Eighteen years after his retirement as the first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herb Chilstrom is still a commanding presence, standing straight and tall with his characteristic white hair. At the recent Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, Herb and wife Corinne always had a cluster of well-wishers hovering around them in hotel lobbies, in the exhibit/lunch hall, or signing books in the registration area. When I had a chance to visit with them, I thanked Herb again for the kind words he offered in support of my forthcoming book, Queer Clergy (see below), and he inscribed a copy of his autobiography for me (A Journey of Grace). We joked that he expected that I should finish the 600 page hardcover book that first day. Well, it took me a week, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the back stories to the early days of the ELCA of which I was only vaguely aware.
Chilstrom was raised in a poor Swedish family on the outskirts of Litchfield, Minnesota, but he became the face of the newly-formed Lutheran denomination called the ELCA. The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) came into existence on January 1, 1988 as the result of the merger of the two largest Lutheran denominations in the U.S. (LCA & ALC) together with a moderate splinter from the Missouri Synod (AELC). Chilstrom had been the bishop of the Minnesota Conference of the old LCA before his election to be the first presiding bishop of the ELCA.
He steered the fledgling church through rocky shoals during two four-year terms. Immediately, the church was buffeted by conservative theologians who decried the drift toward other mainline denominations such as the UCC, Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Methodists, preferring instead a rightward tilt toward Catholicism, the Missouri Synod, or the burgeoning evangelical community. Among other things, critics decried the democratic, egalitarian structure of the new church and the loss of influence for white, male, pastors.
This was hardly a new battle. The fault line could be traced from the reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, through 19th century Scandinavian lay-revivalism and Darwinian debates, into the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th century, and on to the post-WWII culture wars of the religious right.
Within the first years of the new church’s existence, the conservatives seized upon the LGBT quest for full participation as the bogeyman to frighten parishioners in the pews. When the gay community persisted in seeking the church’s blessing, like the Gentile woman in Luke’s gospel, Bishop Chilstrom was conflicted in a classic confrontation of unity versus justice. The frail new church had no deposit of accrued legitimacy, no ballast to keep the ship upright, and the gales whipped her sails. It was all Chilstrom could do to keep the helm from spinning out of control, but he did so, and the church survived her tempestuous early years. His autobiography poignantly revisits his internal wrestling by quoting his own journal entry from the early years:
I continue to wonder how I got into all of this and how I can carry such a load … I feel so divided. I wish so very much that this church was ready to accept [gays and lesbians]. But it isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. So I must do my duty. I must support denial of ordination for them. I feel very torn apart by it. At times, I even wonder if I should resign because of the conflict between my conscience and the stance I must take as bishop.
It took over two decades for the church to finally break down the barriers to full LGBT participation. At the recent 25th anniversary Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, there was a sense that the church had reached calmer waters. With a new captain at the helm, and a woman at that, the church boldly surged forward, sails unfurled with a fair wind and following seas.
Presiding bishop-elect Liz Eaton appears to be a suitable heir to the progressive and pastoral leadership that has passed from Bishop Herb to Bishop H. George Anderson and, most recently, to Bishop Mark Hanson. Strong leadership has been a hallmark of this church, and the church is excited that Bishop Liz Eaton will continue that legacy.
Awhile ago, I provided Bishop Chilstrom with a copy of the book manuscript for Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism, and this is what he wrote about it:
“I can’t imagine a more comprehensive review of the journey of various churches in dealing with the issue of inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the church than Holmen has encompassed in the pages of this book. Though deeply involved in these issues before, during and after my time as presiding bishop of the ELCA, I learned much from this book that had not come to my attention. I commend Queer Clergy to any serious student of the subject. This remarkable book will serve as the definitive text on the subject for a long time to come.”
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