the Rev. Mark Hanson, during a festive and historic liturgy October 6. Over 1,300 people nearly filled the massive Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago to witness the service installing the church's third presiding bishop since its formation in 1988.

Hanson, 54-years-old who was elected to a six-year term at ELCA's August Churchwide Assembly, will assume office November 1. The former bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod succeeds Bishop H. George Anderson.

The three-hour service marked another milestone in the full communion agreement between the ELCA and Episcopal Church. Called to Common Mission (CCM), inaugurated at the Feast of Epiphany last January at Washington National Cathedral, calls for at least three bishops in the historic episcopate to participate in all future installations of ELCA bishops, including its presiding bishop.

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold helped to put this pledge into practice by joining five Lutheran bishops, the presiding bishop of the Moravian Church and leaders of the Reformed churches in the laying on of hands during the installation rite, the first time an ELCA presiding bishop has been installed into the historic episcopate.

Reflecting the ELCA's connection to the Lutheran World Federation, the five installing Lutheran bishops came from Africa, Asia, Europe and Central America. They included Bishop Medardo Gomez Soto of El Salvador; Bishop Owdenburg Mdegella of Tanzania; Bishop Ambrose Moyo of Zimbabwe; Bishop Julius Paul of Malaysia; and Bishop Maria Jepsen of Hamburg in Germany. Jepsen was the only one of the five installing Lutheran bishops not in the historic episcopate.

Joining in the laying on of hands were the leaders of the Moravian Church and the three Reformed churches which are in full communion with the ELCA: the Rt. Rev. Kay Ward of the Moravian Church in America; the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America; the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA); and the Rev. John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ.

More energy on mission

In her sermon, the Rev. Heidi Neumark, pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, acknowledged the tensions in the ELCA over the historic episcopate, arguing that the energy would be better focused on mission in keeping with the day's reading from Isaiah.

'There is debate in some quarters about what we do with our hands, whose hands go on whose head,' said Neumark. 'Be that as it may, Isaiah directs our attention to the feet. Church, I think that people just might be watching the apostolic succession of our feet.' In an aside to Hanson, she said, 'Mark, people will be watching your feet, where you walk, where you visit, where you lead and where you allow yourself to be led.'

That path, she challenged Hanson, should be one that leads to the poor and powerless. The outpouring of relief in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks needs to extend to other wastelands in America and around the world, she said. 'See how Jesus came and how he comes. He came in the shape of your own vulnerability,' said Neumark. 'Remember that Jesus stayed and stays close to the dust, making connections with those whom others brushed aside.'

She recalled talking with a Catholic priest who worked with her in community organizing in the South Bronx. 'He spent Tuesday night at Ground Zero performing a gruesome liturgy, blessing body parts, piece after piece for eight hours,' she said. 'He told me he hasn't slept well since. No wonder.'

As horrified as the nation is at the news of dismembered bodies, we have forgotten an equal horror, 'the dismembering of our human family and even the very body of Christ by race and class and gender division,' she added.

Working toward communities of peace

The terrorist attacks also dominated Hanson's remarks at a press conference October 5 at the diocesan church center in Chicago, where he spoke of the church's response and how people's faith has been reawakened.

'Folks are turning to communities of faith for a word of hope, a word of encouragement,' he said, noting that attendance has surged at all churches. 'We want to be attendant to the moment, believing that God is not abandoning God's creation, but calling God's people to be witnesses to God's mercy, justice and peace.'

The church also has a responsibility to stand with other faiths against intolerance, 'and not turn our rage and our outrage toward the new immigrants in our land, but to work together to build communities of peace,' he said.

Fully committed to full communion

Hanson also acknowledged the tension created last August by the ELCA's approval of an exception to the requirement in the CCM agreement that bishops preside at all ordinations of Lutheran pastors. The bylaw amendment, approved by an eight-vote margin at the Churchwide Assembly, allows a synodical bishop 'for pastoral reasons in unusual circumstances' to permit a pastor to ordain an approved candidate, subject to approval by the presiding bishop and after consultation with the candidate's bishop and synodical council.

In a statement released after the vote, Griswold said the action appeared to be 'a unilateral alteration' of the mutual commitment made by both churches in entering into full communion.

The bylaw, said Hanson, has helped preserve the unity of the ELCA, though it has raised concerns among the ELCA's ecumenical partners. 'I know it has created stress for some of our Episcopal sisters and brothers. It has raised the question 'Can the ELCA be trusted in the integrity of its commitment to these agreements,'' he acknowledged.

But the ELCA will be better partners because of that vote, he stressed. Any additional changes are unlikely, he added. 'We will not take, I don't believe, additional steps, and can't in the context of Called to Common Mission, and still have it stand with integrity. We can't go farther than that. We have gone as far as we can.'

Hanson said he knows of no requests for implementing the bylaw exception, and believes that chances for it being put in play are minimal. Just having it available has defused the issue somewhat, he said.

Hanson also expressed his appreciation for the Episcopal Church's patience during the debate within the ELCA and now as the church lives into full communion. 'We are very committed to this relationship and I hope the Episcopal Church hears that,' he said.

Concern over bylaw change

For Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal Church, the installation was 'an important step' in implementing the full communion agreement. But it did not mark the finish line. 'It is still living into it,' he said, noting that in October and November 16 ELCA synodical bishops will be installed into the historic episcopate, and most of these services will include participation by Episcopal diocesan bishops.

While pleased that the ELCA now recognizes the importance of the historic episcopate--a fundamental Anglican principle enshrined in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral--he is concerned about how the bylaw change will be implemented. 'If it is used frequently I expect the next General Convention to decide whether we are in full communion or not. Our concern is how often it will be implemented.' Reassured by the message from the ELCA leadership that ordination by pastors will be a rare occurrence, he said that it may end up as 'one of the anomalies that will have to be tolerated.'

While ELCA opponents to CCM--mainly the Word Alone Network--have talked about another amendment diluting references to the historic episcopate, Epting doubts the ELCA leadership and majority of delegates would give this serious consideration, realizing that such a move would likely be 'a dealbreaker,' said Epting.

For now, the Episcopal Church is committed to continuing with the implementation, he said. Though many of the details have been worked out, notably guidelines on the exchange of clergy, the churches have other issues to address, including how diaconal ministry can be shared. The Standing Committee on Ecumenical Relations, Epting said, will be discussing this in a session with ELCA ecumenical representatives when it meets in Chicago the end of October.