The Rev. Rob Morris, facing probable suspension, was forced to apologize for an action he took last December 16.

His “sin”? His “crime”?

Praying at an interfaith prayer vigil. Morris is pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, CT, and he felt he was serving as a community chaplain by praying at the vigil following the massacre of children and teachers.

His superiors in his denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), disagreed. The church constitution forbids its clergy from participating in services with members of different faiths, and in their opinion, Morris was worshiping with non-Christians. The vigil was led not only by Christians, but also Muslims, Jews, and Baha’is.

Morris no doubt saw his livelihood being taken away, so he apologized for offending members of his denomination (not for participation in the vigil). He knew that another LCMS pastor, David Benke, had been suspended from ministry for a time for daring to pray at a service after 9/11.

After a storm of criticism even from his own constituents, LCMS denominational president Matthew Harrison apologized for his reprimand of Morris. But it was a bureacratic apology. He was sorry for the “embarrassment due to the media coverage” (yep, it’s the media’s fault) and for “increasing the pain of a hurting community.” I doubt seriously if Harrison, if he is a typical arrogant bureaucrat, would have backed down had not the media got wind of the LCMS’s archaic and unchristian policy and polity. He asked for forgiveness because he got caught.

To their credit, Morris’s congregation stood by him. The president of the body said their pastor did what was needed for the church and the community. The church had received nothing but thanks. Morris, he said, has been a “‘constant affirmation that God is indeed here in Newtown.’” Apparently, people in the community could recognize the presence and work of God, even if the bureaucrats, like ancient Pharisees, could not.

Here is yet another instance of separatist, fearful “Christians” getting it wrong. The attitude of the LCMS hierarchy reminds me of the subplot in Downton Abbey in which Lord Grantham, the butler Mr. Carson, the cook Mrs. Bird, and others believe the women of the household will be sullied if they go anywhere near Ethel, a former prostitute who has become the housekeeper/cook for Isobel Crawley. Or the mention in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel of the Indian belief that even the shadow of an untouchable would pollute someone of an upper caste. Or the silly notion in the Presbyterian Heidelberg Catechism (from the Reformation era) that letting even one “unworthy” person partake in the Lord’s Supper calls down God’s wrath on the whole congregation.

It’s time for the LCMS and any other group of holier-than-thou Pharisees to repudiate their fearful policies and affirm the value of joining with all people of faith to pray and grieve and help. Good for the Rev. Rob Morris and his congregation and any other LCMS minister who believes that being a chaplain to the hurting and a voice of unity in time of loss ought to, and do, trump any rule designed to keep people apart.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.