The Rev. Peter Faass
This evening we honor George Herbert, priest and poet of the Anglican Church.
Herbert was born in 1593, a cousin of the Earl of Pembroke. His mother was a friend of the poet John Donne. George attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and became the Public Orator of the University, responsible for giving speeches of welcome in Latin to famous visitors, and writing letters of thanks, also in Latin, to acknowledge gifts of books for the University Library. This brought him to the attention of King James I, who granted him an annual allowance, and seemed likely to make him an ambassador. However, in 1625 the king died, and George Herbert, who had originally gone to college with the intention of becoming a priest, but had his head turned by the prospect of a career at Court, determined anew to seek ordination. In 1626 he was ordained, and became vicar and then rector of the parish of Bemerton and neighboring St. Peter’s Fugglestone, not far from Salisbury. By the way, I would love to be the vicar of a parish in a town named Fugglestone, someday! But, I guess I’ll settle for Vicar of Van Aken.
Herbert served faithfully as a parish priest, diligently visiting his parishioners and bringing them the sacraments when they were ill, and food and clothing when they were in want. He read Morning and Evening Prayer daily in the church, encouraging the congregation to join him when possible, and ringing the church bell before each service so that those who could not come might hear it and pause in their work to join their prayers with his. He used to go once a week to Salisbury to hear Evening Prayer sung there in the cathedral. On one occasion he was late because he had met a man whose horse had fallen with a heavy load, and he stopped, took off his coat, and helped the man to unload the cart, get the horse back on its feet, and then reload the cart. His spontaneous generosity and good will won him the affection of his parishioners.
Today, however, Herbert is remembered chiefly for his two major writings: the first being his book of poems titled, The Temple, which were published after Herbert's death. Several of his poems have been turned into hymns, in particular "Teach me, my God and King," number 592 in the hymnal, "Let all the world in every corner sing" hymn number 402, the gorgeous, “Come my way, my truth, my life,” hymn number 487, which set to the tune The Call by Ralph Vaughan Williams is a hauntingly beautiful and sublime with theological truth, and my personal favorite – no surprise here – hymn number 382, “King of Glory, King of Peace”, set to the tune General Seminary by David Charles Walker. But, of course.
The other book Herbert is renowned for is A Priest to the Temple (usually known as The Country Parson), a book that offers practical advice to rural clergy on how to be a good vicar. In it, he advises that "things of ordinary use" such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to "serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths." This second book is foundational reading for classically trained Episcopal and Anglican priests, and one which we are very familiar with, but not necessarily always fond of . . . or at least the impact The Country Parson has had in setting up expectations of the priesthood which are, well, let’s just say, beyond achievable.
Herbert was thorough in giving details of what a good country parson should do in his post. For instance, in chapter XIII titled “The Parson’s Church” he writes, “the Church [must] be swept, and kept clean of dust or Cobwebs, and at great festivals strawed, and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense.” Thank goodness they didn’t have indoor plumbing back then as you know unclogging drains would have been listed, as well! In chapter XXIII titled, “The Parson’s Completeness” he writes, “The Country Parson desires to be all to his Parish, and not only a Pastor, but a Lawyer also, and a Physician.” Again, good thing there was no internet and WiFi back then, as you just know being a computer techie would have been another duty heaped on the parson by Herbert.
In every detail of parish life Herbert created a model for what he thought was the perfect parson. He also set up the model for an over-functioning and exhausted one, as well.
There’s a tongue in cheek meme that appears on social media periodically called, The “Perfect” Pastor, which says:
“The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes. (I stand before you, an imperfect pastor.)
He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone's feelings.
He works from 8 AM until midnight and is also the church janitor.
The perfect pastor makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, drives a new model car, buys good books, and donates $30 a week to the church.
He is 29 years old and has 40 years of experience.
Above all, he, or she, is handsome and beautiful.
The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he spends most of his time each week with the senior citizens.
He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his church.
He makes 15 home visits a day and is always in his office to be available when needed.
The perfect pastor always has time for church council and all of its committees. He never misses the meeting of any church organization and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.
The perfect pastor is always available to anyone who needs him on demand, but spends much of his time reading and studying, while being out in the community forging relationships!”
Alright it’s funny, but sadly it’s also true and describes a condition called Herbertism: a condition by which the laity have unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of their clergy, and that the clergy all too often fall for and try to live into. Such is the degree to which clergy have tried to live up to the standard of The Country Parson over the centuries that a pastoral care book for clergy was published several years ago titled, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Re-thinking Priestly Ministry.
But is Herbert at fault here for creating the paradigm? The author of the book, Justin Lewis-Anthony thinks not. “The memory of Herbert celebrated by the Church is an inaccurate one, and, in its inaccuracy, is unfair on Herbert himself and his successors in the ordained ministry,” he writes.
At least two factors are at play.
Herbert idealized the idea of the priesthood in his small, rural parish. And like all ideals, it was never one any human being could actually live into in its fullness. Like the values of the Reign of God that we heard in Matthew’s Beatitudes, we strive to do our best achieving them, knowing we will not always succeed, and yes, even fail.
Herbert also died young; he was only a priest for less than four years. During his brief tenure he was the bright, starry-eyed young priest who, with his first settled- parish, brings a lot of zeal to his work - which is always refreshing - but, also often naïve and unrealistic.
Herbert died before his ministry could be, as Lewis-Anthony states, compromised . . . [by] mundane bruises and cavils and accommodations that make up everyday life in a community of sinners trying to be saints.” In other words, the realities of life. The reality is his premature death lionized Herbert and his writings. He was a hero, a role model, even an avatar. And because of that, starry – eyed clergy have taken the model of The Country Parson to be literally achievable ever since. And so, have the laity.
The end result is that his writings have been taken so literally as to distort them and, in the process, led to a distorted model of ministry. And it is we, not Herbert, who are to blame.
George Herbert is redeemable, and so is this situation. The passage from the letter to the Philippians helps guide us in so doing, and I think offers a more realistic view of what Herbert’s life and ministry actually were all about.
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul writes. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing these things . . . and the God of peace will be with you.”
Gentleness, truth telling, being honorable, working for justice: these are the qualities that seem to encompass Herbert’s life and which he strived for. They are a healthy Herbertism and should encompass all our lives- clergy and laity alike- because they are of Jesus. Doing so will make the way our clergy lead their lives more realistic and less stressful, and as a result the life of the entire congregation healthier. And if that is the result of healthy Herbertism, then the peace of God will truly be with us all.