A Lutheran pastor in Newtown, Conn., apologized today for taking part in an interfaith vigil after December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The Rev. Rob Morris’ apology came after The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod reprimanded him, for giving the closing benediction at a Dec. 16 service that included Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, among others. His participation inadvertently gave the impression he was involved in joint worship with clergy from other religions, the church said. The denomination bars joint worship because it doesn’t want to appear to mix its beliefs with those of other faiths.
In a statement posted Feb. 1 on a denominational blog, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Pastor 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 the event amounted to 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.
Though Morris does not believe he engaged in joint worship, he has apologized, Harrison said, adding, “I accept his apology.”
Morris responded by saying he did not intend to endorse false teaching and apologized to those who took it that way.
"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,” he said. “However, I recognize others in our church consider it to constitute joint worship and I understand why."
This is not the first time the 2.3 million-member denomination, separate from the larger, liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has reprimanded one of its leaders for “unionism.” A Missouri Synod pastor, Rev. David Benke, was suspended for a time after participating in an interfaith service soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. About two dozen pastors and a few congregations complained about Benke’s involvement.
While some may view the church’s stance as petty and isolationist, others question the value of interfaith events at a time when so many theological differences separate even Christian denominations. As evangelical speaker and author, Dr. Ray Pritchard says, “What’s the point?”
“In what meaningful sense can evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, liberal protestants, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims come together for an ‘interfaith’ service?” he asked following President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, which included leaders from a variety of faiths. “We aren’t praying to the same God. We don’t even share the same conception of God.”