Lutheran leader apologizes for handling of Sandy Hook vigil controversy
The Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, has apologized for his handling of an internal crisis over a Sandy Hook school massacre interfaith prayer vigil.
In an interview with the Post-Dispatch Monday, Harrison said his effort to contain the controversy had failed. His words mirrored those in a letter and video he posted online over the weekend taking blame for what he termed a “debacle.”
“I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges,” Harrison wrote in his letter. “I increased the pain of a hurting community.”
He apologized to the members of the Connecticut church, to the pastor in question, to the people of Newtown and “to the membership of our great church body for embarrassment due to the media coverage.”
Last week, Harrison wrote in an online letter that he had asked the Rev. Rob Morris, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, to apologize for upsetting some members of the synod by participating in the vigil. The synod posted the letter of apology from Morris at the same time on its website.
After the forced apology was picked up in the press, outrage followed in social media and blogs.
In 2001, a similar moment threatened the administration of Harrison’s predecessor after he allowed a pastor to take part in an interfaith prayer vigil at Yankee Stadium in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“My deepest concern was that we not have another protracted multiyear fiasco like we had after Yankee Stadium,” Harrison said in an interview Monday. “I believed at that time, had simply a brief apology been given ... it could have been dealt with in a sane way.”
Harrison declined to say when he knew that Morris would be participating in the vigil. Doing so, he said, would “stir up potential antagonisms and differences.”
The constitution of the 2.4 million-member denomination, based in Kirkwood, prohibits members from taking part in worship services that blend the beliefs and practices of Lutherans with those of other faiths and Christian denominations.
The prohibition on worshipping with other Christians stems from the synod’s 19th-century history in Germany, when its members were forced by the government to accept Calvinism against their will — and fled to the United States to preserve their religious freedom.
In 2004, in the wake of the Yankee Stadium controversy, the synod issued a 23-page document called “Guidelines for Participation in Civic Events,” including an acknowledgment of “once-in-a-lifetime” situations which “can be evaluated only on a case-by-case basis.”
Harrison said Monday that the synod’s constitution “gives a clear indication of our practice,” and that the guidelines “are somewhat problematic.” The guidelines “are not in themselves totally clear,” he continued. “Any and all guidelines have to be interpreted in light of the constitution.”
Referring to the Sandy Hook shootings in his pastoral letter posted online over the weekend, Harrison wrote that the synod has “struggled and continues to struggle with how to respond to civic/religious services in the midst of such events and to do so in a way that is in accord with our core convictions about the uniqueness of Christ.”
He said he “naively thought” an apology from Morris would allow the synod to “move quickly beyond internal controversy and toward a less emotional process of working through our differences, well out of the public spotlight. That plan failed miserably.”
But Morris’ apology and his own letter of explanation last week were “spun in the media,” Harrison said Monday. “I issued a very pastoral letter, and Pastor Morris issued a fine letter, but they were picked up as a rebuke and censure.”
The two men and the president of the synod’s New England district, signed a “statement of unity,” which was posted online over the weekend.
“By the grace of God, we have worked through a very challenging situation,” the statement said. “We have mutually forgiven each other where we have fallen short.”
Harrison said he’d received “an overwhelming blanket of positives from people, including those on different sides of the issue,” and that he is “at peace with what I did.”
“Could I have handled it better?” he asked. “I’m not Jesus. I’m just trying to be faithful and keep synod together.”
Harrison is up for re-election in July, when LCMS delegates gather in St. Louis for their triennial convention.
Before the mainstream secular press even knew about the story, Lutheran blogs had sent news of Morris’ participation across the Internet.
A blog run by the Brothers of John the Steadfast, whose members stress strict Lutheran orthodoxy, and who are credited with helping Harrison get elected three years ago, was one of the first on the story in December.
One commenter on steadfastlutherans.org said Morris’ participation in the service “does more harm to the souls of the survivors than any gunman could ever do.”
The Rev. Timothy Rossow, Steadfast’s leader, wrote in agreement in a post that followed. “The gunman killed the body which lasts for 70 or 80 years. ... False teaching and practice kills the soul which lives for eternity in heaven or hell.”
Harrison said Monday that he’d taken the “unprecedented” step of contacting “the most prominent blogs in the synod and asking them to refrain from commenting on the issue.” He said he asked Steadfast and another blog, the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, to pull down comments about Morris and the vigil.
“He didn’t need to be attacked,” Harrison said. “We don’t need a public airing of our pent-up grievances.”
Morris was “a young pastor in a difficult situation who took action which he felt was the right thing to do in the circumstance, and he did the best he could,” Harrison said. “I also believe that when you get into those situations, you should be ready to repent boldly, and to forgive boldly.”
Tim Townsend is the religion reporter at the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @townsendreport.