A moderate college president who called on Lutherans to be active in a world starved on “spiritual junk food” was elected Saturday to lead the nation’s fifth-largest Protestant denomination.
The Rev. H. George Anderson, president of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, received 698 votes to become only the second presiding bishop in the short history of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
He defeated Wisconsin Bishop April Ulring Larson, the denomination’s first woman prelate. She received 334 votes at the church’s biennial assembly.
“Our only task is to be sure that we are still God’s church - and not just dressed up to look like it,” Anderson told cheering church delegates immediately after his election.
The 63-year-old Anderson succeeds Bishop Herbert Chilstrom, who had led the 5.2 million-member denomination since its founding in 1988 with the merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. Chilstrom decided against seeking re-election.
In a denomination young enough that church roots still matter, Anderson benefited from strong ties to the two largest predecessor bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
From 1970 to 1981, he was president of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., formerly part of the Lutheran Church in America. He has headed Luther College, once an American Lutheran Church school, since 1982.
He also has been a leading figure in the ecumenical movement, serving as co-chairman of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue from 1979 to 1990.
“The problem of our world is that they’re eating spiritual junk food, including secularism, to satisfy that hunger. And the tragedy is they’re still hungry,” Anderson said.
He also said he agrees with a Church Council decision this week to postpone work indefinitely on a social statement on human sexuality.
“We still have really some foundational discussion to do as a church on the authority of Scripture as it relates to homosexuality,” Anderson said.
In remarks before the assembly this week, Anderson sought to be a conciliatory voice in the church, which has been divided by sexuality issues and still faces lingering tensions over the merger.
“Friends, it’s time for us to recognize we need one another,” he said.
He said the church should have a “continued deep conversation” about sexual issues, and he invited homosexual Lutherans to be part of the dialogue.
At a news conference, Anderson said he still is trying to figure out his own position on issues such as the ordination of homosexuals and whether same-sex relationships are part of God’s plan.
At the assembly, he also told U.S. Lutherans they cannot avoid dealing with sexual or other social issues.
“Our destiny as a church is to be in the world, to suffer the pain of the world, so we can be a sign of hope,” he said.
Twice before, Anderson declined opportunities for leadership posts in the Lutheran church. So why did he seek the church’s highest office now?
Anderson said he decided his ability to work with different groups of people is a special gift needed by the still-new church.
After his election, he flashed his computer address on the large screens at the assembly hall and invited delegates to contact him.
“I think I’m a good listener,” he said. “I think I’m a good consensus builder.”
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