Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, an ELCA mission church in Denver, Colorado. She’s a leading voice in the emerging church movement and her writing can be found in The Christian Century and Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics blog. She is author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television (Seabury 2008) and the Sarcastic Lutheran blog. Her theological memoir, Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (Jericho, 2013) comes out in September of 2013.
The following reflection was written on the election of Elizabeth Eaton as Presiding Bishop, and first published at Huffington Post.
Today We Are Closer: Lutherans Elect First Female Bishop
When I was 12 years old, and still wearing white sandals to church, all of the Sunday school teachers in our church suddenly were men, instead of women. Like a gendered, ecclesial, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s not that the women who were our Sunday school teacher became men, or anything as interesting as that — it’s that their positions were taken by men. It wasn’t until years later that I realized this was because 12 was the age at which boys were considered to be men (a ludicrous idea), and women, according to 1 Timothy were not permitted to teach men. Therefore 12-year-old boys in the Church of Christ had more authority than grown-ass women. Now, at age 44, I have a 12-year- old-boy of my own and while he is an amazing creature with a body full of energy and a mind full of Doctor Who episodes, he is no man.
Teaching Sunday school to 12-year-old boys was far from the only thing forbidden to those with a particular set of plumbing. The women in my church, born female like myself, and yet old, wiser, stronger than me, and those to whom I looked to see an image of my future self as old, wise and strong, could not preach, or pray aloud in front of men, of even be an usher. Yes, Church of Christ women did not have the “authority” to hand a man a bulletin in church but did have the authority to hand him a plate of fried chicken and potato salad an hour later at the church potluck. Weird.
Today, 32 years after watching the women in my church faithfully do what they were allowed, I watched about 1,000 people in Pittsburg at the church-wide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America faithfully elect Elizabeth Eaton, a woman, to be the Presiding Bishop, the leader of the largest Lutheran denomination in America. She succeeds the faithful and fiercely gracious leadership of Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. (I know that the big story is that a woman was elected but what is equally remarkable is that the excitement about the new bishop was only matched by the affection for the out-going bishop).
The Lutherans elected a woman Presiding Bishop. That, is huge.
Now, normally I cringe when asked to speak about being a “woman in ministry” wanting, as I do, to live in a post-gender world, a world where the election of Elizabeth Eaton is celebrated because she is an extraordinary leader (which she is) and not because her gender is, in anyway, interesting or worthy of comment. But we don’t live in that world and here’s why: while there are women pioneers in other male-dominated fields and careers that historically have been forbidden to women, like medicine and law, there are not hospitals all over the country when women are still forbidden to practice medicine. There are not courtrooms all over the country where you still cannot argue a legal case were you born female. But as we know, there are still countless churches across the country where women, like myself and Elizabeth Eaton, would not be allowed to preach. As much as I long to never again be asked to speak about being a woman in ministry, and as much as I want the day to come when the gender of clergy is not in any way interesting, we are not there yet. There are still little girls in white, Sunday school shoes who will never hear a voice that is like theirs speak the Gospel, who will never see curves like the ones they will have under the robes of the one raising bread and wine behind an altar and speaking ancient, holy words of promise and forgiveness, who will never know without reservation that she is made in the image of God in all her glorious girl-ness.
But today, today we are closer. And this makes me want to put on white sandals and dance in all my glorious girl-ness… in my clergy shirt.