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In historic votes, Lutherans elect two African-American women bishops

The Rev. Patricia A. Davenport speaks after being elected bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod during its assembly at Franconia Mennonite Church in Telford, Penn., on May 5, 2018. Photo via SEPAsynod video

(RNS) — A synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made history Saturday (May 5) by electing the denomination’s first female African-American bishop.  One day later, a synod 900 miles away elected the second.

First, delegates chose the Rev. Patricia A. Davenport for the office of bishop in Southeastern Pennsylvania, a synod that includes Philadelphia. Then on Sunday, delegates voted for the Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, a pastor in Beloit, Wis., to become bishop-elect for the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin.

The votes mark an inclusive step forward for the “most white” of the nation’s mainline Protestant denominations, according to Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton.

“We claim, over and over again, what God is calling us to be is a diverse, inclusive, multicultural church,” Eaton told RNS from her Chicago office. “We’ve been stuck for over 30 years, and I hope this is the start of a trend where God opens our eyes to see the giftedness of people who are not of European descent.”

The Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld. Photo courtesy of ELCA

With 3.5 million members, the ELCA is the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. It encompasses about 9,300 congregations, which are grouped together in 65 regional synods.

According to the Rev. Leah Schade, assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky., the elections signify a poignant moment for the denomination. Schade spent 11 years in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and worked with Davenport.

“This is a turning point for the ELCA,” Schade said. “It is incredibly important that, at a time when our society needs to see women of color reach the highest levels of leadership, that it’s the church where this is happening.”

Thomas-Breitfeld is an instructor in Christian public leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., the denomination’s largest seminary. Davenport is evangelical mission director and assistant to the bishop in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. She spoke about her election in a video released after the vote, saying she is “grateful for the position that God has placed us in, moving out and moving forward into the brand-new things that God has placed before us.”

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct number of years Leah Schade spent in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod.

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Mark A. Kellner

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