The ultimate irony after the Sandy Hook Elementary School slayings in Newtown, Conn., occurred recently when Pastor Rob Morris of the Missouri Synod Branch of the Lutheran Church was reprimanded by his national leadership for participating in the interfaith service held immediately after the shootings.
According to wire services, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison stated "the presence of prayers and religious readings" was a violation of their policy and teachings.
Morris, in a letter he wrote to his national leadership, replied: "I believe that my participation was to be, not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy."
The Missouri Synod is based in St. Louis and is one of two branches, the second being the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. It is one of a variety of denominations whose theology precludes participating with other religions and their clergy in events like interfaith services. Whether it is in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, one can find denominations or branches from these religions that choose to bar their clergy from ecumenical activities. Sometimes it is about not giving credibility to other faiths; sometimes it is about men and women praying together.
It is sad to see that praying together in an interfaith format violates the integrity of an entire religion. Yes, it may be a violation of the cultural norm of the faith tradition, but does it truly diminish the integrity of the faith itself? When there are catastrophes that bind a community together -- such as the murders of adults and children at school or a natural disaster -- why can't a church and its religious leader stand beside other clergy who are experiencing the same trauma?
What is ecumenicism all about if not stepping outside one's comfort zone, even in a theological sense? The word itself has origins in the Greek language, "oikoumenikus," which means relating to or representing a worldwide body of houses of worship. The word also means promoting or encouraging unity amongst other religions and communities.
In the 1960s America started an ecumenical movement after the Second Vatican Council, with Pope John the 23rd, presented Nostra Atatae ("Our Age") calling for an ecumenical spirit that would begin to heal old wounds among religions and set a pathway forward toward a new era in interfaith relations.
Then came the Civil Rights Movement when many clergy marched in support of African-Americans. Seeing clergy from mainstream faith traditions in America marching from Selma to Montgomery with leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King created a spirit that would chart a new course for America in race relations.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks triggered another set of ecumenical calls throughout the nation. Clergy and citizens were united in those initial days after America's greatest trauma since Pearl Harbor.
And now, gun violence has united America to mourn for the victims and summon the strength to face the challenges of the moment.
Being ecumenical is a state of mind because it requires a person to be confident in his own faith tradition in order to reach out and understand someone else's.
Some religions feel safer to stay inside a niche, that is, within the walls of their houses of worship and within their own minds, too. But are we not isolating ourselves from the world and from our own neighbors by doing so? Does God frown upon us talking to each other? Or are we saying it is OK to talk to each other in the street or by the mailbox, but we cannot attend each other's services as a guest or at an interfaith service lest someone get the impression that by doing so we are demeaning and, therefore, threatening our entire faith system?
Sometimes the only way we can stand up to an injustice or comfort individuals and communities in need is to share a few moments in prayer and read holy Scripture or sing songs. Of course, religions can do what they want, but we live in a country where the question is not about the right to exclude oneself from the community. Rather the question is whether one is right to do so.
We need more clergy who are willing to step up to the plate for ecumenical causes. We need more clergy to show leadership and organize clergy associations, such as here on Hilton Head Island. Being ecumenical does not detract from the mission of religion; instead, it enhances the spirit of and the credibility of the religious movement in American life.