Disagreeing With, Yet Appreciating, The Society

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.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Faith & the Church, Liturgy, Lutheran, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Disagreeing With, Yet Appreciating, The Society

  1. Chris Jones says:

    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.
    The trouble is, sometimes they are right: the broader tradition is falling into apostasy and the “reform” group does have a stronger hold on a particular truth.
    Between two Lutherans such as you and me, to put forward Dr Luther as an example would be trite and obvious; but can I offer St Maximos Confessor? The “particular truth” of the full reality of Christ’s human will seemed to his contemporaries like quibbling over philosophical niceties, and St Maximos’s intransigence prevented the healing of what was, to that point in history, the most serious schism in Christianity.
    But he was right. Had his more irenic contemporaries prevailed, the heart would have been cut out of the dogma that our Lord is fully human as well as fully divine.
    I’m not ELCA, and I know little of the reform groups you are talking about. But I do know that holding on to, and passing on, the whole apostolic tradition is not easy (and it certainly does not equate with simply taking “the middle way” between perceived extremes). Sometimes determined advocacy (and even pugnacious polemics) on behalf of aspects of the tradition that are being neglected is quite necessary.

  2. Chris,
    Thank you for your post. I worry that reform groups – with their internal structure of meetings, dues, time commitment, etc. – can redirect the loyalty of members from the denomination to the group itself, and thus can foster a sense of disassociation. The reform group, as it becomes increasingly concerned about its own existence and internal workings, becomes less concerned about its role within the broader church. Word Alone, created to foster change within the ELCA, has created a quasi-denominational structure called Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, weaking its claim to be an advocate for change within the ELCA. That is my main problem with reform groups – they compete for the attention, dollars, and fidelity of denomination members.
    The Society of the Holy Trinity might embody the role of “loyal opposition” pretty well – I’m not quite sure. But this is what we need. I appreciate reform movements and groups that are clearly dedicated to the role of reform and collegiality, rather than divisiveness and name-calling.
    Finally, though the founding documents of a reform movement might look good, the actual, lived attitude of the group can be quite different. I know that Frank Senn is deeply dedicated to the ELCA and its ministry, but are the majority of STS members? Or do STS members write off the ELCA as an apostate denomination and see the STS as the only true and faithful Lutheran presence in the country? If so, I don’t think that such a group can effectively dialogue with the ELCA and expect to be taken seriously.

  3. LP says:

    Ok, i didn’t want to take up a ton of comment space, but I have posted a response. I look forward to your thoughts.
    But you did say this, which I want to respond to:
    Finally, though the founding documents of a reform movement might look good, the actual, lived attitude of the group can be quite different. I know that Frank Senn is deeply dedicated to the ELCA and its ministry, but are the majority of STS members? Or do STS members write off the ELCA as an apostate denomination and see the STS as the only true and faithful Lutheran presence in the country? If so, I don’t think that such a group can effectively dialogue with the ELCA and expect to be taken seriously.
    This IS the real question, and one I hope to discern. Do I think the ELCA is apostate? No, not as a whole. I want to believe that the STS offers a place for people like myself to share in joys and frustrations of ministry, and to be strengthened in the day to day work of being a pastor is God’s Holy Church. Having exchanged some emails with STS members, they don’t strike me as being quite so egocentric as to believe that they are the true church and everyone is a heretic. I have a great deal of respect for Pr. Senn and his writings, and his leadership makes me optimistic about the possibilities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s