Minneapolis Star Tribune, 19 Aug 01

Bishop Hanson, new ELCA leader, slips easily into pastor role


Nolan Zavoral / Star Tribune

The Rev. Mark Hanson hasn't served as a full-time pastor for years, but the newly elected presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has kept his reflexes.

In discussing his priorities as leader of the ELCA's 1.5 million members, he punctuated his remarks on poverty and evangelization with gestures. One of the "huge challenges" facing his church, Hanson said, was bringing its congregants -- of whom only 2.5 percent are people of color -- in line with national census figures, showing that approximately 25 percent of the population is non-Caucasian.

"That's a cause for great concern," said Hanson, 54, the outgoing bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod. "We decreasingly are looking like this increasingly diverse culture.

"And if we get turned inward, consumed by our differences, we miss a 'missional' moment we've been given here."

Hanson paused and smiled.

"Boy, am I giving the sermons," he said. "Let's get the choir out here!"

Close victory

It took Hanson five ballots and a 34-vote margin to become the ELCA's third presiding bishop last week in Indianapolis. As it has in gatherings of other large denominations, the issue of homosexuality caused contentiousness -- even arrests in Indianapolis.

Protesters demonstrated against the ELCA's continued ban on ordaining noncelibate gay and lesbian pastors. Instead, the organization voted to study the matter and may not reach a decision until 2005.

Hanson's synod occupied the center of the controversy this spring, when St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church hosted an ordination ceremony for the Rev. Anita Hill, a lesbian in a committed relationship who refused to take a celibacy vow. Hanson censured and admonished the congregation but did not expel it.

Is homosexuality sinful? Hanson was asked.

"I will respond to how the church understands [this]," he said measuredly.

He was asked for his opinion, but refused, suggesting his taking sides would be divisive and "not helpful to the church or to my leadership."

He argued that homosexuality should be viewed in human, not issue-oriented terms.

"When we're talking about persons, we're talking about God's relation to all of us as human beings," he said. "Is there anything I'm doing to get in the way of all of humanity hearing that wonderful news of God's love for all in Christ?

"And because we're Lutheran Christians, and believe in infant baptism, we believe God binds God's self to us in a word of promise before any of us knows what sexual orientation is, let alone what ours is."

Hanson said he hoped that the homosexual debate would not overshadow other issues such as poverty. Among his goals, he said, was nothing less than helping to end poverty.

"If we're centered in Christ, in word and sacrament, we find ourselves on the margins of society -- because that's where Jesus said he's going to meet us," Hanson said.

Surviving controversy

Hanson is widely viewed as a church moderate, who survived the Hill controversy to take over the fifth-largest Protestant denomination in America.

The Rev. Paul Tidemann, a pastor at St. Paul-Reformation, has opposed the ELCA's policy banning noncelibate gay and lesbian clerics, but supported Hanson's selection.

"They couldn't have picked a better person," Tidemann said. "He's a very passionate and gospel-centered person. He'll do well as presiding bishop."

The Rev. Herbert Chilstrom, former ELCA presiding bishop from Pelican Rapids, Minn., and a long-time friend of Hanson and his wife, Ione, said, "They are both uniquely equipped to be good leaders in the church.

"They have a combination of sensitivity in spiritual matters, concern for Bible study, and a willingness to face courageously issues that plague us."

The Hansons adopted four biracial children before having two of their own.

"We've lived constantly with how wonderful diversity is that can find unity," Hanson said. "It's the best laboratory I've got to lead the church."

Hanson will be installed on Oct. 6 in Chicago and begin his six-year term on Nov. 1, at ELCA headquarters in Chicago. However, he already has talked by phone with church staffers and is weighing two key appointments.

Immediately after his election, Hanson called Episcopalian presiding bishop Frank Griswold -- attempting to soothe concerns created by the ELCA's vote to allow pastors to be ordained without a bishop "in unusual circumstances."

A previous agreement between the ELCA and Episcopalians required that a bishop be in attendance. Hanson said he long had "supported an ecumenical relationship with the Episcopal Church." Griswold could not be reached for comment.

Soon after his return from Indianapolis, Hanson took part of a morning to play with his 17-month-old granddaughter, Naomi.

"She relaxed. I relaxed. We both fell asleep," Hanson said. "It was a great moment. I hope I have a lot more of those."