Religion News Service, 12 Aug 2001

St. Paul bishop Hanson elected to head ELCA

INDIANAPOLIS -- Bishop Mark Hanson of St. Paul was elected Saturday as the third presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation's fourth-largest Protestant church.

He was elected in a 533-499 vote over Bishop Donald McCoid of Pittsburgh, the chairman of the church's Conference of Bishops.

Hanson, 54, will succeed Presiding Bishop George Anderson, who is retiring after a six-year term. His installation is scheduled for Oct. 6 at the church's headquarters in Chicago.

The 5.1-million-member church is meeting in Indianapolis through Tuesday for its biennial Churchwide Assembly, the highest policymaking body for the denomination. Other issues before the convention include possibly removing a ban on noncelibate gay clergy members and proposed changes to a full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church.

Upon his election, Hanson rose from his seat and embraced McCoid, whom he described as a great bishop and a good friend. Hanson then walked through a standing ovation to the stage with his wife of 31 years, Ione.

'A call received'

"I view this not as an election won, but a call received," he said, visibly moved by his new title.

A swirling storm As a leader of one of the largest and most prominent synods in the church, Hanson has been a high-profile shepherd for a tumultuous flock. Earlier this year he found himself at the center of a storm over the ordination of an open lesbian at St. Paul-Reformation Church in St. Paul.

Although the synod supported the ordination of Anita Hill, Hanson was forced to censure the congregation for openly violating policy that prohibits the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians.

Hanson is seen as a moderate by most church observers, although many consider him at least sympathetic to gays and lesbians who want to be ordained. He said his personal feelings on the issue are eclipsed by positions adopted by the church.

"I'm very mindful that when I'm called to leadership, I speak on behalf of the church that has called me to lead, not particular groups," he said.

Greg Egertson, national cochairman of the independent Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries, said the church's progay wing is largely satisfied with the election.

"His main focus is mission," said Egertson, whose father, Paul Egertson, resigned as bishop of Los Angeles for his participation in the Hill ordination. "We understand the whole issue of gay and lesbian people in the church as a matter of justice but also a matter of mission. They can't be separated."

Dynamic, gentle

Hanson's even-keel temperament and connections to many factions in the church will serve him well, said retired Presiding Bishop Herbert Chilstrom, the first to lead the ELCA after its formation in 1987. "He combines the gifts of both his parents," said Chilstrom, who knew his evangelist father for years. "He has the dynamic aspect of his father but also his mother's gentleness and quiet side."

Hanson was recently reelected to a second six-year term as bishop of St. Paul. Ordained in 1974, he served churches in and around Minneapolis before his election as bishop in 1995. He holds degrees from Augsburg College in Minneapolis and Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Firmly divided In a question-and-answer session before the 1,038 delegates, Hanson said he has the heart of a pastor with a burning desire to reach out to people who traditionally have not been part of the church. "I have a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ, a love for the people of God and an ache for the brokenness of this world," he said.

Hanson assumes leadership of a church that is politely but firmly divided on several issues, most notably the role of gays and lesbians. He will face discontent with the full communion pact by some who object to the Episcopal practice of ordination by a bishop within what is known as the historic episcopate, which the Lutherans agreed to adopt.

He also faces the difficult task of guiding the mostly white church into a new century trying to maintain a strong ethnic connection to the past while attracting new groups of immigrants to a church dominated by Swedes, Norwegians and Germans.

"I worry that we are increasingly not reflecting the diversity of this culture, and if that's true, then the challenge for this church is its very existence in this increasingly diverse land," he said. "We will only survive as a missionary church."