What? Lutheran pastor apologizes for participating in Newtown, CT worship service following the Sandy Hook tragedy?

There was a brouhaha in the media last week that involved the LCMS. Some have commented to me about it. Some have asked me how this could even be an issue.

Here is the situation: After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a community service of mourning was organized through the local interfaith clergy group. The local LCMS pastor, Rev. Morris, asked that a statement be read at the opening of the service indicating that the love and grief are shared but the clergy leading the service would like to be clear that this shared service is not an endorsement of each other’s faith. Some very conservative elements within the LCMS believe that Rev. Morris violated his vows of ordination by participating in this community service. The president of our synod, Rev. Harrison, asked the conservative groups to back off. He also asked Rev. Morris to apologize to those he offended by his participation in the community service. Rev. Morris apologized that he offended people, but he did not apologize for participating in the service. It was Rev. Morris’ apology that caught wind in the national media and was not presented quite accurately: “Pastor apologizes for participating in Newtown Community Memorial Service!” Rev. Harrison was trying to calm the waters in the synod by asking all parties to be conciliatory and inadvertently stirred up a storm in the national media. He has apologized and asked for grace with regard to his poor handling of this situation.

I am personally convinced that Rev. Morris did the right thing by participating in that community service and I would be embarrassed to be part of our synod if he had declined.

But today I am writing simply to explain why this is even an issue within the LCMS. For those of you who want to follow the whole sordid mess, I will post some links at the end of this blog entry. For those of you who want the short version of why this is even an issue, here it is:

Our synod’s constitution includes this provision:

Article VI Conditions of Membership
Conditions for acquiring and holding membership in the Synod are the following:
  1. Acceptance of the confessional basis of Article II.
  2. Renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every
      description, such as:
           a. Serving congregations of mixed confession,
               as such, by ministers of the church;
           b. Taking part in the services and sacramental
               rites of heterodox congregations or
               of congregations of mixed confession;
            c. Participating in heterodox tract and
                missionary activities.

The issue in question revolves around “unionism” and “syncretism”. The word “heterodox” means not conforming with accepted standards or beliefs. In the case of the LCMS, a heterodox congregation is any congregation that does not subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions, most specifically the unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1580. “Unionism” refers more specifically to joining together in worship, choosing to be in union with each other and act as though fellowship exists when it does not because the two bodies do not share a common confession. (e.g. a Lutheran church and a Baptist church decide to hold a service together). “Syncretism” has more to do with the adopting of heterodox practices, often for the sake of peace. (A crass example would be kneeling toward Mecca during a Christian service so that Muslims feel comfortable and honored.) A major principle behind this forbidding of unionism and syncretism is that we do not want to give the false impression that we approve of the beliefs of whatever ‘other’ is involved in the unionism or syncretism and, thereby, give poor witness to Christ and even damage the faith of those who witness the unionism and syncretism.

There are those — I am not among them — who believe Rev. Morris engaged in unionism and syncretism by participating in this public service. Wrong as I think these folks are, they are acting (in their own eyes) out of concern for people’s souls. I don’t think anybody I know would look at two people sharing the dais at such an event and construe that as ‘fellowship’ in any way but the shared grief around which the event revolves. But my task in this entry is not to convince you one way or another about the rightness of Rev. Morris’ position. It is simply to explain how this could possibly be an issue since on the face of things it seems like participation is undeniably the right thing to do.

Love all the way ’round is the answer. Even if those who opposed Rev. Morris’s participation seem hateful to you, love is still the answer. People are not lifted out of hatred and judgment by hatred and judgment against their hateful and judgmental positions. Speak the truth in love, that’s how we grow up into Christ. If you dig into it, you will see that it is primarily the conservatives who opposed Rev. Morris’ participation and the media that have dramatized the issue. The letters and conversations among the actual parties involved have been fraternal and kind.
Here are some links for you, if you want them:

I will leave it to you to search for media coverage if you’d like. It won’t be hard to find. For myself, I absolutely believe that Rev. Morris did the right thing.
God bless!
Pastor John