The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America elected its first openly gay bishop to a six-year term at an annual assembly in Southern California, officials said.
The election of Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin on Friday comes after the church's controversial rule change in 2009 that allowed gays and lesbians to be ordained in the nation's largest Lutheran denomination. More than 600 congregations have left the denomination since the change.
"The ELCA is a church that belongs to Christ, and in it there is a place for all," said church spokeswoman Melissa Ramirez Cooper. "The election of Pastor Erwin illustrates what many in the 4 million-member church believe: that God calls each of us by name."
Erwin, a resident of the Woodland Hills area of Los Angeles, currently serves as a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church and a professor of Lutheran Confessional Theology at California Lutheran University. He has also served on a variety of boards and committees of church-related institutions and agencies.
Ordained in May 2011, Erwin said he waited years for the recognition and he brings a "deep faith in Christ's presence in his church lived out in 20 years of parish experience blended with university and seminary-level teaching."
Officials say the "partnered gay man" is also the first Native American to be elected. Erwin is part Osage Indian.
Erwin earned a doctorate degree, two master degrees and Bachelor of Arts degree at Yale University. He engaged in seminary studies at the University of Tubingen and University of Leipzig, both in Germany.
The ELCA has more than 4 million members in 9,638 congregations across the United States, Caribbean and U.S. Virgin Islands. There are 18,010 leaders on the ELCA roster and, of that, 16,773 ordained clergy.
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