Associated Press, 12 Aug 2001

Protestant Leader Discusses Roots


Filed at 4:02 p.m. ET

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- When Mark S. Hanson left St. Paul, Minn., in 1968 to attend New York's Union Theological Seminary, he had no interest in a clergy career. He was merely using a Rockefeller scholarship that let him study religion for a year.

The following fall, on the day he was to register for graduate work in psychology at Columbia University, ``some voice said, that's not what you're going to do,'' he said. He returned to Union, entered the Lutheran ministry and eventually became bishop of St. Paul.

On Saturday, the bearded, balding Hanson edged out Pittsburgh's Bishop Donald McCoid for one of American Protestantism's most important jobs: presiding bishop of the 5.1 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Since he's only 54, it's conceivable Hanson would be re-elected after his six-year term and serve at Chicago headquarters through 2013.

Hanson's Union degree and further study at Harvard Divinity School are noteworthy, since most Lutheran pastors train at denominational seminaries.

Hanson's campaign speech emphasized that his church needs prodding on both evangelism and social activism.

After all, he's the son of a Lutheran evangelist who's proud that the St. Paul synod (regional governing unit) is the fastest-growing in the denomination.

'Passion for social justice'

His social outlook was permanently liberalized in 1966 by a church-sponsored immersion in Chicago during Martin Luther King's difficult integration campaign. Another formative event was the 1968 World Council of Churches assembly, where he was the youngest voting delegate.

``Passion for social justice comes out of my reading of Scripture,'' he says.

But the Hanson era will also be marked by two other issues at the assembly: homosexuality and relations with other churches.

Before going home Tuesday, Lutheran delegates are likely to authorize a four-year study on whether to bless same-sex couples and ordain sexually active homosexual clergy.

Those lobbying for change look to Hanson, who told a 1998 meeting, ``Let's not let the ministry gifts of gay and lesbian people be isolated from the rest of the church and the world.''

The church already allows homosexual clergy if they practice celibacy and Hanson says he hasn't advocated ordination for those living with same-sex partners.

True, his St. Paul synod asked the assembly to drop the clergy prohibition, but Hanson explained he has a duty to represent the will of his colleagues. As presiding bishop he'll uphold the denomination's ban unless it is dropped, he said.

Displays sensitivity

Moments after his victory, Hanson told the assembly he was aware that ``there are people in this church who are not rejoicing in this moment and are feeling great anxiety.''

That candid remark displayed his sensitivity to fostering unity in a denomination that resulted from merger of three groups in 1987.

For that reason, Hanson promoted accommodation of Lutherans who in conscience oppose a unity pact with the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church that went into effect in January. The pact required that all clergy be ordained by bishops in a line of succession believed to trace back to the early church.

Despite Episcopal protests, the Lutheran assembly passed a bylaw that lets pastors instead of bishops ordain clergy ``for pastoral reasons in unusual circumstances.''

Before becoming a bishop, Mark Hanson spent 21 years as a pastor in the Twin Cities area. He and wife Ione, director of social work for two children's hospitals, have six children, four of them biracial and adopted.