‘A general councell is a Congregation of Pastors, Doctors and Elders, or others, met in the name and authority of Jesus Christ, out of all Churches, to determine according to the word of God, all controversies in faith, Church-government or manners, no faithfull person who desireth being excluded from reasoning and speaking’. The author of this definition correctly noted that the definitions given across the two centuries and more preceding by the conciliar theorists Jean Gerson and Jacques Almain did not differ much from his own ‘save that they thinke that councells are lawfully convened, if such and such onely, as are of the Hierarchike order be members thereof . . . as also the Pope president . . . [which] we disclaime.’ . . .
These comments are drawn from The Due Right of Presbyteries which Samuel Rutherford, the Scottish Presbyterian, published in 1644. I do not believe it fanciful to suggest that they reflect in intriguing fashion the knowledge of, interest in, and sympathy with the long conciliarist tradition which had been so marked a feature of Scottish ecclesiological thinking since the first quarter of the fifteenth century, and of which, in the early sixteenth, John Mair had been the ‘outstanding representative’. . . . Significant elements of this conciliar ecclesiology are evident also in the Catechism which John Hamilton, archbishop of St. Andrews, published in 1550, and then were later reflected also in such official statements of the Reformed Scottish Kirk as the Scots Confession of 1560 and the Second Book of Discipline, this last drawn up in 1578 and recognized by James VI’s government in 1592. This Second Book of Discipline, indeed, affirmed the general Council to be an integral part of the Kirk’s organization, a capstone, as it were, to the structure of local, regional, and national or general assemblies.
But when James VI became James I, his suspicions of presbyterianism did not put him off conciliarism altogether even if his resolve for Reformed Protestantism was not as think as a Scottish accent:
Within a year of his becoming king of England, after all, and even before he told his first parliament that he acknowledged ‘the Romane Church to be our Mother Church, although defiled with some infirmities and corruptions’ and expressed, accordingly, his own heartfelt desire to help promote ‘a generall Christian union in Religion’, he had proposed to the papal curia via diplomatic back-channels that the pope should ‘summon a General Council, which, according to the ancient usage,’ would be ‘superior to all Churches, all doctrine, all Princes, secular and ecclesiastic, non excepted’. And if he believed the pope to be subject in jurisdiction to that of the general council (as the Council of Constance had demonstrated), he still insisted that he regarddd hierarchy as ‘essential’ to the Church, and the pope ‘the first Bishop in it, President and Moderator in Council, but not head or superior’. (142-144)