I’ve been skeptical and critical of sub- or pan-denominational organizations that seek to reform or influence the denomination with a particular type of piety, practice or truth. In our Lutheran tradition, Word Alone and The Society of the Holy Trinity (STS) come to mind. I’m a former member of Word Alone, and have had many interactions with members of the STS.
The skepticism and criticism come from the general nature of such groups. Reform movements tend to believe that they have a stronger hold on a particular truth, and that the broader tradition or denomination is falling into apostasy. Such a perspective smacks of elitism, and their efforts often appear as ideologically-driven and divisive rather than mutually-affirming and collegial.
Prompted by a post from my friend Lutherpunk (who has another post on the topic here), I perused the STS website extensively. Despite several problems I have with what they publish on their website, I do have an appreciation for them. First, the problems:
- They characterize the ELCA as being in bondage to ideologies (conservative and liberal). This is a bit simplistic, for it fails to see the broad "middle" of the church that is not interested in either extreme, it fails to see God at work in these ideologies (theology of the cross; Philippians 1:15-18), and it fails to recognize that the STS itself might be inspired by an ideology of its own.
- Their dismissive attitude toward advocacy and social justice fails to appreciate the social character of the gospel and the liturgy.
- They insist on the "concrete reality" of the Word and Sacrament. God is truly present in the preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacrament, but so too is human sin. We must take into account the human and social character of those who preside and participate in the liturgy, but I’m not sure they do this. The STS soundly rejects a multicultural and social justice perspective, a perspective that names our sins of segregation and classism and calls us into repentance. As such, the "concrete reality" approach to liturgy they advocate risks following a culturally narrow path that leads to further segregation and isolation, rather than revealing the Kingdom of God.
These are my main issues with the STS. Much on their website is commendable, including their advocacy of a daily prayer practice for pastors, their articulation of the reality of sin, their devotion to the means of grace, and their dedication to the vocation of the baptized. This is all good stuff.
But I was very, very impressed by a letter written by Frank Senn in their most recent newsletter (accessible by clicking on the "current newsletter" link in the left-side column). In it he boldly responds to the departure of several STS members to other Christian traditions by proclaiming that the STS exists as a society within the Lutheran tradition for pastors dedicated to the Lutheran tradition.
The Society of the Holy Trinity does not exist to provide a holding pattern for those who are waiting to fly elsewhere. According to our Rule we are ‘committed to work toward the confessional and spiritual renewal of Lutheran churches.’ . . . Short cuts to Rome may be tempting and personally satisfying, but it is pastorally irresponsible to abandon congregations and colleagues, and it is ecumenically irresponsible to give up on the painstaking work of moving whole communions toward fellowship with each other.
While many in Word Alone draw up plans to leave the denomination, The Society of the Holy Trinity – however flawed – remains dedicated to the Lutheran church in its various expressions. I appreciate this and commend them for resisting the American impulse "to leave the party and take my toys with me." Theirs is a voice that I’ll respectfully listen to – even as I often disagree – for their voice is one that seeks to build up and affirm, not tear down, our Lutheran church.