Pastors of the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod are not allowed to participate in joint worship services, not with other denominations we are not in fellowship with and certainly not interfaith services with other religions and where other gods are worshiped. After 9/11, a pastor led a prayer in the interfaith service in Yankee Stadium organized by Oprah Winfrey and the LCMS was torn with controversy that lasted for years.
Now another emotional national tragedy, the shootings at Newtown, has sparked an interfaith service at which an LCMS pastor led the benediction. This time the president of the LCMS, Rev. Matthew Harrison, reprimanded the pastor and asked him to apologize, which he did. But now the media is seizing on the act of church discipline and people who do not understand or care anything about the LCMS theology of worship are attacking the church body for one of the few things that our culture considers absolute evil: intolerance.
From the New York Times, no less:
A Lutheran pastor who participated in an interfaith prayer service in Newtown, Conn., in the days after the Sandy Hook massacre has apologized after being criticized by the leader of his denomination for violating its prohibition against joint worship with other religions.
The Rev. Rob Morris, a new pastor who lost one of the members of his congregation in the shooting, defended himself in an open letter published by the church, saying that before the tragedy, he had spent hours with his congregation educating them about the differences between Lutheran teaching “and the teachings of false religions such as Islam or Baha’i,” both of which had clergy members at the interfaith service. He also noted that, in his own prayer at the service, he had spoken about Jesus and quoted from the Bible.
“I believed my participation to be, not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy,” he wrote.
But he also apologized.
“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.
One question now for Missouri Synod Lutherans is what the ramifications may be insider the church body. Will this resurrect the relatively dormant “moderate” wing of the denomination and inspire opposition to the solidly confessional and quite effective administrator President Harrison? Will the pastors and laypeople of the church be embarrassed by all of the attention this is likely to receive and think, “how surely in a time of national tragedy we should all come together, “etc., leaving the theological issues behind?
Should this have been handled differently, whether by the young pastor or the synodical president? Is there a way Lutherans can show their solidarity and sensitivity in times of national tragedies without compromising their convictions?
UPDATE: But see President Harrison’s statement on the matter, which seems to me a very sensitive and balanced response.
UPDATE: See Mollie Hemingway’s explanation of the LCMS position and her account of the media coverage.