The Rev. Patricia A. Davenport was elected bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod on Saturday, May 4. One day later, Rev. Viviane E. Thomas-Breitfeld was elected the new bishop for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, which includes the Madison area. The two women together made history becoming the denomination’s first female African-American bishops.
Thomas-Breitfeld is a pastor in Beloit, Wis. and a native of Brookfield, Wis. She 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.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a mainline Protestant denomination headquartered in Chicago that came into existence on Jan. 1, 1988, by the merging of three Lutheran church bodies. As of 2016, the ELCA has approximately 3.6 million baptized members in just over 9,200 congregations, although the parishioners and congregations are overwhelmingly white. This is an important step forward for inclusiveness.
“We claim, over and over again, what God is calling us to be is a diverse, inclusive, multicultural church,” Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton told Religion News Service. “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.”
Rev. Leah Schade, assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky. who spent 18 years in Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod working with Davenport, told Religion News Service that the elections signify a poignant moment for the denomination.
“This is a turning point for the ELCA,” Schade told RNS. “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.”