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Theological Conversation

John Calvin in Geneva


Reformation

St. Pierre Cathedral, Geneva

From July 6 to 22, 2012, Connie Wardle participated in a pilgrimage through countries touched by the Protestant Reformation—France, Switzerland and Scotland. This is the fifth of a series of reflections on the journey.

The city of Geneva has not forgotten John Calvin. His name appears on street signs, plaques and bottles of beer (along with the slogan “in birae predestines.”) In the cathedral, signs let tourists know in which chair he sat and in which pulpit he preached. His stone countenance looks out from the famous Reformation Wall. And at the Reformation Museum, a sign with a smiling, cartoon Calvin points the way to the entrance.
Yet Calvin’s time in Geneva was conflicted. When in 1538 he left the city behind, he kicked the dust off his feet and planned never to return. He was forced out by the city council and his appeals to stay went nowhere. I suspect he secretly heaved a sigh of relief. Here it was at last: a way out of the seemingly endless political and ecclesiastical squabbles and strife. Yet he did not have to feel like abandoning the city was abandoning the call of God.

When the city council recognized its loss and asked him to return in 1540, he greeted the news with a mix of amusement and horror. In a letter to his friend Pierre Viret, Calvin said he would rather die on a cross than return to “that place of torture.” Yet by 1541, he had agreed to go back to Geneva. It turned out to be a permanent move. He died there in 1564 and was buried in an unmarked tomb.

Calvin became a focal point in the theological debates that raged throughout his life. In addition to the schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the churches pioneered by various reformers, there were arguments between the reformers themselves. Theologians like Calvin waged battles of ideas on multiple fronts.

Today, Geneva is associated with diplomacy, international relationships and ecumenism. We visited the ecumenical centre where the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and a plethora of other organizations have their offices.

Isn’t it interesting, I thought, for a city to shift from a centre of theological controversy 500 years ago to a centre of theological bridge-building today.

The statement “that all may be one” featured prominently as a sort of mantra for modern ecumenism (and it was incorporated into a mural in the centre’s conference room). Differing beliefs caused churches and traditions to split apart. Can the beliefs they hold in common begin to bring them together?

I found myself returning again and again to the idea behind an exhibit in the Reformation Museum. The space was set up as a dining room. Each place setting featured a prominent reformer and each chair was a display case containing one of his works. The historical figures and their debates were portrayed as a conversation around a dinner table. It was a wonderful image.

Before we left the ecumenical centre, we celebrated communion in the chapel. It’s a space of glass and wood which incorporates elements essential to many different traditions: a crucifix, an empty cross, icons of Mary and the Christ Child, a Bible, candles, an ornate fence and simple archway before the altar. There are no compromises, our host said. It’s meant to be a space of worship for anyone.

“That all may be one.” It’s nice to think about a dining table big enough for all of us.

About the author

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Connie Wardle is the Presbyterian Record's senior writer and online editor.

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