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LCMS pastor offering “community chaplaincy” caught up in controversy

When a first-call pastor of  a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation in Newtown, Connecticut, was asked to offer the benediction at a community vigil on December 16, 2012, two days after a mass school shooting, he agreed, seeing it as an act of mercy.

The response to the Rev. Rob Morris’ decision to participate ignited a firestorm that resulted in a series of public apologies and a public relations nightmare for the LCMS. Morris is pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown.

This episode is reminiscent of another public eruption over a highly public commemorative activity. A few days after the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Rev. David Benke, an LCMS pastor in New York City, participated in a vigil at the World Trade Center site. After much controversy, Benke was suspended when he refused to apologize publicly for his participation in this event. He was re-instated in 2003.

The Rev. Rob Morris is pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church (LCMS), Newtown, Connecticut.

“In the last two very difficult months, Pastor Morris has been a source of constant affirmation that God is indeed here in Newtown.”

Soon after the December vigil in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, which was attended by President Barack Obama, charges of practicing “joint worship with other religions” and “unionism” were made on clergy blogs and in public forums, especially in the social media.

The LCMS prohibits clergy from participation in acts of “joint worship,” according to Article VI of its constitution. LCMS President Matthew Harrison, responding to public pressure to censure Morris, asked the new pastor for an apology.

Perhaps in light of the action taken against Benke, Morris did apologize to those who were hurt by his action, though he didn’t feel that it was a joint worship but an act of mercy. Instead, explaining his reasoning for participation, he stated that he believed he was engaged in “community chaplaincy.”

Members of Christ the King seemed generally to agree. Rob Cicarelli, church council president, wrote on the congregational website, “At [the February 8] congregational meeting, the overriding sentiment was support for Pastor Rob Morris’ participation in the [December 16] Interfaith Vigil. He did what was needed, for us and for our community.

“In fact, we heard nothing but thanks. In the last two very difficult months, Pastor Morris has been a source of constant affirmation that God is indeed here in Newtown.”

The controversy continued

Still, Morris’ apology did not satisfy many of his detractors, and the calls for further punishment continued.

Harrison, in a letter released February 1, explained that he had accepted Morris’ apology because he did “readily admit that his action was offensive, and he has no intention of repeating it.” With that Harrison stated that he accepted the apology.

He went on to plead with Morris’ detractors and supporters alike to likewise accept the apology — whether believing it unnecessary or insufficient — and move forward and “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” citing Ephesians 4:1b-3.

As Metro Lutheran went to press, Morris, Harrison, and President Timothy Yeadon, New England District, released a joint statement stating, “By the grace of God, we have worked through a very challenging situation. It has been our deepest mutual concern in dealing with one another to be faithful to Christ, our respective vocations, and to each other. … We have mutually forgiven each other where we have fallen short. We are reconciled. We are at peace.”

In an attached pastoral letter by Harrison, he writes, “As president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I take responsibility for this debacle. I handled it poorly multiplying the challenges. … I plead for your forgiveness and patience as we try again to work toward resolution, faithful to Christ and his Gospel, in times that challenge us all.”

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