THE BLOG
11/04/2013 01:21 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Of Course: Women Pastors and Bishops

November 1 the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton assumed the office of presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). When people gathered a few weeks ago for the installation of the first woman to lead this 4 million-member church body, it was an historic day, but it felt more like a joyful, "Of course."

The bells of the great chapel at the University of Chicago pealed. The time was now. Choirs grand piano and drums. Everyone sang.

Former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson said, "We have come together from many places to mark a new season of ministry in the life of this church... We pray that this servant may fulfill God's purpose in her life and in her ministry among the whole people of God."

Of course!

I heard those churchwide words of welcome and remembered my pastor saying one day in confirmation class years ago when I was a youth, "Of course women cannot be pastors," adding in a hushed tone, "They have babies." But that same pastor helped me go to college.

Less than a decade after that first "of course," while attending Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, one of two women among 800 men, I heard from my preaching professor, "Of course you cannot preach. You are a woman. Your assignment will be an 'inspirational address'." But I did receive an "A" in the course and graduated with a Master of Arts in Religion in 1964. I served in deaconess ministry in St. Louis, and then for over a dozen years with our family in inner city ministry in Detroit (I preached one day at Concordia College, Ann Arbor -- while pregnant) and New Haven, Conn. I later received a Masters of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, (and still later a Ph.D.) and an invitation to teach at Yale.

The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America began ordaining women in 1970 and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches would follow a few years later, but I still was told, "Can't you wait a few years?" Women kept responding to God's call, even when churches through the ages said, "Can't you wait a few more years, decades, centuries?"

There were all kinds of fears and barriers in the 1970s in reaction to women being ordained as pastors in Lutheran and other church bodies: "Jesus was a man; women cannot represent Jesus." "If we ordain women, all the men will leave the church." "What will happen to your children?" (They turned out fine, thank you.) "These women are Communists."

Of course there were fears, but they were unfounded. Women did not want to take over the church or push out men. Women's goal was inclusion and partnership, not hierarchical power.

This fall at the installation, with the welcoming words of the ELCA, with brass horns, a procession with candles and cross made its way up the center aisle to welcome Bishop Elizabeth Eaton at the door of the chapel. Red banner ribbons furled overhead. There were tears in my eyes.

The First Lesson, Isaiah 42:5-9, was read by Rev. Chienyu Jade Li in Chinese: "I have given you as a covenant to the people... To bring out from the prison those who sit in darkness ..."

The soloist led in chanting Psalm 121, "My help comes from the Lord."

Of course, of course.

"The lord will watch over you... from this time forth forever more."

The Second Lesson, 2 Corinthians 4:1-12 was read by Dina Tannous Vega in Arabic. "Since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart ..."

In the Gospel procession and acclamation, "Halle, Halle, Hallelujah," global women's voices sang, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation."

Of course, of course.

Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest and husband of Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, read the Gospel, Mark 4:1-9.

At my ordination in 1977 in the chapel of Yale Divinity School, my husband, Burton Everist, a pastor, preached.

Just a few years earlier, July 29, 1974, Burton and I had attended the service where 11 women were "irregularly" ordained priests in The Episcopal Church. The ordinations were considered "invalid." The service was interrupted by those who stood in opposition.

One of those 11 women participated in solidarity at my ordination at Yale three years later.

Two years after that Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, called me to teach, the first woman seminary professor in the American Lutheran Church. In 1979, although one by one women were becoming pastors, other people were still using the Bible to claim that women could not be teaching theologians "over" men and could not assume any headship role because "Eve had tempted Adam into sin" and, "It is clear in the Bible that women can never rule or lead." And, "We cannot use 'inclusive language' because God is male." Of course!

But one young woman at the 1979 fall Wartburg alumni convocation came up to me after I spoke and said, "I've been waiting years for you to come." Her name was Andrea DeGroot Nesdahl. Now, 35 years later, I continue to teach at Wartburg Seminary. Challenges remain for us all to be the church God is calling us to be.

In 1988 three Lutheran church bodies came together to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Representational principles adopted at the time assured equal representation of women and men on boards and commissions and at church assemblies. Beyond the more threatening token stage, overnight our ELCA gatherings looked, well, normal, just as God created us to be together.

Leadership is about partnership, and about the liberation of men as well as women. At the time, there were worries that women might gain too much power. Whenever two of three of us sat together, almost always a man would come up and say, "We'll have to break this up." But what was the fear? Inclusivity was not about breaking things, even "stained-glass ceilings," but about new, healthy ways of being partners together.

Full partnership would come slowly, but it would come.

Spring of 1992, Maria Jesper in Hamburg, Germany, became the first woman Lutheran bishop in the world.

April Ulring Larson was installed October, 1992, as bishop of the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Area Synod of the ELCA, first in the United States. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl became the second as bishop of the South Dakota Synod.

Susan Johnson was elected the national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada in 2007.

Fall, 2013: "Elizabeth Amy Eaton has been elected and called by the church, for installation into the office of presiding bishop."

No objections voiced. No interruptions to the service. Nothing called irregular or invalid. No impediments. Historically speaking, this was much more than, "Of course."

She was asked, "Will you assume the office of presiding bishop?" She responded: "I will, and I ask God to help me."

More questions of her and then of us: "People of God, will you receive Elizabeth as a servant of God and a shepherd in the church of Jesus Christ?"

"We will."

And after hearing, "The office of presiding bishop is now committed to you," all were invited to extend their hands in blessing. People across the miles, via the internet, extended their hands too, seeing what few could have imagined not many years. Women had been there all along, from the time of Christ's empty tomb, even if at first, their words were not believed.

As the assembly went forth, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton was smiling, looking calm and confident. People waved. Applause. Full organ. "Now Thank We All Our God." Of course!