ST. LOUIS — The president of a conservative Lutheran denomination has apologized for reprimanding a Newtown, Conn., pastor who participated in an interfaith prayer vigil in apparent violation of the church's constitution.
The Rev. Rob Morris of Christ the King Lutheran Church offered the benediction at the Dec. 16 vigil with other religious leaders – including Jewish, Muslim and Baha'i – for victims of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison subsequently reprimanded Morris, saying the synod constitution bars joint worship for fear of giving the appearance that theological differences about salvation and other doctrines are not significant.
Media reports on the reprimand and Morris' apology incited outrage among some bloggers and posters on social media sites who expressed disapproval with the synod's decision.
On Monday, Harrison posted a video apology on the synod website saying his actions had only made things worse.
"I exacerbated the problem," a somber Harrison said. "I caused greater offense. I caused trouble for Pastor Morris and difficulty for the congregation and offense there in the midst of their suffering. Please forgive me."
Morris said in an email Tuesday that all parties have reconciled. He said the topic of interfaith participation "is a legitimate discussion of Christian ministry and there is a proper time and place for it. What breaks my heart is that this legitimate doctrinal discussion has now become yet another hurtful burden on my congregation and community."
Vicki Biggs, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis-based Missouri Synod, said Harrison was not available for an interview Tuesday. The synod, with 2.3 million members, is separate from the larger, liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, based in Chicago.
The vigil, which took place just days after the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook shootings that left 20 children and six educators dead, was also attended by President Barack Obama and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy.
Harrison originally expressed concerns privately with Morris, and websites used by members of the synod debated the issue.
In a statement posted Feb. 1 on a denominational blog, Harrison said Morris took "specific and commendable" steps to avoid violating the church's constitution, by requesting an announcement before the event that participating clergy were not endorsing each other's views. Also he read from Scripture.
But Harrison concluded that the event was joint worship since other clergy wore their vestments and the vigil included prayers and religious readings. He wrote on the blog that he asked Morris to apologize for upsetting some members of the synod.
Morris apologized even though he did not believe he engaged in joint worship. Harrison wrote that he accepted the apology, and he requested that no one file a complaint against Morris under the denomination's disciplinary system.
Still, once word of the reprimand and forced apology became public, media criticism ensued. It was reminiscent of an uproar in the wake of the September 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, when Harrison's predecessor, the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, allowed a pastor to participate in an interfaith prayer vigil at Yankee Stadium. About two dozen pastors and a few congregations had complained about the Rev. David Benke's involvement in that service.
In the video, Harrison took responsibility for the latest flare-up.
"My deepest desire was to bring unity or at least to avoid greater division in the synod over this issue," Harrison said.