Pastor Rob Morris of Christ the King Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), in Newtown, Connecticut, was invited to participate in an interfaith prayer service for victims of the Sandy Hook massacre. One of those victims had been in his congregation. But Morris wasn’t sure about doing it.
He wasn’t sure because it might be an act of “joint worship,” which I had not previously been aware is a bad thing. It’s forbidden. To Lutherans. Of the Missouri Synod. And there were going to be prayers from all kinds of religions at the service.
I need to make an effort to understand this offense, since it seems to me like a silly nuance. I worry that it will bring out my ugly scoffing side. My smug atheist side. Joint worship can imply “endorsement of faiths that do not regard Jesus alone as savior, or as a suggestion that differences between religions are not important.”
I get it. Brand dilution. ARGH NO STOP THAT SUMAC. (Actually, as a child I was surprised when friends treated different Christian denominations as interchangeable. If it was important enough to break away and start a new church, isn’t it more important than… a convenient location? But it doesn’t make much sense for atheists to tell religious people how they should be doing it.)
Morris wrestled with the issue, consulted others in the ministry, and eventually decided to participate in a way that wouldn’t constitute the dread joint worship.
He mentioned Jesus. He quoted from the Bible. He started with a disclaimer, saying that he wasn’t endorsing any other religions. He also explained to his congregation the difference between Lutheran teachings and those of “false religions such as Islam or Baha’i” so they wouldn’t get the wrong idea.
The service was nationally televised. Lutherans (Missouri Synod) started talking. His superiors were unhappy. Morris said, “I believed my participation to be, not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy.” (I often try to defend my behavior as community chaplaincy, but that almost never flies. Maybe I’m not dressed right.)
The higher-ups went back and forth. (Yes, yes, social media got involved.) Finally the Missouri Synod’s president, Reverend Matthew C. Harrison, said he thought it “best for Pastor Morris to apologize and say, ‘Yes, I offended.’”
Morris did. Again he said he didn’t see it as joint worship, but…“but mercy and care to a community shocked and grieving an unspeakably horrific event.” But he understood that others saw it as joint worship. “I apologize where I have caused offense by pushing Christian freedom too far, and I request you charitably receive my apology.”
There, we fixed it. Or, no. “A firestorm of media coverage occurred across the nation. We did not expect that,” said Harrison. “It gave the impression that this office was being very heavy-handed, which was not the case.”
So now Harrison apologized. “I naïvely thought an apology for offense in the church would allow us to move quickly beyond internal controversy and toward a less emotional process of working through our differences, well out of the public spotlight. That plan failed miserably,” he wrote.
In a 9-minute video on the synod’s website, Harrison says. “I have sinned and I have failed.” Instead of bringing unity, “I exacerbated the problem. I caused greater offense. I caused trouble for Pastor Morris and difficulty for the congregation and offense there in the midst of their suffering. Please forgive me.”
Harrison quotes Luther saying “Sin boldly” to Melanchthon, and says “We should also be prepared to repent boldly, to apologize boldly, and we should be ready boldly to forgive.”
He adds, “I’ve been humbled, completely humbled, in fact brought to nothing.”
Well! Who’s next? (Me?)
The first apology is precisely worded. Morris wasn’t sorry for what he did, he was sorry people were upset. As Harrison puts it, Morris apologized “not for participating – he was quite convinced that what he did was correct – but he did apologize for the offense given.” Ordinarily I disapprove of “sorry you were offended,” but it was okay with the synod’s hierarchy, so I guess it’s okay with me.
In the second apology, Harrison goes further. He explains, apologizes for his actions, and takes complete responsibility. I could have done with a little less poor-mouthing about how he’s been humbled, but of course I love the part about repenting boldly, apologizing boldly, and forgiving boldly.
After 9/11 the Missouri Synod suspended a pastor who took part in a gigantic interfaith service in Yankee stadium. He refused to apologize, and eventually they reinstated him. Maybe because he sinned boldly.