Rob Morris, the pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, has apologized to those who were upset or offended at his participation in the December 16, 2012, vigil at Newtown High School. He is not apologizing, however, for being part of that evening’s presentation.
“That moment was such a moment of grief,” Pastor Morris said last week. “Refusing to be present was unthinkable to me.”
A public letter of apology touched off a firestorm for the local pastor, who found himself not only responding to leaders within his church but also hearing from national and international media during the past two weeks. Reporters were under the impression that he was being reprimanded by church leaders. In fact, the apology and a response within 24 hours by the president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod made it clear that the matter should have been settled there.
Instead, another apology, this time from Pastor Matthew C. Harrison, the LCMS president, was offered to settle the uproar caused by the initial letters between himself and Pastor Morris. A statement issued by Pastor Harrison, Pastor Morris, and even Timothy Yeadon, president of the New England District, LCMS, on Saturday, February 9, seems to finally be offering closure for all those involved.
Confused? Here is the backstory:
The event in question was held two days after the 12/14 shootings at Sandy Hook School, which took the lives of two children connected to Christ the King. It included participation by local religious leaders who offered scripture readings of the Christian, Jewish, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Muslim, and Baha’i faiths.
President Barack Obama, Governor Dannel P. Malloy, and First Selectman Pat Llodra joined local clergy members on December 16, offering words of hope and strength to those assembled in the auditorium of the high school and millions of others who watched the event as it was broadcast live.
Pastor Harrison had contacted Pastor Morris prior to the Sunday evening vigil in December, urging him not to participate. Pastor Harrison reportedly saw the event as going beyond the limits set by Scripture regarding joint worship, and was thus considered a violation of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS).
Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association hosted the event. In the opening remarks, Reverend Matthew Crebbin, senior pastor of Newtown Congregational Church, said that he and his fellow clergy members were not gathered “to ignore differences or diminish core beliefs which define our many different faith traditions, but to offer our love, care and prayers for our families and our community. We wanted to offer our voices in the form of words from our sacred texts, and prayers from the depths of our being, but also to have time for us to be together in silence. And that is what we will do.
“We will have a time for sharing, and prayer, and also a time for silence between so that all of us can pray as we wish, and think about what it is that is most important to us,” Rev Crebbin continued.
It was, he said, a gathering to begin and continue a long journey through grief and loss.
Pastor Morris offered the evening’s closing benediction, reading from Scripture.
“It was not a worship service,” Pastor Morris said on February 7. “How could it be? What I said was nothing other than words of Scripture.”
Within hours of the event, however, members of the Lutheran church across the country began voicing their displeasure at the actions of what Pastor Harrison called an “offense in the Synod.”
On January 31, Pastor Morris issued an apology to those who found his participation offensive. The apology was part of a letter from Pastor Morris that was posted on Witness, Mercy, Life Together, a blog maintained by LCMS officers and executive staff. The post was quickly passed around and picked up by members of the Synod and national media.
Pastor Morris began his letter “with words of deepest thanks for all of the many outpourings of support we at Christ the King Lutheran Church … have received in the way of the shootings on Dec. 14th. The trauma of that day is immeasurable and is continuing to be played out in our emotions and daily lives — individually, as a congregation, and within our community. And yet, as we celebrate at Epiphany, Christ’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
Later he said “ministering is hard, but ministering Christ’s grace is a gift, no matter the circumstances.”
In the following paragraph, Pastor Morris begins his apology to those who “have expressed concern and in some cases public rebuke that my participation in the televised prayer vigil on Sunday night has hindered our ability to speak this Christian truth into a pluralistic culture. The fear is that by sharing the stage with false teachers, I have diminished the proclamation of the truth which is ours by grace through faith in Christ.”
Pastor Morris was installed as vicar of Christ the King on January 8, 2012, and then installed as its pastor on August 26. He has already spent time during the past year, he said in his letter, with “fellow clergy in Newtown clarifying the ways I can and cannot engage in events like joint clergy dialogues (which are good to engage in), joint caring efforts (only within limits), and joint worship (not possible).” He encouraged those who are serving in the office of public ministry to do the same within their churches and communities, and encouraged lay people to pray for their pastors “as they do these difficult, but God-given tasks.”
He then offered his “unreserved apologies” to those who felt he “endorsed false teaching.”
Pastor Morris did not feel his participation in the event “to be an act of joint worship, but one of mercy and care to a community shocked and grieving an unspeakably horrific event.”
In other words, he stands behind what he did.
“I used my pastoral judgment,” Pastor Morris said February 7.
He, like other clergy in town, was directly affected by 12/14. Within a week of the vigil, Pastor Morris officiated at two funerals for the victims. One of the children killed on 12/14 was a member of Christ the King, and another had been baptized into the Lutheran faith.
On February 1, Pastor Harrison posted an acceptance of Pastor Morris’s apology on the LCMS blog. The long post said many things, but its main point was that he accepted the apology of Pastor Morris.
Pastor Harrison explained in his letter why he initially wanted an apology — a feeling that, as mentioned above, it violated LCMS Constitution; that it gave offense to the Synod “even if we are doing something we believe might be appropriate”; and his desire to “avoid deep and public contention in the Synod” — but he also, in bold lettering, made it clear that the apology had been accepted. There was no punishment, no admonishment, and no finger pointing from the side of the president.
Pastor Harrison encouraged all others to do the same thing he had already done: accept the apology.
One Week Later
Following the posting of Pastor Morris’s apology and Pastor Harrison’s acceptance of it, Pastor Morris had hoped that the issue would subside. Instead, the two public posts only stirred things up. Blogs and newspapers across the country began sharing it, and within days the phone calls and e-mails began to pour into Newtown. Many expressed concern that Pastor Morris was being punished or was in trouble with the Synod.
Seated behind his desk at the Mt Pleasant Road church last Thursday afternoon, he was regularly interrupted by the steady ringing of both the church’s phone and his cellphone.
Pastor Morris recently changed the message on the church’s answering machine, asking those who were calling about “regular church business” to leave a message, but referring anyone with comments or questions about anything else to contact him via e-mail.
As a result, his e-mailbox quickly filled with hundreds of letters, the vast majority of which were in support of his decision to participate in the December event. The e-mails — more than 600 of them in the past two months, he said — are overwhelmingly positive.
“I respect … but cannot agree” with what others in LCMS feel about his actions, he said Thursday afternoon. “I have no doubt that my participation in the prayer service was the faithful way to minister God’s word in this community.
“I do have doubt,” he continued, “as to whether writing a letter to those who were offended was the most faithful way to minister God’s word in this community.”
He voiced these hesitations to Pastor Harrison before issuing his apology, Pastor Morris said, but he did respond to the leader’s request for the apology nevertheless. He did so with misgivings, he said, and with the hope that a public apology to those who were offended would be the end of the discussion.
“I still believe it’s faithful, as a Christian, when you know you have offended someone to do everything you can. But the end result has been that people here are hurt again, and I am partly responsible for that,” he said. “And that’s not easy.”
Meeting With Church Members
The publicity surrounding the pastor’s actions, he says, has been difficult for his congregation. To help those who were confused or concerned over the December service, Pastor Morris’s apology, Pastor’s Harrison’s response, and the thought that their church leader might be in trouble with the Synod, an open meeting was scheduled for the evening of February 7 for all members of Christ the King Lutheran Church.
“Everybody who sits in these pews has a right to know exactly what has happened,” he said. “We have to make something available to the people of Newtown that explains exactly where I was coming from in each case.”
Pastor Morris addressed his congregation that night during the meeting, and briefly on Sunday, February 10, during the weekly worship service.
“It was great,” Pastor Morris said of the congregational meeting. “I think it went very, very well. It was emotional, but it went well.
“We met so that everyone could discuss everything that had gone on, and so that we could reaffirm our love and care for the community, and to try to assure that this would not bring any additional pain or hardship to anyone here in the community.”
By Saturday, Pastor Harrison offered another post on the blog, this time offering his own apology and admitting that the church body continues to struggle with “how to respond to civic/religious services in the midst of such events [as Newtown] and to do so in a way that is in accord with our core convictions about the uniqueness of Christ.”
Pastor Harrison also pointed out that only a small portion of his first letter, and Pastor Morris’s letter, had been picked up by many, which distorted the facts of an “admittedly nuanced situation that is very difficult for most people, even within the Missouri Synod, to understand.” He encouraged all visitors to take the time to read each man’s letter in full.
He also offered an apology to the congregation of Christ the King, to Pastor Morris, and to Newtown.
“I increased the pain of a hurting community,” he wrote.
At the same time, a letter from Timothy Yeadon, president of the New England District, LCMS, was also posted. Rev Yeadon, who had been in Newtown to aid the Christ the King community in the weeks following 12/14, offered support to Pastor Morris, calling him “a man of integrity and honor who was thrust into a nightmare few of us can imagine.”
Finally on Saturday, a statement of unity was issued by the three men. Pastor Morris, Reverend Yeadon, and Pastor Harrison said, in short, that they “have worked through a very challenging situation [and had] forgiven each other where we have fallen short.”
Pastor Morris referred to what had been going on during the February 10 Christ the King worship service, but only during the opening minutes of his sermon. Pastor Morris opened his sermon by referencing the verse “God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.
“We certainly have seen plenty of mysterious ways over the last days and the last months of our lives, have we not?” he continued. “And yet it is both our hope and our comfort in the midst of such times to know that God is still at work.” The sermon was based on Luke 9:28–36, when Jesus went up onto the mountain to pray, and his disciples fell asleep.
“My heart really goes out to those disciples,” Pastor Morris said Sunday morning. “I’ve heard a lot of pastors take those disciples to task. They use this as an example that the disciples weren’t really committed to prayer. They weren’t really attuned to Christ as perhaps they should have been, that they had grown lazy, or sluggardly, in their following of Christ.”
He disagrees with that take on the teachings, he said.
“My theory is that the disciples fell asleep because — are you ready for this? — they were tired,” he said, eliciting some laughter from the pews. “And my heart goes out to those disciples because think of what they had been through, over these years that they had been disciples of Christ.”
The disciples, he reminded those in the church that morning, had been with Jesus for so long, away from their homes and their families, and they had been taught “all kinds of things that are difficult to explain or understand. And all of this time they live under the constant threat of criticism from their,” he paused slightly, “religion’s leaders. And a physical threat from those who would oppose them.
“I’m pretty convinced the disciples fell asleep for no more complex reason than the fact that they were tired,” he said. “And I think that most of us, at some point within the last two months, can very much relate with that.”
By Monday, February 11, things were finally beginning to calm down for Christ the King Lutheran Church.
Part of Pastor Morris’s frustration with the public apology and follow-up calls for admonishments is “how bad this makes the Synod look,” he said. “The overwhelming response from within the Synod has been of care and support.”
The Synod paid for the Morris family — Pastor Rob, his wife Christy, and their two sons — to go on vacation after 12/14, and has also arranged for visits to Newtown by comfort dogs.
“It grieves me terribly that that act has brought more pain and confusion to those in the community who rely on me,” Pastor Morris said last week.
“For myself, I am hopeful that this can be a close to this particular chapter,” he said Monday. “In fairness, the church has to try to balance how to be faithful to that which we teach, and loving toward everyone, regardless of whether they agree with what we teach. Even at the national level, that’s what this debate is about: how to do both things in a faithful way.
“My hope is that we can turn the narrative back,” he said, “to trying to find hope, in Christ, in the middle of unspeakable circumstances.”