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 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 ELCA.
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.
Anderson also said he agreed with a Church Council decision earlier this week to indefinitely postpone work 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.
Twice before, Anderson declined opportunities for leadership posts. At the 1978 Lutheran Church in America's convention, he got the most votes on the first ballot for bishop, but withdrew his name, saying he did not feel an inner call. A short time later, it was discovered his first wife had cancer. She died four years later.