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Associated Press Writer
Thursday, August 1, 2002; 12:46 PM
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A31298-2002Aug1.htmlOff-site Link

ST. LOUIS Twelve days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, the Rev. David Benke, a Lutheran minister, joined with clergy from other faiths in a New York City prayer service for the victims.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s president, the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, gave the church’s top New York leader his blessings to take part in what he considered an innocent public event.

Kieschnick never envisioned the fallout from that day within one of the most theologically conservative Protestant denominations.

Benke was suspended in June, months after 21 of the synod’s pastors and three of its congregations complained about his role in the gathering at Yankee Stadium.

And just last month, the Missouri Synod second vice president, who disciplined Benke for praying with “pagans,” was pulled from his role as the main speaker on “The Lutheran Hour” radio program the synod’s prominent pulpit for deciding the matter.


Now Kieschnick is struggling to bridge a gulf in the 2.6-million-member Missouri Synod. It’s just the kind of situation he had hoped to avoid when he was elected a year ago. His goal has been to make the denomination more unified and tolerant.

“While some may see it as a rift, I see it as a pivotal moment in defining who we are and why we’re here,” said Kieschnick, who is standing by Benke.

“We’re faced with opportunities and challenges galore to take the Gospel to the marketplace. That’s where our struggle is whether it should be in a congregational setting or public one.”

Benke is appealing his suspension by the Rev. Wallace Schulz. Meanwhile, Schulz isn’t discussing that decision or his own suspension as chief preacher on the gospel program carried by more than 1,000 radio stations.

While Lutheran Hour Ministries took no stand on Benke’s conduct, Schulz’s decision unwillingly dragged the independent auxiliary of the Missouri Synod into the debate, spokesman Jim Telle said.

“It really has rocked our church,” Telle said. “It’s been an absolute landslide of acrimony.”

The synod’s 1847 constitution demands that its congregations and pastors reject syncretismOff-site Link, or the mingling of Christian and non-Christian beliefs. Traditionally, Missouri Synod leaders did not lead prayer services with leaders of other religions, or even other Lutheran denominations.

But at the church’s convention a year ago, Kieschnick said, a resolution let synod leaders lead services with those of other faiths at civic events. With that in mind, Kieschnick signed off on letting Benke say a 10-sentence prayer during the debated “Prayer for America” event, where Benke shared the stage with other Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs.

To Benke, the event was more patriotic than religious, and that “not to make the primary human connections at a time of civic, national and global tragedy would be a great pastoral error.”

But not everyone saw it that way.

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