Monday, August 29, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of music pt.7: the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541

Sometimes in life you learn things the hard way and end up having to admit that you were just plain wrong. Individual people learn this lesson and cop to it all the time, it is rare however for politicians to learn that lesson and be as forthright. There is an example from history where this did happen, at least partially, and that is found in the case of the Genevan council with respect to Calvin’s dismissal. In 1538, in the heat of personality conflicts, Calvin and Farel stared down the town council and refused to give in to their politically motivated demands. The council called Calvin and Farel’s bluff, eventually bouncing them out of town just after the Easter service. While Calvin was happy to leave and settle down somewhere else to the life he always dreamed of, the council in Geneva began to reconsider, realizing they had made a big mistake. After gulping down a heaping serving of humble pie, the council decided to bring Calvin back on board and Calvin reluctantly agreed to return.

So what did Calvin do when he returned to his old stomping grounds in Geneva? Well, he did exactly what a man like Calvin always does, he picked up right where he left off before. On September 13, 1541, he reentered Geneva, met with the town council, and started pushing immediately for the adoption of his church order. Evidence of partially changed circumstances emerged as the town council refused the opportunity to balk at Calvin’s proposal and passed his Ecclesiastical Ordinances in November of 1541. These Ordinances reflected a continuity in tenor and even wording with the Articles of 1537, as the basic guiding principle of both was the principle that the church was obligated to conform to Scripture and the practice of the ancient church.

When it came to the issue of music, there was a difference between the Ordinances of 1541 and the Articles of 1537. In the former, music is hardly even mentioned. Garside speculates that what accounts for that is Calvin’s determination to take up the subject of music separately. That decision is reflected in the fact that “there are only two sentences devoted to the subject, and even their position is peculiar” (16). Tucked away in the middle of a paragraph on marriage are the following two sentences:
It will be good to introduce ecclesiastical songs, the better to incite the people to prayer to and praise God. For a beginning the little children are to be taught; then with time the church will be able to follow (16).
Though these sentences are similar in content with the Articles they say little about the nature of worship song and they seem to shift the subject from worship to children’s education. The odd thing about the latter is that there were no city schools for the children to go to in order to be taught. Raising the prospect of children’s education, and education in music at that, is surely a good thing, but the very wording of the Ordinances suggests that a future communication would be needed to clarify the content and role of music in the public worship of the Genevan churches.

Next, attention will focus on one of the most significant statements Calvin ever made about music and worship song in the 1542 Epistle to the Reader for his order of worship for Geneva.

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