Pastor apologizes for participating in Newtown memorial service

The Lutheran reverend was called out for worshiping alongside "false religions" like Islam

Published February 8, 2013 4:13PM (EST)


In the days following the Sandy Hook massacre, the Rev. Rob Morris, a new pastor to Christ the King Lutheran Church, gave the benediction in a high-profile interfaith memorial service on Dec. 16 in Newtown, Conn. — among the attendees were President Obama, the surviving families of the slain, and clergy members from a variety of religions, including the Muslim and Baha’i faiths. As the New York Times reports today, his denomination regards sharing the stage with other, "false" religions like Islam and Baha'i, as a violation — they prohibit joint worship with other faiths, under any circumstances. After an excoriation by his leader, Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Missouri Synod, Morris submitted an open-letter apology for his attendance. Here is his letter.

Letter from Pastor Robert Morris—Newtown, CT
January 31, 2013

To my brothers and sisters in Christ,

I begin with words of deepest thanks for all of the many outpourings of support we at Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown, CT, have received in the wake of the shootings on Dec. 14th. The trauma of that day is immeasurable and is continuing to be played out in our emotions and daily lives – individually, as a congregation, and within our community. And yet, as we celebrate at Epiphany, Christ’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. One of the ways Christ has given His light into this darkness has been through all of your support, and for that we are unspeakably grateful, both to Him and to you.

Many have expressed their thoughts of how difficult it must be to administer Christ’s grace and truth in such a situation, but I have a little different take. It is indeed an unspeakably difficult situation – emotions are raw, energy reserves are spent, fear and mistrust are far too easy, and all of us are faced with circumstances for which no amount of training or preparation could be sufficient. And yet, the only thing that makes ministering under these circumstances possible is Christ’s grace and truth. All else is a false hope, a hollow comfort. Thus, it was a gift of God, even within these dark and tear-filled times, to announce the certainty of Christ’s birth, our God-With-Us, not only 2000 years ago, but within each of us through our baptism. The certainty of Christ’s resurrection and our adoption into Him through His Word and Sacrament is the only possible message of hope and peace within these dark times, both in Newtown and around the world. Ministering is hard, but ministering Christ’s grace is a gift, no matter the circumstances.

With that in mind, some have expressed concern and in some cases public rebuke that my participation in the televised prayer vigil on Sunday night has hindered our ability to speak this Christian truth into a pluralistic culture. The fear is that by sharing the stage with false teachers, I have diminished the proclamation of the truth which is ours by grace through faith in Christ.

Firstly, my source of ultimate comfort as I reflect back on everything in the last six weeks – that event included – is that no sin, even my own sinful failures, can destroy the Church or the Gospel. Jesus taught us that even the gates of hell cannot prevail against His Church which is built on the rock of true confession. And in one of my favorite hymns in the Lutheran Service Book, we powerfully proclaim that “Built on the rock the church shall stand / Even when steeples are falling.” We need not live in fear that Christ’s Gospel will be damaged, for even Satan cannot accomplish that.

Within that reality, though, we do have a God-given responsibility to be on our guard against all kinds of false teaching. Prior to the events of 12/14, I had already spent hours with my own congregation, catechizing them as to the differences between our Lutheran understanding of Scriptural teaching, the various other denominations’ teachings, and the teachings of false religions such as Islam or B’Hai. I had likewise spent time with my fellow clergy in Newtown clarifying the ways I can and cannot engage in events like joint clergy dialogues (which are good to engage in), joint caring efforts (only within limits), and joint worship (not possible). To my fellow brothers who are serving in the office of public ministry, I encourage you to do these same tasks in your churches and communities. It is not comfortable, but it is necessary. To my brothers and sisters who are laypeople in the church, I ask you to encourage and pray for your pastors as they do these difficult, but God-given tasks. Thus, 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. If any of you know church members or friends or family who are now confused because of my participation, believing that the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod fully endorses the doctrine of anyone else who was on that stage, please correct this confusion lovingly, and I will personally be happy to help in any way that I can. Feel free to pass on my apologies for having given that impression.

Many have asked for details as to who said what to whom prior to my participation in the service. After consultation with my supervisors and others, I made my own decision. Consensus could not be reached among those I consulted. Decisions had to be made in a very short window of time and the nature of the planned event was changing moment by moment. The planning was only completed late Saturday night and I was only made aware that the event would be televised a few hours before it began (and after the program listing my participation had already been released to the media).

But I believe this is a secondary concern. I took the action that I took. I and no one else. In the end, I believed my participation to be, not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy. Chaplains are expected to give faithful witness under circumstances which are less than ecclesiastically perfect, even as their fellow chaplains may proclaim a different witness. Thus, with a disclaimer at the outset (which I requested) having stated that participation did not mean endorsement of the other religions represented, I said I was sharing “a final blessing of the hope which is ours through faith in Jesus Christ, using the words of St. John and St. Paul”, I then read from Revelation 21 and I prayed the Trinitarian benediction from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which we say as part of our Lutheran daily offices. 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. However, I recognize others in our church consider it to constitute joint worship and I understand why. I apologize where I have caused offense by pushing Christian freedom too far, and I request you charitably receive my apology. 
Those who have followed the news reports are aware that this event is not quite like anything that has happened before. This was not a natural disaster, an act of terrorism, or random bullets sprayed into a crowd. I believe (and I fervently pray) that my ministry will never involve a parallel situation to the one that faced my congregation and community that weekend. By their very nature, extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary decisions and I do not hold my decisions up as an example to be emulated under ordinary circumstances. I simply say to any pastor who finds themselves in a similar situation (and I pray that none will): you will have my unswerving prayerful support, and I encourage you to do all that you can to ensure that you faithfully proclaim the grace that is ours in Jesus Christ alone. Be sure the proclamation is faithful, and be sure that Christ’s grace is proclaimed.

For it is this grace which has made us His sons and daughters, it is this grace which assures us of our eternal rest in Him, and it is this grace which sustains me and the people of Christ the King here in Newtown. I thank you all again for your love, care, and compassion.

Your brother in Christ,

Pastor Rob Morris
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Newtown, CT

By Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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