Women Who Pioneered Entry to Ministry Now Rising to Upper Ranks

From Associated Press

It took just under two millennia for women to reach the top rung of the denominational ladder, but the recent election of two more women bishops by two denominations signifies there is no turning back, church leaders said.

More than two decades after her church began ordaining women, the Rev. April Ulring Larson, 42, on June 12 became the first woman to be named a Lutheran bishop in the United States.

Two weeks earlier, the Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon, 54, became the second woman to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church. She still must be confirmed by votes of standing committees and bishops throughout the church, but her way was already paved by the election of Barbara Harris as suffragan bishop of Boston in 1988.


“For the sake of the Gospel, we have to keep moving forward in this direction,” Larson said in an interview. “It’s just shocking that it’s taken us so long.”

The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod do not allow the ordination of woman. In a proposed pastoral letter on women, a committee of Catholic bishops said the unbroken tradition of a male priesthood “witnesses to the mind of Christ and is therefore normative.”

Mainline Protestant churches have held the office of bishop theoretically open to women since they began permitting women clergy, but the ball didn’t start rolling until 1980 with the election of Marjorie Matthews as the first United Methodist woman bishop. The church has elected four women bishops since then.

Larson said many in the 5.2-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had begun to despair of the church ever electing a woman bishop.

When she was elected bishop of the LaCrosse (Wis.) Area Synod of the ELCA, women pastors rushed to greet her in a display of thanksgiving Larson said would be difficult for some of her male colleagues to understand.

“It has nothing to do with April. It is that whole deep, deep, deep affirmation that they’re made in the image of God . . . and can serve the church in any dimension of leadership,” Larson said.

The new bishop, who had never heard a woman preach until she heard her own voice in the pulpit, could identify with their feelings.

Ordained in 1978, her first assignment was with her husband, the Rev. Judd Larson, as co-pastor of Calvary and Grand Lutheran churches in Crystal Lake, Iowa.

“It was very difficult in the sense that people would readily and quickly call my husband pastor and would just about choke at calling me pastor,” she said.

In 1989, she became assistant to the bishop of the church’s Southeastern Minnesota Synod, where she could see the struggles faced by other women as local congregations considered hiring a clergywoman “a great risk.”

But Larson said she saw barriers break down even as congregations came to experience her ministry as an assistant to the bishop.

“It’s absolutely critical that we have women in all dimensions of the church,” she said.