Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rev. Harrison's vision of the future of American Protestantism

Lutheran leader sees Protestants aligning
Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette

The Rev. Matthew Harrison has a vision of what the future of American Protestantism might look like – and it includes a potentially big realignment.

Harrison, who was pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne in the 1990s and early 2000s, was elected last year to head the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a 6,200-congregation denomination with 2.3 million baptized members. The synod is the second-largest and most traditional among the branches of Lutheranism in North America.

In an interview last month during a visit to the Synod’s Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Harrison said he sees opposition to homosexuality and support of traditional marriage as leading to new ties among dissident members of diverse Protestant groups.

“I certainly see it happening,” he said. “It’s a very interesting moment worldwide.”

In recent years, several U.S. denominations including Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians have seen splinter groups form in reaction to policies that broadened acceptance of homosexuals.

Now, he says the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s recent move to allow some non-celibate gay clergy is affecting the church’s mission in the developing world, where different branches of the faith have traditionally cooperated.

He called the decision “the worst blunder in the history of Lutheran missions,” saying it makes it harder for the church’s message to be heard.

In Africa it’s because of homosexuality’s connection to the AIDS epidemic, he said. In countries such as Indonesia where Islam is prevalent, he added, Islamic radicals seize on the issue as proof that the Western Christian church is decadent and should be rejected.

Harrison said the issue may present an opportunity for his denomination in some countries.

In the past several years, Lutheran groups in Madagascar, where the population is 25 percent Lutheran, have made informal overtures to the Missouri Synod. Lutherans in the country have historically aligned with the ELCA, he said.

Another sign of the realignment, he added, is that his denomination and the Anglican Church in North America have begun formal dialogue seeking common ground.

The Anglican body formed in 2008 in a split from the U.S. Episcopal Church largely over the issue of allowing homosexual bishops and priests. It has ties to Anglican churches in Africa that opposed homosexuality, including Uganda, Nigeria and Rwanda.

Anglicans and the Missouri Synod are talking “to be able to affirm each other in significant ways as fellow Christians, stand together against certain societal and ecclesial trends and cooperate together in works of mercy,” according to the synod’s description of the dialogues. They began in November and will continue this year.

Still another sign of movement is a declaration signed by Harrison in December on marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The declaration was endorsed by leaders of about 20 Protestant Christian groups as well as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church.

Harrison said for Missouri Synod Lutherans, the issue of homosexuality strikes at the root of the authority of Scripture.

“The difficulty we have runs to the very heart of the Gospel – is there salvation outside of Christ? The Bible says no,” he says, adding that those who claim acceptance of homosexuality are imposing their interpretation of the texts.

Harrison last year also wrote a letter to U.S. lawmakers saying that the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the U.S. military “will sorely inhibit our chaplains’ ability to call all sinners to repentance.”

He said the new policy will likely lead to openly homosexual chaplains and added that Missouri Synod members may be counseled not to partake of their services.

“But the challenge for the Missouri Synod on this whole issue is simply not to be the denomination of ‘no.’ ” he said.

“It is my deep desire to refrain from statements against homosexuality, at the same time affirming the biblical stance and that the church has a role in assisting people who struggle with this issue,” Harrison said.

In Fort Wayne, Harrison was known for spearheading a project with neighboring St. Peter Catholic Church that rejuvenated the Hanna-Creighton neighborhood.

Dilapidated homes were cleared from a 10-block area around the churches and replaced with new development, such as the Pontiac branch of the Allen County Public Library and the headquarters of the Urban League.

After leaving Fort Wayne, Harrison served as executive director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care.

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