Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Calvin, yes. Geneva, no.

In the second meeting of our group, we managed to finish chapter two of the Preface to the Lawes. This chapter is Hooker’s explication of the development of reform in Geneva under the leadership of John Calvin. Hooker was part of a “reformed consensus” in the Church of England that accepted as an important theological voice. One only need to read the Thirty-Nine Articles to see the importance of reformed theology on the English church. Hooker himself notes that Calvin is worthy of respect for “his exceeding paynes in composing the Institutions of Christian religion” and “his no lesse industrious travailes for exposition of holy Scripture” (Preface 2.8).

Nonetheless, Hooker disagrees with the argument of English Puritans influenced by exiles who fled England and lived in Geneva due to the policies of Queen Mary I who, upon their return to England, argued that the form of church governance Calvin established in Geneva was necessary because it alone is ordained by scripture. In particular, Hooker resists the notion that lay elders could possess the power of excommunication, a power he holds only bishops are imbued with in the Church of England. In Hooker’s mind, Calvin’s efforts at reform in Geneva were well-suited to that place, but they do not translate well to an English context. “That which Calvin did for establishment of his discipline, seemeth more commendable than that which he taught for the countenancing of it established” (Preface 2.7).

Our group saw in Hooker’s argument here the continuing development of his notion of church polity as something contextual and necessarily organic. Hooker could not imagine the level of lay leadership made available in Geneva being exercised in England. It makes one wonder what he would make of vestry meetings and all other forms of lay leadership in the contemporary Episcopal Church.

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