I am writing this from Sydney, Australia, where I am representing the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA at the Lutheran Church of Australia. This will be a busy convention, with some pretty contentious issues. One of the most hotly debated issues is “the Ordination of women and men,” as the issue is now framed. Three times since 2000, the church has voted on women’s ordination. Three times it has failed, the latest being in 2015, when it fell just a few votes short of the needed 2/3.
As the chair of the ELCA’s 50th Anniversary of Women’s Ordination, I am not neutral on the subject. Our church decided the issue in 1970, and although we have had some bumps in the road, we haven’t looked back. So, when Presiding Bishop Eaton asked me to attend this meeting in a church in which women’s ordination was not a settled issue, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I was eager to be a witness to the benefits of women’s ordination, of celebrating the leadership gifts of both women and men. And on the other hand, I was loathe to go backwards, to relive the arguments that our church settled almost 5 decades earlier, and, if I am being brutally honest, I was wary of the kind of vulnerability it would take to be a living representative of what this church is debating.
So, I am in Sydney, with the Lutheran Church of Australia, the only ordained woman in a crowd of about 600. As people notice me, they either welcome me warmly, or they avert their eyes. I am kind of used to that. On official visits to Rome I have been cursed, spit at, and blessed. Once, my very presence as a clergywoman at a papal gathering, caused 4000 people to gasp when I turned around. The official representative from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has not made an effort to speak with me.
At opening worship, I saw one other woman in a clergy shirt. She was a visiting Anglican. We looked at each other. I said, “You are a pastor!” And she responded, “You are a Bishop!”
There are other international guests—from Cambodia, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia. All, with the exception of the LCMS, represent churches that ordain women, and have done so for some time. The majority of the laity favor women’s ordination. So, it will come down to the clergy, who have had a privileged status in the church. The Australian Church, like ours, is anticipating a clergy shortage.
As I prepared for this trip, and as I have been here in Australia, I have received encouraging messages from people, telling me to “go for it!”, to “make a difference!”, to “make it happen!” All that comes naturally to me. That’s how I like to operate. But that is not my job here. Here, I am called to accompany. (I have recently returned from a Companion Synod visit in which we talked about accompaniment constantly. And here I am in Sydney, learning all over again that I am here for not for advocacy, but for accompaniment.)
I ask for your prayers as I accompany the Australian Church through this vote. And I ask for your prayers as I learn from this church, hear of their work with refugees, with aboriginal people, with disaster relief, with theological education.
In the end, we are one in Christ, regardless of how the vote turns out. And that is an important thing for us to remember for our church as well. We may not always agree on issues, even issues that are critically important, but we are, by our Baptism, one in Christ.
And I thank God for that. And for you!
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA