On Thursday, at the conclusion of our closing worship service at the Bishop’s convocation, a colleague informed me of a headline appearing on one of the national cable news networks. He told me it read, “Lutheran pastor apologizes for Newtown, CT worship participation.”
My heart sank immediately. Why? Because many of us have been concerned that the leadership of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod might act in such a way. But, more importantly, I knew this would be just one more straw on the camel's back to those in this country who have no religious affiliation. My heart sank, because I knew a few more people became “Nones,” this week.
A little background. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod or LC-MS is not the denomination, of which I am affiliated. They are a separate religious denomination. They are often described as a conservative denomination by various sources such as Gallup Polling or the Religious News Service. I am a Bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA. The name of the geographic region where I serve is called the New England Synod. In the ELCA, there are 65 synods. These are geographic regions throughout the United States. I am trying to clarify this, because I think it is easy to confuse Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod with Lutheran Church, New England Synod. They are not the same, nor related.
While the ELCA and LCMS are separate ecclesiastical bodies, we are linked historically by the ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran Confessions of the 16th century. However, where we differ is that, generally, we in the ELCA do not permit anxiety over syncretism to trump our witness to and empathy for fellow human beings in the midst of unbearable tragedy and loss.
The President of LC-MS issued a statement this week, which described his decision to reprimand an LC-MS pastor from Newtown, CT for participating in the ecumenical and interfaith event which included President Obama last December. The pastor subsequently issued an apology. I have had several communications from people in our congregations inquiring about this event. One email summarizes it best, “I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t it be ok for a pastor to participate in that worship service? I read that his church had children in the congregation die just four days earlier, and he did their funerals. This makes no sense to me.”
The LC-MS is a denomination that is experiencing some internal struggles. The current President, Matthew Harrison, was elected in 2010 when he defeated the more moderate and incumbent President Jerry Kieshnick. Rather than my commenting on the differences, I’ll simply refer you to past-president Kieshnick’s response to President Harrison’s reprimand, which he sent out this week. You can read it here.
My concern in this whole situation is as follows:
1. I want to clarify that neither I, nor the New England Synod of the ELCA are in any way associated with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. We share a theological heritage through the Lutheran Confessions, but in the legal sense, we are not connected.
2. My greatest concern is that an event like this may be adding insult to injury. The people of Newtown do not need this kind of controversy piled onto their pain.
3. I deeply regret that this will be viewed by those outside of the church as justification for a “who needs that nonsense” kind of attitude.
Our response in the ELCA to the tragedy of Newtown is broad, humble and embracing. Next Thursday, February 14, on the day after Ash Wednesday, together with Bishop Ian Douglas of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, I will be in Hartford for an ecumenical prayer service. This will be a time for any and all Lutheran and Episcopal clergy, deacons and rostered leaders to gather. The intent is to reflect on the challenges of doing ministry in a culture of violence.
"In times of violence we need the church to witness to our unity in Christ,” said the Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas, Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut. “Coming together in an ecumenical prayer service is exactly what we most need right now.”
“If we are divided we cannot effectively challenge the violence endemic in our culture. Standing united we can best witness to the peace of Christ that passes all understanding.”
This gathering will be held at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Hartford, CT. The choice of this location is intentional, because the structure was built with funds from the old Colt Armory. Yes, the same Colt that manufactured hand guns. We in the church are complicit in our accomodation to a culture of violence. Coming to Good Shepherd reminds us of our own need to confess the ways in which we have not been prophetic in our own time. Confession can often be the beginning point for what is the ultimate meaning of repentance - metanoia - turning around, turning to a new way of being.
I hope all pastors, AIM's, diaconal ministers and deaconesses will consider joining me on Feb 14 at 9:30 a.m., and then everyone (all Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Buddhists, Hindus and Nones) will join me outside of Good Shepherd at 11:00 a.m. for prayer and a chance to march for change.
Following the prayer service, those who wish to participate, are welcome to join in a public March for Change. The purpose of this march is to advocate for sane public policy and legislation in response to the shootings in Newtown.
I lift up this event as an opportunity to both counteract the not so subtle effort to marginalize the Christian witness as well as send a clear statement that we in the New England Synod embrace opportunities to partner with our brothers and sisters all across the religious spectrum.
After composing the above, I lost internet service at my home. Therefore, I had to go to a local wifi location. In the course of posting this, several young college age students were talking at the next table. "Did you hear about that Lutheran guy, who said he was sorry for going to the interfaith worship in Newtown?"
"No" responded his friend.
"Yeah, can you believe this %&*#? Man those people are hurting and then this priest goes and rubs their face in it."
My greatest fear is manifesting itself. Yes, I chimed in on their conversation, told them who I was, and clarified what had happened, who we are and what we are all about. I pray it helped. I fear that similar conversations are going on around the country, and only hope there can be more voices to counteract the prevailing wind.