Hanson, 54, will begin his six-year term as the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Nov. 1, succeeding the Rev. H. George Anderson who is retiring.
With 5.1 million members, the ELCA represents the nation's fifth-largest Protestant denomination. Anderson's ecumenical efforts, a key focus during his tenure, resulted in five full communion agreements with other churches, the most of any denomination. Such agreements allow for the sharing of clergy, sacraments and ministries between denominations.
In keeping with its new sharing arrangement with the Episcopal Church, the installation, held at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel, marked the first time a Lutheran presiding bishop was installed into the "historic episcopate," a line of bishops extending back to early Christianity.
In addition to the Rt. Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, other installation participants included leaders of the four other churches with whom the ELCA is in full communion: the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church in America, and the Reformed Church of America.
In an interview with RNS on Friday, Hanson said he would continue to build on Anderson's ecumenical successes, and given the events of Sept. 11, raise its emphasis on interreligious dialogue. "We are currently in discussions with the United Methodist and the African-Methodist Episcopal Church to strengthen our ties," he said, "and given the recent terrorist actions, now believe more can be done to build interreligious bridges."
Hanson, characterized by colleagues as a moderate, narrowly defeated the more conservative Rev. Donald J. McCoid, bishop of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, at church elections in August. He assumes the leadership of a church currently struggling with two divisive issues: the role of homosexual clergy and its related stand on same-sex unions, and small pockets of discontent arising from its ecumenical efforts, relationships that some fear may work to dilute Lutheran identity.
Indeed, in his six-year tenure as bishop of the St. Paul Synod, Hanson became actively involved in both issues. The ELCA allows the ordination of gay clergy but only if they agree to remain celibate. In the spring, a church in Hanson's synod violated that requirement by ordaining a lesbian who refused to take a vow of celibacy. Ultimately, he chose to censure, but not expel, the congregation.
At the church's policy-making assembly this year, Hanson pushed unsuccessfully for the church to drop the celibacy requirement. The assembly opted instead to authorize a four-year study of the role of homosexual clergy and same-sex unions. The findings are scheduled to be released in 2005, a date that will fall within Hanson's tenure.
Among its ecumenical agreements, the one with the Episcopal Church has proven the most troublesome, contributing to a lingering discontent among some member in both churches.
In the Lutheran tradition, only a pastor is required to preside over ordinations. The 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church, however, requires that a bishop preside over all ordinations, a point it insisted on in its the full communion agreement. The ELCA approved the agreement in 1999, but in August voted to amend it to allow for its clergy to be ordained by pastors rather than bishops "in unusual circumstances." The Episcopal Church originally opposed the amendment, but has yet to formally challenge the revision.
Although some from Hanson's synod opposed both the original agreement and the amendment, Hanson went on to play a central role in negotiating the compromise. "Part of my new role," said Hanson, "will be to turn our verbal agreements with other churches into practical agreements, especially in coordinating our common missions to combat poverty. "In the past, the church tended to separate evangelism and social action. To me, they are inseparable."
Hanson, a native Minnesotan, and the son of a Lutheran evangelist, said he preferred to avoid labels, but if pressed, would characterize himself as a "social liberal, and a church moderate."
Timothy Lull, a longtime professional colleague of Hanson's and the president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., agreed with Hanson's self-assessment. "Socially, his worldview was shaped by his involvement in the 1960s and 1970s during the civil rights movement," Lull said, while "ecumenically, he was influenced by events surrounding Vatican II and his involvement in the World Council of Churches."
Lull added that Hanson's education at New York's Union Theological Seminary, where he earned his master of divinity degree, and further study at the Harvard Divinity School, exposed him to an open-mindedness and inclusiveness that he may not have experienced had he chosen the more traditional path of Lutheran clergy to train at a denominational seminary.
Presiding Bishop emeritus Herbert Chilstrom, the first to lead the ELCA after its formation in 1987 and a long-time friend of Hanson and his wife Ione, said he believed the timing, both for the church and for Hanson personally, were ripe for his selection.
"There has been concern that our internal issues may be distracting the church from its primary mission of evangelism," said Chilstrom. "Hanson's strong suits are his deep faith and his personal leadership, communication and negotiation skills. "He has a proven track record for inclusive debate, compromise and mission. That's what the church needs now, and that's why he was chosen."