Being Subversive

Over the weekend, I finished reading Charlie R. Steen’s A Chronicle of Conflict: Tournai, 1559-1567.  Tournai was the city where the Belgic Confession was penned and where it first became public in 1561.  This book covers the years before and after, though the Belgic Confession is never actually mentioned.  This book is a disappointment in some respects.  The author portrays the Reformed churches and their pastors as revolutionaries.  He seems to adopt the view of the government of this period that Guy de Bres and the other Reformed believers were actually seditious people intent on overthrowing civil order.  In that regard, Steen also makes several crucial errors in fact.  For instance, he argues that de Bres was involved with leading nocturnal psalm-singing in the streets of Tournai (30).  In point of fact, de Bres warned the Reformed believers not to do this.  Moreover, Steen often confuses the rabble that used the Calvinistic label  as a pre-text for their civil disorder with devout Reformed believers who opposed it.  In short, this account of this period in Tournai’s history is not sympathetic to the Reformed churches, nor does it even really present a balanced view of things.  Instead, in some places it seems like Steen has an axe to grind with the Calvinists.  Finally, even though it is a scholarly work, many of the author’s statements are unsubstantiated.  There are end notes, but there could have been many more.

Nevertheless, it is an engaging read and there are some interesting and helpful points to take away from it.  One thing that I was reminded of was that there were at least three main things that the Reformed held to which were considered subversive and seditious by the government in Brussels:

1)  Psalm-singing.  This was mostly because of the obnoxious chanteries, or public psalm-singings that always took place at night in Tournai.  Margaret of Parma eventually made psalm-singing a capital crime.  The psalms (the Word of God!) were considered to be seditious words — it became treasonous to read or sing them.

2)  The deaconate.  When the time seemed right, the consistory of the Reformed church in Tournai began taking collections for the care of the poor.  A deaconate ministry was established.  Margaret of Parma regarded this as a “obvious and pernicious conspiracy.”  The Reformed were seizing privileges and prerogatives that belonged only to the civil magistrates.  Welfare belonged to the state and the church was out of bounds to try and work in this area.

3)  Christian education.  The consistory in Tournai wanted to establish Christian schools for the children of the Reformed church.  This was also regarded as seditious since education belonged to the realm of government.  After Philip II regained control of Tournai in 1567, a law was made which stated that Reformed children had to be sent to Roman Catholic schools.  If they were not, they could be taken away from their parents.

One item that Steen doesn’t mention is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  This was actually the reason why de Bres was hung on May 31, 1567.  He was hung for celebrating the Lord’s Supper against the orders of the civil magistrate.  In fact, the celebration of both sacraments by the Reformed was regarded as seditious.  Babies who were baptized in the Reformed church during its brief time of relative freedom later had to be rebaptized in the Roman Catholic Church.

The three main items mentioned above could still be regarded as subversive, even if they are no longer regarded as seditious.  They are counter-cultural.  The singing of psalms is virtually unheard of in churches today.  Ironically, some of our own Reformed people would be happy to get rid of most of them too.  The deaconate too is a rare institution in Christian churches, though I don’t think the government would complain if our deacons were to do more.  As for Christian education, it is also a niche endeavour for the most part.  As for the civil government, in most Canadian jurisdictions Christian schools are just barely tolerated.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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