As part of my PhD studies, my PhD mentor, Dave Black, is guiding through the study of church meetings through various periods of church history. Last week, we looked at various aspects of church meetings during the Reformation period. One of the books that I found helpful was Owen Chadwick’s The Early Reformation on the Continent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
In his discussion of church meetings, Chadwick begins with some common beliefs of the early reformers:
Everyone agreed that services in church should be simpler, with less elaborate ritual; that they should be in the language which the people understood; and that they should contain nothing which was contrary to Scripture or could not be justified from Scripture. (181)
Most would agree with this today. However, he continues:
It was also agreed that the congregation should be a people that took part with the clergy and did not sit or stand silent while the clergy read the service or the choir sang. How this could be done was harder. (181)
Thus, according to Chadwick, the early reformers recognized that the whole congregation (not just “the clergy”) should take part in the church meeting. They were not content with a passive audience who simple listened to teaching, reading, or singing. Instead, they expected a church that took part in the meeting.
So, what happened? Well, according to Chadwick, the reformers could not determine how to have this type of meeting while ensuring that the meeting also stayed focused on teaching the Scriptures. He said that the early reformers emphasized teaching (and a certain style of teaching) to such an extent that it eclipsed their desire to have a participatory meeting.
Unfortunately, many of the people could not read, which meant they could not read the Scriptures. So, for many of the reformers (but not the radical reformers) education took center stage. Only the educated could read and understand the Scriptures, so only the educated should be allowed to take part in the church meeting:
There must be teaching. If parts of the service were regarded as a vehicle for information, even if the lesson was about the Bible, then it was not like a corporate act but like a schoolmaster talking to pupils. In the eyes of reformers the crime of the medieval liturgy was its clericalism. Without seeing the peril, they brought back a new form of clericalism and made the role of the pastor as bulky as that of the former priest. (199)
So, according to Chadwick, this new “clericalism” arose from a desire to teach the Bible and especially the gospel. Since so many of the people within the congregation could not read, they could not take part in the readings or teachings or hymns, unless something was memorized, and thus the growth of creeds during the Reformation. However, as Chadwick points out, the “solution” turned out to be another form of “clericalism” where the pastor assumes the role of the medieval priest.
The question, at least for me, is the following: Is there a mediating position? Teaching is important and understanding Scripture is important. Does Scripture give us the idea that only those who can read should be allowed to take part in the church meeting?
I believe the early reformers were very sincere in their desire to uphold the importance of teaching Scripture in the church meetings. But, I think they made a mistake when they placed the emphasis on education. Would you agree? If they should not have emphasized teaching by the educated, then what type of teaching should they have emphasized?