The long road behind ELCIC’s first female national bishop

Published December 1, 2007

With the election last June of Rev. Susan Christine Johnson to national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), a 45-year history of women seeking ordination to the Lutheran Church was realized at the highest level.

It began back in the 1960s, when women first questioned the policies of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) and the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) with respect to women entering seminary for the purpose of studying for the ordained ministry. As the pressure to pursue the same mounted, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., (of the ALC) accepted Barbara Andrews as its first full-time female student in 1964.

Meanwhile in the LCA, while an early 1968 study determined that there were no biblical or theological impediments to women’s ordination, no recommendation for the same was made for fear it would threaten ecumenical fellowship.

Not until 1970 did these two largest Lutheran church bodies in North America finally ratify women’s ordination with Elizabeth Platz being the first woman ordained by the LCA in that same year.

The conservative-minded Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and its Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, however, was so divided over the issue that a new seminary and church body – Concordia Seminary in Exile and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC) – were established and in 1976, approved women’s ordination.

In 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was formed, amalgamating all U.S. Lutheran churches which approved women’s ordination.

Here in Canada, the two predecessor bodies of the ELCIC each dealt differently with the issue of women’s ordination.

The LCA-Canada Section heartily welcomed the groundbreaking decision in 1970 to endorse women’s ordination and subsequently ordained the first Canadian woman, Pamela McGee, a graduate of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, in 1976 to serve the Morrisburg-Riverside parishes in Ontario.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada (ELCC), whose predecessor body was the ALC, voted to accept women as candidates for ordained ministry at its 1976 convention and four years later, Carol Qualley became its first ordained woman.

With the 1986 merger of the LCA – Canada Section and the ELCC, the ELCIC was founded and today has 855 rostered clergy, of whom 147 are women. Paving the way for the election of Susan Johnson – the first woman to the post of national bishop – was the first-time election of two women synodical bishops.

Rev. Cindy Halmarson was the first woman to be elected as synodical bishop to the Saskatchewan Synod in 2002 and re-elected to a second term in 2006. Rev. Elaine Sauer was elected bishop at the April 2006 convention of the Manitoba-Northern Ontario Synod.

The achievement of ordination by women to parish ministry and positions of synodical and national leadership within the ELCIC is a realization which came hard fought, and not without a price. In fact, the debate over women’s ordination was not dissimilar from some of the biblical arguments in today’s dispute within the ELCIC over same-sex blessings.

But in the final analysis, women were ordained.

Rev. Peter Mikelic pastors Epiphany Lutheran church, Toronto, and writes for various church and secular publications.


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