NEW YORK -- A conservative Lutheran group has reprimanded a Newtown, Conn., pastor for participating in an interfaith vigil after the Sandy Hook massacre.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod said the Rev. Rob Morris of Christ the King Lutheran Church inadvertently gave the impression he condoned joint worship by offering the benediction at a Dec. 16 event with other religious leaders for the elementary school shooting victims.
The church constitution bars clergy from praying with representatives from other religions, including some other Lutheran groups, for fear of giving the appearance that theological differences about salvation and other doctrines aren’t significant.
The vigil included Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i leaders. President Barack Obama and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy attended.
In a statement posted Feb. 1 on a denominational blog, the Missouri Synod president, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, said Morris took "specific and commendable" steps to avoid violating the church’s constitution: Morris requested an announcement before the event that participating clergy were not endorsing each other’s views, and he read from Scripture.
However, Harrison concluded that the event was joint worship since other clergy wore their vestments and the vigil included prayers and religious readings.
"There is sometimes a real tension between wanting to bear witness to Christ and at the same time avoiding situations which may give the impression that our differences with respect to who God is, who Jesus is, how he deals with us and how we get to heaven, really don’t matter in the end," Harrison wrote.
Morris does not believe he engaged in joint worship, but has apologized, Harrison said.
"I accept his apology," Harrison wrote, and made what he called an earnest request that no one file a complaint against Morris under the denomination’s disciplinary system.
Harrison declined to comment further Thursday. But Vicki Biggs, a spokeswoman for the denomination, said, "We are proud of the work Pastor Morris has done in Newtown and how he has served the community in so many ways."
In his own statement, Morris underscored the steps he took to avoid any appearance he was supporting other doctrines.
"To those who believe that I have endorsed false teaching, I assure you that was not my intent, and I give you my unreserved apologies," he wrote. "I did not believe my participation to be an act of joint worship, but one of mercy and care to a community shocked and grieving an unspeakably horrific event. However, I recognize others in our church consider it to constitute joint worship and I understand why."
The denomination has been struggling for years with this rule, which is currently under a broad review. The church constitution requires congregants to renounce "unionism and syncretism of every description." A Missouri Synod pastor, the Rev. David Benke, was suspended for a time after participating in a Yankee Stadium interfaith service soon after the Sept. 11 attacks that was held in Yankee Stadium. About two dozen pastors and a few congregations had complained about Benke’s involvement.
The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, the former Missouri Synod president who had defended Benke, has also spoken out in support of Morris. Kieschnick wrote on his blog that Morris was "responding in a pastoral way to people in need of healing and hope." Outsiders watching this dispute will "shake their heads in disgust and dismay. For them, the image of our church becomes one of isolationism, sectarianism and legalism," Kieschnick said.
The 2.3 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in the St. Louis area, is separate from the larger, liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, based in Chicago.
Statement from president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri-Synod: http://wmltblog.org/2013/02/letter-from-president-harrison-on-newtown-ct/
Statement from the Rev. Rob Morris: http://wmltblog.org/page/2/