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Lutherans hope to heal schism over ordination of gay clergy

| Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, 9:37 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton talks to attendees of the national legislative meeting for the Evangelical Lutheran Church at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Eaton was chosen as the new head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton poses for a portrait at the national legislative meeting for the Evangelical Lutheran Church at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Eaton was chosen as the new head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America can mend its fractures over its decision to allow gay clergy to be ordained by being a welcoming place for all brethren, regardless of their views, the newly elected leader of the church said Thursday in Pittsburgh.

After the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted in 2009 to allow its congregations to ordain gay pastors in committed relationships, 647 congregations disaffiliated with the church.

“We lost less than 10 percent, but it's still painful because these are our brothers and sisters,” said the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, 58, who on Wednesday became presiding bishop-elect of the church during its national Churchwide Assembly. Roughly 2,000 people are attending the assembly, which began Monday and will end Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

Eaton is the first woman elected to the role since ELCA formed in 1988.

There are about 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations in the United States and the Caribbean, spokeswoman Melissa Ramirez Cooper said. Congregations are grouped by regions into synods, of which there are 65, Cooper said.

On Wednesday, Eaton defeated the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, who was seeking a third six-year term, and two other finalists for the seat of presiding bishop. Eaton, who is bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, will begin her term as presiding bishop of ELCA on Nov. 1.

“We're hopeful. We're trusting, and we're going forth in that kind of courage,” said the Rev. Kurt Kusserow, bishop of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod in McCandless.

Some of Eaton's goals include telling congregants that mission work does not have to be in the farthest corners of the world — the work of feeding people spiritually and physically should happen locally, too, she said.

“We want every congregation to see itself as a mission station,” she said.

Even though the church assembly allows gay clergy to be ordained, it has not developed any rites or blessings regarding same-sex marriage.

“We still call marriage a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman,” but everyone is welcome in the church, Eaton said.

Eaton is a skilled leader whose focus is in the right direction — reconciliation and unification — and she made important steps when she spoke to the assembly about inclusivity, several attendees said Thursday.

“She's a very gifted person. I'm looking forward to her leadership,” said the Rev. Robert Driesen, bishop of the Upper Susquehanna Synod in Lewisburg.

Known to be lighthearted, Eaton is letting people know the church is always welcoming new members.

“Just tell people to check us out. We're open Sundays,” she said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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