Two Sundays ago we celebrated one of the High Holy Days on our own local church calendar in “Back to School Sunday.” As I shared last week in worship, this is one of my favorite Sundays each year, and a beautiful expression of congregational life.
Yet, there’s a certain irony to this Sunday as well, because the truth is that much of our normal patterns of worship are shaped by academic life.
This is an underappreciated product of the Protestant Reformation, and John Calvin and his movement in Geneva in the 16th century in particular. Calvin himself was a lawyer, steeped in the academic tradition of late medieval Europe, and much of the reforms he introduced sought to remake the church into what some have called a “Sacred Schoolhouse.”
Before Calvin, preaching was not a regular part of worship, which instead centered on Holy Communion. Sermons were seasonal or occasional events, and were rarely even offered in a church, but rather in other communal spaces. Under Calvin, sermons were to be given at least daily in the church. And they weren’t to be brief! Calvin was known to be one of the more “economical” Reformed preachers and aimed to speak for about an hour.
In order to accommodate this kind of oratory, the church buildings themselves needed to be restructured. Before the Reformation, churches did not have places for congregants to sit. They were instead expected to stand or kneel when appropriate. Thus came the introduction of the church pew: fixed benches placed around the sanctuary to allow congregants to settle in and listen to the teaching.
Pastors eschewed elaborate priestly vestments that changed with the church seasons, and instead took up wearing the plain black robes of lawyers, judges, and professors. Our tradition combines these two traditions, adding seasonal vestments to our plain black robes.
Arguably one of the greatest innovations of the Reformation was the advent of congregational singing. While we can thank Martin Luther for introducing folk tunes into Christian worship (many of our most beloved hymn tunes from that period were first sung in public ale houses), we can credit Calvin with including the singing voices of women and children in congregational worship, even advocated for children to teach new arrangements to the adults.
Libraries are filled with books on the transformation of Christian worship in the Reformation and the theology it reflects (and if you’re interested in a good one, check out my source for this column, Life In God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology, by my seminary professor, Matthew Myer Boulton).
But for now let’s simply say that for Calvin and the reformers, the goal of congregational life was to form people in the pattern of Christ’s life. In order to do this, they incorporated what they saw as the best parts of the academic tradition, with it’s rigor, accountability, and practices designed to shape minds and hearts.
There are certain efforts of those early reformers that we’ve happily abandoned, as we worship in light filtered through our stained glass windows. But the goal of our common life together remains the same. It’s work that can’t be done in just one Sunday a year, but it’s good to set aside time to honor our roots.