St. Louis, Nov. 29--(AP) The leader of the nation's second-largest Lutheran denomination is under criticism for supporting a member who prayed at an interfaith ceremony for rescue workers and families of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod president Gerald Kieschnick also faces charges from pastors for praying publicly with a leader from another Lutheran denomination near ground zero, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday.
The Missouri Synod is the ninth-largest Protestant denomination in America, with 2.6 million members in every state and about 60 foreign countries. It is based in suburban Kirkwood. Pastors' conferences in four regions, including southern and central Illinois, have passed resolutions questioning Kieschnick's actions. Two pastors have filed formal charges within the denomination.
Some pastors say the charges are just political. At the denomination's triennial convention in July, Kieschnick won a three-year term with just 50.8 percent of the votes, defeating three longtime supporters of the previous president, the late Rev. Alvin Barry.
The two events that have brought criticism were both in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
On Sept. 23, Kieschnick allowed the Rev. David Benke, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's Atlantic District, to say a 10-sentence prayer during the interfaith "A Prayer for America" service at New York's Yankee Stadium on Sept. 23. The ceremony included prayers by other Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. On Oct. 2, Kieschnick and Bishop H. George Anderson, former presiding bishop of the 5.1 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, another Lutheran group, toured ground zero and had a briefing session for 150 Lutheran chaplains and New York-area pastors. The group also prayed and sang hymns, said the Rev. David Strand, Missouri Synod spokesman.
The Rev. David Oberdieck, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lebanon, Mo., is one of those who filed charges. He argued such ecumenical events promote syncretism--the mingling of Christianity with other religions in the belief they are all equal. The denomination's church law allows pastors to jointly lead services only with clergy members in certain affiliated denominations--primarily overseas Lutheran bodies. "St. Paul said that we should flee idolatry but (Benke) did not flee idolatry," Oberdieck said. Benke "participated in idolatry, by participating with non-Christians," Oberdieck said.
Kieschnick, in a hospital recovering from surgery, released a statement saying he had no intention of backing down in his support of Benke's appearance at what he called a civic event at Yankee Stadium. And he said he hopes his session with overworked New York chaplains helped boost their morale.
The other pastor who brought the charges, the Rev. Stephen Bohler, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Crookston, Minn., said the reason for the meetings was not the point. "Our church position is that the word of God forbids us from doing this," he said. "The word of God is not set aside because of emergencies." He said while Kieschnick did not call his meeting with the other Lutheran group a worship service, the other group's Web page did.