When religious leaders from a variety of faiths — Christians, Jews, Muslims and Baha’i — gathered for an interfaith vigil to seek comfort for a town devastated by a horrible event, the Rev. Rob Morris prayed with them.
Fortunately, he now has been forgiven for that.
The Rev. Morris is the pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, Conn. Among the many victims of the Sandy Hook massacre in December was a member of his congregation. So it seemed only fitting, if not obligatory, that he take part last December in what he believed to be an act of “mercy and care to a community shocked and grieving an unspeakably horrific event.”
The leader of his denomination disagreed. Praying with members of other faiths, the president of the Missouri Synod explained, might be seen as a suggestion that the differences between religions are not important. He called upon the Rev. Morris to apologize for his transgression of consorting with others who did not share his denomination’s belief that it had been granted the only accurate road map to heaven.
In a community united in grief and outrage, in other words, he had been found guilty of not making perfectly clear the differences that divide us.
The Rev. Morris dutifully apologized. “There will be times in this crazy world when, for what we believe are all the right reasons, we may step over the scriptural line,” he said.
His apology was accepted, and he has the church hierarchy’s blessing to keep praying. As long as he doesn’t do it in the company of the billions of people in the world who do not worship exactly the way the 2.3 million members of his denomination do.
Although it is more conservative than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, not every member of the Missouri Synod agreed that an apology was necessary for an act of brotherhood and faith. Outsiders, a former president of the denomination declared, would “shake their heads in disgust and dismay. For them, the image of our church becomes one of isolationism, sectarianism and legalism.”
It wouldn’t be the first time. Following 9/11, a New York pastor was suspended by the same denomination for worshiping with “pagans,” at an interfaith prayer service at Yankee Stadium.
Perhaps religious leaders have a right, maybe even a divine duty, to chastise “smorgasbord believers,” the ones who pick and choose which parts of their holy books to follow. Still, it’s hard not to shake your head in disgust and dismay when someone has to say he’s sorry for trying to bring mercy and care to those in need.
Hard not to believe that, in this case, the wrong person needed to apologize.