Missouri Synod president apologizes for Newtown interfaith ‘debacle’

matthew harrison
The Rev. Matthew Harrison was elected July 13, 2010 as the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. RNS photo courtesy LCMS.

(RNS) The president of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod apologized for his role in the “debacle” that led him to publicly reprimand a pastor in Newtown, Conn., for praying at an interfaith service following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

barack obama

President Barack Obama attends a Sandy Hook interfaith vigil at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn., Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. RNS photo by Pete Souza/The White House.

In the initial incident, the denomination’s president, Matthew C. Harrison, requested an apology from the Rev. Rob Morris of Newtown’s Christ the King Lutheran Church for participating in an interfaith prayer vigil that followed the Dec. 14  shootings. Morris’ role in the vigil broke denominational rules against joint worship with other religions.

Morris complied and apologized — not for his participation, but for offending members of the St. Louis-based denomination. But the president’s request sparked a blaze of criticism —from within the denomination and outside it. Critics charged he was intolerant and insensitive to the town’s grieving residents.

“In retrospect, I look back and see that I could’ve done things differently,” Harrison said in a video posted on the denomination’s blog Sunday (Feb. 10). “My deepest desire was to bring unity, or at least to avoid greater division in the Synod over this issue.”

In a letter posted on the denomination’s website on Saturday, Harrison apologized for the “embarrassment due to the media coverage” that came with the controversy.

“As president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I take responsibility for this debacle,” he said. “I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges. I increased the pain of a hurting community.”

In the video and a letter on the blog, Harrison said his exchanges with Morris have been cordial and understanding.

matthew harrison

The Rev. Matthew Harrison was elected July 13, 2010 as the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. RNS photo courtesy LCMS.

“To members of the Missouri Synod, I plead for your forgiveness and patience as we try to work toward resolution, faithful to Christ and His Gospel, in times that challenge us all,” Harrison wrote.

Morris, who was installed as Christ the King’s pastor last August, issued a statement Friday to the people of Newtown assuring them of his congregation’s commitment to the community.

“Though we will never be perfect in doing so, we will not hesitate to offer our love and care in any way that we can, just as Christ has done for us,” Morris wrote.

The Newtown congregation’s lay president, Rob Cicarelli, said the church is standing by its pastor.

“He did what was needed, for us and for our community,” Cicarelli wrote on Saturday. “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.”

Harrison admitted that the denomination is divided over the issue of interfaith participation. Some see it as an endorsement of other religions, yet others see it as an opportunity to share their faith with the community. He also responded to those criticizing the Missouri Synod for being intolerant.

“We respect others of deep religious conviction and appreciate good citizenship shown by any and all, no matter what religion or lack thereof. And we have and will fight to protect the religious liberty and conscience rights of all,” Harrison wrote.

In a separate statement on the Synod’s blog, Harrison, Morris and the president of the Synod’s New England District, the Rev. Timothy Yeadon, expressed a sense of unity. They also called for patience and understanding from members of the Synod.

The controversy is the second high-profile reprimand after a New York pastor was suspended for participating in an interfaith service after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, who was Synod president at the time of the 9/11 controversy, has written a commentary in support of a Lutheran pastor praying under such circumstances.

“My perspective is: Absolutely! Anytime! Anywhere! In the presence of anyone!” he wrote.

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report.)

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Caleb K. Bell


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  • Boo hoo, obviously “Love your neighbor,” to this man, extends only to his “community.” But even pagans love their own community. Sorry, this man’s thinking does not rise to the level of the Gospels. He clearly would dismiss the Good Samaritan – a Jewish heretic – as a bad example.

  • Do we get to say something about his mustache being from the same century as his attitude, or is that too tacky?

  • I left the LCMS for their “exclusivity”. I felt very slighted at a friend’s anniversary party where we all went to worship the next day and because I had been away from the LCMS a year or so (still a Christian believing in the saving grace of Christ) I had to give the elders my testimony. I went to LCMS parochial schools, even college and was confirmed LCMS. They were not going to allow me to take communion? Is not the Lord’s Supper for EVERYONE? Because of my denomination, my LCMS friends will never step foot in my church sanctuary (it’s historical in my town), not even for a non-religious event. It’s sooo tight and restricting, like a bad turtleneck and I often think: “is Jesus happy with this way of thinking?” Should Lutherans be worshipping GOD and Jesus message of Love and forgiveness first and not the doctrine of the man made laws of Synod and Martin Luther?

    I wish there was a clear answer, but I can see a division starting in the LCMS and I see family members clinging to their rules and “doctrine”. It makes me sad.

  • Worshipping God (and God in the flesh in Jesus Christ) and believing in forgiveness first (the Gospel) is not by necessity in opposition to “doctrine”. Doctrine is just a word that means the entire body of teaching. It is true, that much that passes for Scriptural teaching and finds its way into various “doctrines” within various schools of theological thought is more a produce of human creation and tradition than faithful application of scripture. I became and remain an LCMS pastor not because I think we need to beat people up with our teaching, but because I think Jesus meant what He said when He said if you hold to my teaching you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. I have faith in God’s revelation through His Holy Word.

  • Rev. Harrison is the real thing… He is a compassionate man who gave of himself to restore a neighborhood long rejected by its residents. He has spend years in service to his fellow man around the world, looking out for the widows and orphans. The man was my pastor for two years before taking a position with the LCMS. I loved to hear the pure Word and unwavering forgiveness offered and received by this servant of God. With the LCMS he has taken leadership roles in the defense of the unborn, for that the world rejects him. With the LCMS he has provided leadership in tsunami and hurricane relief. The LCMS is striving to help wipe out malaria. The worldly don’t understand the genuine care that the LCMS has for those who are dying without the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel that freely forgives, not by my efforts or Matthew’s but by the work of Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Matthew and the LCMS want to bring this Jesus to the world. But unfortunately, many will not believe.

  • The first commenter’s remarks are so ridiculous as to be laughable. He clearly does not know Matt Harrison nor does he know who Rev. Harrison is or what he has done in the past as one of the most tireless mercy workers the LCMS has ever known. I encourage Mr. McGrath to do a little research before he says anything more about the depth or breadth of Pastor Harrison’s compassion for not just Lutherans but for a suffering world. Here’s one good place to start:
    Also, from Wikipedia: “In his role as head of LCMS World Relief beginning in 2001, Rev. Harrison made several trips to work with those in need in among the slums of Kibera, Kenya and in other East African countries. He worked in Asia following the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami and in Louisiana in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. He also spent several months in early 2010 coordinating LCMS aid in Haiti following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.”
    Mr. McGrath, what have you done for the world?
    And “Marcia”–most people give up making fun of the appearance of others in junior high. Don’t you think it’s about time you did, too?

  • Rev. Harrison tried to deal with a painful situation balancing commitment to the Scriptures’ teaching and care for a tragic happening. He apologized for his failure. The majority of people in our church body forgive him and want to move forward. Unfortunately, the former leader of the denomination, still smarting over his defeat by President Harrison a few years ago is trying to use this for his political advantage.

  • John, you obviously do not know President Harrison.

    And since when does “loving your neighbor” mean worshipping with non-Christian Clergy?

    Love rejoices in the Truth. It does not condone error.

  • I’m curious, Annie– in my years in several LCMS churches around the country, I’ve never heard of elders asking for a “testimony” or Missouri Synod Lutherans refusing to “set foot” in the sanctuary of another denomination’s church– you are honestly the first person I’ve ever heard that from. Could you explain further (without betraying any confidences, of course)? In response to your question, no, communion isn’t for everybody: those who refuse to repent of their sin, those who do not trust in Christ as their Savior (cf. I Corinthians 11).

  • Having a Communion/Eucharist service is one thing. Simply praying to ask for and acknowledge God’s mercy for a grievously injured community is another thing. christ was not as picky about who he talked with and prayed with.

  • So, I guess people can’t even agree that Rev. Harrison handled the situation very poorly without having to fall all over each other defending him?

    And since when is simply praying with someone the same as condoning their religious views? I didn’t realize that LCMS was such an intolerant group. We Americans are supposed to believe in religious tolerance, and here we find that our religions can’t even tolerate each other.

  • Ron, the LCMS has a long history of avoiding syncretism and unionism. Clearly this situation is a difficult one and is controversial even within our church body. Please realize that when you call us intolerant without understanding the context of this internal issue or understanding our doctrine, you our in fact being intolerant.

  • I have participated in interfaith services, colloquia, forums and prayer gatherings. Each time I do I learn more about my fellow human beings and how God has touched the hearts of all of them. I welcome these events in which I can share with fellow religious people from many faith traditions. None of us are trying to convert the other, we greet each other with respect and dignity. I think you are missing out on a wonderful opportunity for participating in the unfoldment of the human heart in the light of God’s guidance. Personally I invite anyone to come and participate in our interfaith services. Peace and Blessings, Imam Salim

  • I am saddened by the LCMS leaderships on this one. I watched the Newtown service. At the beginning, it was clearly stated that it was not a worship service. If we as Christians cannot pray with our fellow human beings in a time of terrible tragedy and in doing so bring them comfort , then what is the point. I did not finish watching the service and immediately renounce my faith. I saw people of all faiths acknowledging their need for God’s comfort in the face of evil. Rev. Morris read from scripture. Are we afraid someone might hear it?

    I can guarantee that no one in my acquaintance saw the service and thought that any of the clergy involved believed their religious beliefs are no different than the other persons . I can’t for the life of me understand why the LCMS leadership believes this is so.

  • August John; Well said ! It should also be said that the President of Synod, or indeed Synod itself is/are not the leader, What leads are the Ruling Rule, (the Bible), and the Ruled Rule, (the Confessions, ie. the Book of Concord). Both synod and the Pres. are “facilitators” of the Confessions, Most often in a theological sense. All else is polity. The former Pres. of Synod was by inclination more involved with polity,/ the political, (as he publicaly stated that he is no theologian); he being a pragmatic.I am thankful our current Pres. actually is a theologian, even though he may stumble in the area of politics. Especially when our faith is based on theology instead of politics.

  • Cheryl, I’m glad your LCMS President is so socially conscious; just wonder if, along with all that physical aid and comfort given to suffering people, he didn’t bother to pray with people in pain? I grew up in the LCMS; eventually became an ELCA pastor (36 years). I treasure the Scriptures and respect the various expressions of faith evident in the broader Lutheran community. I honestly don’t worry about ‘offending’ others by following in the footsteps of Jesus. And I wonder: did Jesus ever apologize to the Pharisees?

  • Those who are criticizing Rev. Harrison would do well with some introspection as to why they cannot accept a gracious apology. This situation continues to be a mine field with hardly a safe place to take a stand without being the object of scathing criticism from either side.

    As for Rev. Harrison, if he is a true follower of Christ he will not mind being persecuted for his attempt to do it authentically and without compromise. As Jesus said, “If they hate you, they hated me first.”

  • Hmmm.. I guess those stories of Jesus going into non-Christian synogogues and Paul following his example… are just stories?

  • Tolerance goes both ways. Those who disagree with the LCMS should be more tolerant and less judgmental. Basically Eastern Orthodox Christians agree with them on this issue. As an Orthodox Priest, I would not participate in an ecumenical worship service, because it is an ancient principle of the Christian religion that what we pray is what we believe, Lex orandi, lex credendi. If two people do not share a common belief, how can they be honest about their beliefs and pray together with those who have other beliefs? What frequently happens as these so called ecumenical services is that they are really watered down Protestant services that say nothing of significance to anyone because they do not want to offend anyone.
    With my Bishop’s permission, I would make an exception for something like the Newtown service because it is not really a worship service. It is more a civic event like the Inauguration of a President. . But, I would say my prayer and sit down. Therefore, technically, I would not be praying with those who do not share my Orthodox beliefs.

  • Then I guess we can’t stand by and condone your errors, either. We don’t have to know someone personally to judge them by their very public actions, and that seems to be obvious to everyone but you. How embarrassing…

  • I, too, know of lay and pastors of LCMS who will not attend another church, even for a funeral, as they do not want to offend. This was in the Chicago area, as well as in Central Illinois.
    It’s very difficult to explain this belief to someone celebrating a wedding, or who has lost a loved one,

    To me the pastor was doing mission work. He prayed in the name of the Triune God. Jesus didn’t avoid non-believers, and he gently brought people to know him. His anger was directed toward the self-righteous.
    How many do we turn from Christ by separating ourselves from the very people who might be won to Christ because we were there with them?

    I’m so thankful for the LCMS Comfort Dogs. I hope their leaders and handlers are officially ‘let off leash’ to minister to all.

  • I hold a different view. What we have here is a man who recognized he was in the wrong, and corrected it. Bravo. I’m guessing that you are also not very good at “loving your neighbor,” and will have plenty of opportunity to emulate his good example.

  • join the elca, the normal part of the lutheran church. they are so open to others and are so much more christ like.

  • For a time when young people are so disinterested in organized religion, it are the stories like this that help keep the trend going. Young people look for places that are open – with varying degrees of course, depending on certain issues – but nonetheless, more open. They (we) want to see a church of movement, a church that is out in the community making a difference in the lives of others outside of themselves.

    This is worse than being inwardly focused just because you don’t know how to do it any differently or don’t care. This is intentional separation from all other Christians – a WHOLE group whose one goal is to be the light of Christ to the world and to those who are in need.

    I am United Methodist and all of these denominations are man-made to suit one person, or one small group of original founders’ thoughts of how they could be better than what was already existing. Young people also do not care about denominational ties – especially when one thinks they are superior than the other. This seems pretty similar to the Church of Christ – the only correct way of living right? Please.

  • I agree! If he doesn’t think it’s alright to participate in interfaith prayer then what the heck is he doing in a religion founded on the actions of a Jewish heretic who hung out with the ‘unsavoury’?

  • “I often wonder if it has occurred to those denominations that restrict access to Communion that none of the recipients at the Last Supper were, in fact, Christian?” – I wonder that all the time myself. It is so ironic and such a departure from the faith that Jesus was actually trying to share with others.

  • Jesus was a good Jew, a Pharisee or Teacher in the Rabbi Hillel style of interpreting the Law humanely. “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” And He praised a Samaritan, a despised Jewish heretic, for acting more humanely than some self-righteous fellow Jews. Are we to believe that Jesus would not pray with Samaritan?

  • Common belief- isn’t believing in God a common belief? Is that not enough? We read the words of Jesus in the bible, and there is far more in the bible ABOUT Jesus from non-eyewitness accounts, than there is actual words of Jesus.
    What he says is rather limited in quantity (not quality of course) and does not seem to promote specific point by point instructions of exactly how to have your church built, how to celebrate mass etc.
    HE did not have elaborate rituals with gold embossed statuary. He did not dress in the high garb of the wealthy. He did not wear robes inlayed with expensive fabric.
    Most of the robes worn , especially in the Orthodox tradition, could feed more than one family for an entire month.
    I am not saying its wrong to celebrate high mass or dress up in all the garb, but what I am saying is that people call themselves Christian.. Followers of Christ… yet if Jesus was indeed to suddenly appear amongst most of these congregations.. how very odd and out of place he would appear. How can so many different Christian paths even dare to assume that their was is THE way?

  • Good theology, John. Samaritans were hated by the Judeans. Which leads us to the whole point of the story. The story follows Jesus’s “love thy neighbor” commandment and the story is the answer to the question “who is my neighbor?” It’s the one who does good, even if it is a hated Samaritan, or the hated group du jour, immigrants, LGBT persons, racial minority, etc. It is a very difficult story for those who feel the need to draw lines and exclude people, and/or feel that their faith is the only way.

  • Thank you for a beautiful, reasonable, and compassionate response. It was much needed. Peace and blessings right back.

  • The US started trending towards secularization around 1990, at the start of the Culture Wars. Apparently, the more church leaders talk about exclusivity, the faster people leave the pews. I think the greater conscience is that all people are our neighbor, and churches that don’t treat others that way don’t seem loving and Christ-like.

    Harrison made a very insensitive misstep. I’m glad he apologized for it, as adding to the pain of the people of Newton… I’m sorry he blamed the media for turning his own actions into a debacle. I think he needed to suck it up without blaming anyone or anything other than himself.

  • Can someone give the exact BIBLICAL reason for not praying with others? It seems we were told to pray unceasingly and Jesus’ MAUD was LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

  • Hi, I am currently a freshman student studying biology at University of California, Davis, hoping to one day use my studies to further the gospel of Jesus Christ through loving others. I understand both sides in some sense. I was born and raised in a Lutheran Church over in Orange, California. I was blessed with growing in the Word every day where I went to school. I thank the Lord everyday that I was blessed with solid Christian men who cared about me and walked beside me in my adversities. I currently do not attend Lutheran Church anymore as I have decided to understand other backgrounds in other denominations. I understand that both parties come with good arguments. However, the irony behind the basis of these arguments is that while you are arguing what it means to “love your neighbor”, many of you are sharing words and insults that are far from the biblical meaning of that word. I attend a university where students from all sorts of religious or non religious backgrounds come together to have healthy discussions concerning God. Out of the many people I have been blessed to share my faith with, most of the reasoning behind their decision to not believe in Jesus, or for leaving the church, was due to the fact that they have either experienced or witnessed some flawed judgement or hypocrisy from a Christian. Obviously, I understand that we are sinners who mess up everyday, but there are times and occurrences when arguments, such as this one, produces divisions in the church, as well as portray Jesus as a non-loving, angry prophet, when Jesus is actually a merciful, compassionate Savior; the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35. If we continue to argue and stab each other over doctrine, we will ignore the lost and broken who Christ has called us to reach out to, or even worse, everyone will think that we are disciples of an angry god, when we are actually disciples of the Merciful God. I encourage all of you to make disciples. Who is one person you can love tomorrow? Who is one person you can pray with tomorrow? Who is one person that Jesus is calling us to share His powerful message with? When are we going to stop this division and simply “love our neighbor”. God’s Blessings with you all.

  • Thnk you, student, for your wise words.
    “Whosoever offends one of these little ones……..”
    We forget when we turn away adults, young or older, we may well be turning away their children.
    Who is it we are hurting when we use The Law instead of The Gospel?
    Remember the joke…St. Peter escorts a new arrival to Heaven past a closed door; “Shhhhh, they are Missouri Synod Lutherans; they don’t know anyone else is here.”

    Or Woody of Cheers to his girlfriend when she becomes LCMS (or however this was resolved) “Oh, thank goodness, I was afraid we’d be separated in Heaven by barbed wire and attack dogs!”
    To all:
    If Jesus is on earth among us in human form, what denomination has he chosen? Is He allowed to go to Communion at your church?

  • Amen ! to your statement Dan .Yet even though Lc-ms president Matt Harrison is a very carring and genuine person his apology is made empty in the minds of some , by dumb statements of another LC-MS past president.

  • Tolerance is the kiss of death–holding steadfast to the Truth and obedience to Our Holy Father’s Will is True Love.

    If a friend is drinking contaminated water because everyone around him is doing the same, do you show him love by warning him or pouring a second cup?

  • I’m just curious, how old are you? most people give up making fun of the appearance of others in, say, middle school? Isn’t it about time you did too?

  • The Missouri Synod needs someone to monitor their actions. They have dished out judgment for hundreds of years. Their decisions and judgments have affected hundreds of lives. Why? Because for years we blindly follow their direction…….the direction of leaders–ONLY MEN.

    When they are confrunted regarding their decisions and actions, they tell us to forgive and move on.

    It is time that they take responsibility for their actions. Some accountability.

  • Thank you FR. John Morris. I am an ex LCMS. But my faith, prayers, and exceptance of Jesus as my Savoir has not changed and attend church regularly. I have struggled with public prayer, not wanting to be in prayer with a Hindu. But your attitude and position are simple and tolerant and has given me a better perspective on public prayer participation.

    Sometime ago I visited my home town and visited my friend, a classmate and fellow confirmant. When he heard that I planned to attend church, he in obtuse but obvious terms said I was not welcome at the Lord’s Supper. However, in another town and LCMS church I attended the Lord’s Supper with my sister.

    I have traveled and visited many different chuches and my observation is the isolation practiced by members of some LCMS churches is convienent in perpetuating their own comfortable cliquish vent. This is probably why i left the LCMS.