The Society of the Holy Trinity:
An Interview with the Senior

An interview with the Senior of the Society of the Holy Trinity was published in 2005 in German in the journal Confessio Augustana 1:2005, 52-57. This is an English translation.

The leader of the Society of the Holy Trinity is called the Senior. That position is currently held by the Reverend Dr. Frank C. Senn, Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, Illinois. Pastor Senn, how would you describe the Society?

The Society is like a religious order, an oratory of pastors, which supports its members in being faithful to their ordination vows. It provides the kind of ministerium many of us have been looking for.

Please tell our readers about the origins of the Society.

The pre-history of the Society may been seen in a group of Lutheran pastors, serving mostly in New Jersey and the metropolitan New York areas, who held retreats together in the 1990s for the purposes of prayer, study, and mutual support. In the face of the crises of faith afflicting American denominations, particularly the newly formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to which most of them belonged, they drafted 9.5 Theses that were circulated to other pastors in the Church for comment and subscription in the mid-1990s. Eventually more than 800 pastors and lay people subscribed to these Theses. The Theses were intended to serve as a basis for discussion and debate throughout the Church but were greeted with hostility and rejection by the leaders of the ELCA. So a meeting was called in 1996 at Loyola House in Morristown, NJ to which those who had subscribed to the Theses were invited to come and discuss the next steps. Out of the discussions in this retreat, the idea emerged to form the kind of oratory or ministerium. Perhaps the fact that the core group had been meeting retreat for several years influenced moving in this direction. A group of six of us were delegated to draft a Rule for such an oratory or ministerium. We met in Hickory, NC at the office of Bishop Michael McDaniel (of blessed memory) at Lenoir Rhyne College. The draft was then shared with those who had attended the retreat in Morristown. A second gathering of that group took place in 1997 and The Rule of the Society of the Holy Trinity was adopted by consensus. The Society was born when 28 pastors signed the Rule at that retreat.

I've heard that the Society does everything by consensus. Is this true?

Yes. We even elect the Senior and Chapter Deans by pure ecclesiastical ballot. That means there are no candidates, no one is ever eliminated from the ballot, and one must receive 100% of the votes to be elected. It has worked for us. Consensus does not mean 100% agreement. It means each member has to decide whether he or she can live with the direction in which the majority are moving. We have refrained from certain initiatives because we lacked consensus.

What is the purpose of the Society according to its Rule?

The purpose of the Society is to support Lutheran pastors in being faithful to their ordination vows in a time of doctrinal confusion and moral uncertainty. It also forms pastors in the practice of daily prayer and meditation on Holy Scripture; of using the daily Prayer Offices and the daily Lectionary of the Church; of living a life of obedience to Jesus; of going regularly on retreat; of engaging in mutual pastoral visitation; of using individual confession and absolution; of engaging in a disciplined study of Scripture, the Confessions, and the Church Fathers; of shaping a parish practice centered in the Word and the Sacraments; and of serving the cause of Christian unity, first, by being an inter-Lutheran organization and, second, by working to heal the breach of the sixteenth century. The Society is not about one thing but about forming the entire life of the pastor as a pastor.

The Society stakes out several positions with regard to theology, liturgy, and ecumenical relations. Could you describe these positions.

Simply put, we are committed to the Lutheran Confessions. We see these Confessions as the basis for church renewal. We are committed to the historic liturgies of the Church since we believe there is an intrinsic relationship between the rule of belief and the rule of prayer. And while we are open to conversations and sharing with other confessional renewal organizations, we are especially committed to what our Rule defines as "the Lutheran ecumenical destiny of reconciliation with the Bishop and the Church of Rome."

What Lutheran denominations are represented in your membership?

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the most numerous, but we also have members from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. We have one member in the Lutheran Church of Australia and some "fellow travelers" from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and the Lutheran Church-Canada. Because there is some splintering off of the ELCA, we have a few members who are rostered in some small Lutheran church bodies.

These denominations are not all in altar and pulpit fellowship with one another and some practice and others do not practice the ordination of women. How do you reconcile these differences?

We are not the Church and we cannot resolve the current ecclesiastical problems. We welcome all Lutheran pastors who are in good standing in their own church body. We gather in retreats once a year as a whole Society and three other times at least in regional chapters. In retreat we teach one another, pray with one another, preach to one another, absolve one another, and sometimes share the Eucharist with each other. We have recognized that sharing the Eucharist also involves church fellowship. We try to be responsible by obtaining authorization from our appropriate church judicatories. Not all chapters celebrate the Eucharist at their retreats. When Communion is offered, we realize that it is always a matter of personal conscience whether one receives the sacrament. I should add, however, that the Society does not exist to reflect the church as it is but to model the church as it can become by God's grace. You can't be that without taking some risks. It has been the nature of religious communities and orders to be in a liminal or marginal relationship to the Church.

Do you also have women members of the Society?

Yes. I admit that some Missouri Synod pastors, who are otherwise in agreement with what the Society stands for, have refrained from joining because of this. But, as I said, it is not a problem we have made and the Society cannot resolve it. I presume members of the Society who have misgivings about the ordination of women (not necessarily all of them are LC-MS members) have found a way to be together in the Society and that women members have also found a way to be in the Society with male colleagues who do not believe in the ordination of women. I believe that the Society is, among other things, a safe place to debate controverted issues without fear of reprisal. For example, in neither ELCA nor LC-MS circles could you raise the question of whether women should be ordained because both are closed to the opposing arguments.

Does the Society address issues being debated within Lutheran church bodies.

So far we haven't. That's not our purpose. Nor would we presume that all of our members are in the same place on every issue. We have common core commitments defined by The Rule. Beyond that we do not move in theological lock-step.

How many members does the Society have?

Our membership has grown steadily since 1997. We are now close to two hundred members in eighteen geographic chapters in the United States and Canada, plus some at-large members who are not geographically close to a chapter.

How do you reach out to non-Lutherans?

Our retreats are open to all people, including lay people. We intentionally invite clergy from Churches other than Lutheran to participate and sometimes to serve as teaching theologians. We actually have some Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Reformed clergy who regularly attend retreats of the Society. Membership, however, is open only to Lutheran pastors.

Are you open to receiving members from other outside North America?

Yes. As I said, we have one member in Australia. Actually two, since one of our Canadian members is living temporarily in Melbourne. If we had more members on other continents and islands, getting together for General Retreats would become more costly since we equalize travel costs and depend mostly on the dues of members. There might also be language issues that we don't currently have. But I don't think these issues are insuperable.

How does one become a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity?

By subscribing to The Rule. This can only be done at a General Retreat. But the real life of the Society is found in the chapters. We encourage prospective members to attach themselves to a chapter, attend its retreats, and begin to live according to The Rule.

 

 


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