Bishop Megan Rohrer is happy about breaking a barrier as the nation’s first transgender bishop, but looks toward the day when sexual identity is a non-issue.
“My fervent prayer [is we] will have a day when all people’s private parts are private matters. And we don’t have to talk about it in public and lift up who’s transgender or who’s not transgender,” Bishop Rohrer said in an interview with The Washington Times.
Bishop Rohrer leads the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Sierra Pacific Synod. The synod, a district roughly equivalent to a Catholic or Episcopalian archdiocese, comprises 188 congregations in California and northern Nevada.
Elected to a six-year term in May, Bishop Rohrer, 41, was installed Sept. 11 in a ceremony in San Francisco.
The bishop hoped this month’s installation would draw attention to a group of evangelical Christians who are not as engaged in the culture war rhetoric that the “loudest” voices often espouse.
Bishop Rohrer hoped people would find church members as “maybe quieter, kind of caring for the poor and trying to serve each other, who have been trying to be as welcoming as possible.
“When people think about what evangelical people think, maybe they’ll think of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the ways that we have progressive faith,” the bishop said.
Saying Lutherans believe all are worthy of God’s favor, Bishop Rohrer added: “If you are a person who maybe is tired of arguments about whether or not God is with you, and for you, and wants to move on to living justly in the world, then you’d be welcome to join Lutherans, as we’re more likely to be feeding people than arguing about their worth or their dignity.”
Asked about Bible passages that forbid or condemn homosexual behavior, Bishop Rohrer said “there’s a number of wonderful Scriptures” that counter such pronouncements.
“The very first person baptized after Jesus’ departure is the Ethiopian eunuch, a trans person who is faithful and spreads the Gospel beyond his space,” Bishop Rohrer said. “But we also have Matthew 19, where Jesus talks about people being transgender or eunuchs for the sake of heaven. And so it’s a little bit harder for people to argue that trans folk are outside of the biblical world.”
How attractive that overall message is among congregations in the Sierra Pacific Synod is a separate matter.
Religion journalist Terry Mattingly, of the GetReligion.org blog, noted that Bishop Rohrer’s new church region is facing a sharp drop in “active participants,” down from 32,445 in 2012 to 25,043 in 2019.
During the same period, Mr. Mattingly noted, weekly attendance fell from 17,769 to 12,931, averaging 70 members or fewer per congregation, which he said was not enough to sustain a local church budget and payroll.
Such numbers mirror the downward trend in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) since its 1988 founding. Initially, the denomination had 5.25 million members and an average attendance of 1.63 million. By 2015, those numbers had declined to roughly 3.7 million members, with 973,809 attending on average.
Part of the decline may have been triggered by the 2009 churchwide assembly vote to admit noncelibate gays as ministers.
Four years later, the group elected its first openly gay male bishop, R. Guy Erwin, to lead its Southwest California Synod. Bishop Erwin is now president of the United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has about 1.8 million members, statistics indicate. The North American Lutheran Church, a group that largely came out of the ELCA in 2010, went from 17 congregations at its founding to more than 400 six years later.
One observer outside the ELCA said Bishop Rohrer’s installation may not attract the unchurched, however welcoming the denomination advertises itself as being.
“The Sierra Pacific Synod is probably promoting this bishop because there is a sense that this will bring in other people who are marginalized, who have these identities and are maybe not finding a spiritual home readily available to them elsewhere,” said Jeff Walton of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.
“I think we can look at the track record of these churches, especially in the last two decades, and see that these theological revisions don’t bring in large numbers of people,” he added.
By de-emphasizing or eliminating the fundamentals of Christian faith, Mr. Walton argues, groups such as the ELCA have “lost sight of Christianity’s distinctiveness,” a move that is “not probably going to make a compelling case for people to come out of the culture and participate in the church.”