Lutheran President Apologizes for Handling of Newtown Interfaith Conflict

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod President Matthew C. Harrison apologizes for how he handled the interfaith debacle in Newtown, Conn.
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod President Matthew C. Harrison apologizes for how he handled the interfaith debacle in Newtown, Conn. | (Photo: Screenshot/TheLCMS)

The president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod recently issued an apology after reprimanding a pastor for participating in a December interfaith prayer vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

This past weekend, Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, issued both a video and a letter on the denomination's website, apologizing for how he handled the conflict with the Rev. Rob Morris of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, Conn., who took part in a nationally televised interfaith prayer vigil in December 2012.

Participating in interfaith prayer vigils goes against the denomination's rules of joint worship, as the denomination believes it gives the impression that theological differences among faiths do not matter.

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As Harrison states in the video, posted on the denomination's website on Sunday, although communication between he and Morris following the interfaith prayer vigil remained "cordial and kind," he ultimately advised Morris to apologize for participating in the vigil.

Harrison said that following Morris' apology, there was an unexpected "firestorm of media coverage." Both Morris and his congregation were criticized and the LCMS was wrongfully portrayed as being "heavy-handed."

"In retrospect, I look back and see that I could have done things differently," Harrison says in the video.

Additionally, in a letter also posted on the website, Harrison wrote that he takes "responsibility for this debacle. I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges. I increased the pain of a hurting community."

"I humbly offer my apologies to the congregation, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown, Conn.; to Pastor Morris; and to the Newtown community. I also apologize to the membership of our great church body for embarrassment due to the media coverage," Harrison added.

Morris, Harrison, and Timothy Yeadon, president of the denomination's New England District, also issued a "statement of unity," in which they said they "have worked through a very challenging situation," and they "have mutually forgiven each other where we have fallen short."

Last week, Morris issued an apology, as requested by Harrison, for those he offended by performing the closing benediction at an interfaith prayer vigil held in December and attended by President Barack Obama and members of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths.

"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," Morris wrote in his apology.

"I apologize where I have caused offense by pushing Christian freedom too far, and I request you charitably receive my apology," the pastor added.

Morris' apology received heavy public criticism, as many argued he and his denomination were taking an insensitive approach to the December 14 Newtown tragedy, during which 20 children and six adults were shot by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School, by focusing too heavily on church protocol.

This is not the first time the church has dealt with the issue of interfaith worship.

Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, LCMS pastor the Rev. David Benke was temporarily suspended for participating in an interfaith service at Yankee Stadium.

The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, the former LCMS president who previously defended Benke during his suspension, recently wrote on his personal blog in defense of Morris, arguing that the Newtown-based pastor was "responding in a pastoral way to people in need of healing and hope."

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is reportedly currently reviewing its rule regarding interfaith worship.

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