As part of the training I’m undertaking at the moment, I had to write a brief review of a piece of theological writing. The options offered ranged from selections from Julian of Norwich to the Barmen Declaration, but I chose the first eight chapters of Herbert’s The Country Parson. I found it a useful and challenging exercise, partly because trying to fit the range of material found in the chapters into a bare thousand words forced me to decide what I thought was most vital and characteristic about the book. It was also a useful discipline to read Herbert in the context of ministerial training: I first came across him in him in literary studies, and tend to still regard him as a fascinating historical author. Having to articulate his potential use and his meaning from a modern perspective sharpened my analysis, especially given that Herbert was held up as the paragon of Anglican priesthood for years, and now is the subject of critique in phrases like “George Hebert Syndrome” and the title of If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him. So, in case they might be of interest, here are my thousand words on the topic:
George Herbert’s A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson, describes itself as “the form and character of a true Pastor” in order to provide “a mark to aim at”. The inspiration for the attributes of the Country Parson delineated by Herbert might be indicated by the quiet pun which appears to lurk in that line; “character” in the seventeenth century still having the meaning of an impression or mark (such as that produced by a seal ring or a piece of type), and “Pastor” offering a stronger echo of “pastoral” for an early modern era in which Spenser and Shakespeare had both undertaken the mode and written significant works about shepherds. If the parson is the “character” of a “true Pastor” he is the impression of a good shepherd, and Herbert’s book immediately offers itself as a kind of imitatio Christi for the parochial clergy. The volume also surely owes something to the conduct books of the era provided for those unsure how to comport themselves properly in an era of social change, and – in its description of an ideal type of man – to the Courtier of Baldessar Castiglione. It is tempting to read the almost painful earnestness of the Parson’s life as a deliberate correction to the insincerity and courtly self-seeking which the Courtier advised.
The first eight chapters lay out a broad and rigorous set of precepts for the parson’s specifically clerical functions: “knowledge” here covers theology and “pray” means “read the divine service”. Herbert will later go into the personal life and qualities required, but in these chapters he is mostly concerned with the public and professional functions of the clergyman (though he would no doubt dispute the distinction.) The points are frequently backed up with references to the Bible, though these appear as justifications for what is written, rather than being quoted first and correct conduct deduced from them. There is a practical air to the injunctions, and he is concerned with the everyday life of the parson and his parish, giving practical examples of particular prayers and exhortations. The book is not minutely prescriptive, however: it does not provide a rule of life or a schedule of devotion and work. Instead it outlines the areas which the parson will need to be proficient in and the duties he will have to fulfil. The style is relatively straightforward, especially when compared with the other styles of religious writing familiar from the period, such as the ornate inwardness of Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, the etymological obsessions of Lancelot Andrewes’ sermons or the self-consciously dramatic lyrics of John Donne. The style fits the emphasis on openness and honesty, as well as connecting with the concerns around ornament and plainness to be found in Herbert’s own poetry.
Herbert insists on the social dignity of the office of clergy: his parson is not slavish or toadying to the gentry, and treats the congregation as a kindly superior with every right to correct their posture in church and their behaviour beyond it. The vision of the world offered by these chapters is clearly that of the Established Church of the early seventeenth century. “Anglicanism” as a spiritual and ecclesial tradition did not officially exist yet, since it is only possible to name “Anglicanism” when it is a possible option amongst others, and the limited toleration of the 1660s was not yet on the horizon (see Chapman, 151 ff.). Instead the Church of England demanded the allegiance and conformity (if not devotion) of every subject of the crown as a matter of course. Herbert may doubt the effectiveness of each parson in wielding this authority, but he does not appear to doubt its rightness. In variously sketching the inhabitants of the parish as the parson’s children, customers and pupils he assumes a hierarchy which sits comfortably within a political and religious settlement. The parson may choose to separate elements of that hierarchy at times, by taking the function of the courts himself in minor cases, or standing out against impudent gentry, but there is a generally untroubled sense of the ideal unity of nation and church.
The kind of ministry presented by The Country Parson has obvious problems in a modern context. It puts potentially impossible burdens on the clergy, and centralizes in their person an array of authorities (from spiritual to medical) which a modern society would find vaguely suspect, if not outright despotic. The parishioners are regarded in a paternalistic light which would probably hinder the development of lay leadership and informal Christian ministries amongst them. The book has no apparent resources to address questions of multifaith context or even cooperation with other Christian traditions. It may have been unachievable in its own time; it looks distinctly undesirable in ours.
Nonetheless, The Country Parson has some things to offer us today. Its vision of the parish system as the basis for a pastoral ministry and a communal spirituality finds an echo in modern Anglican writing, from The Benedictine Parish by Mathew Dallman to Alison Milbank and Andrew Davison’s For The Parish. It demands that Christian ministry take place within the everyday life of the congregation, and not as a form of specialised leisure activity. It offers the Scriptures, the Patristics, the Scholastics and contemporary theology as legitimate resources for ministry, putting modern life in the context of Christian thought and practice for centuries. The parochial emphasis also encourages a focus on ministering to the local community in all its diversity, rather than attracting a socioeconomically homogeneous congregation from a wider area.
I’m curious – I’ve never read Herbert’s work, though of course I know of it. Does he touch on the question of the parson’s wife – or the parson-as-husband – at all? Or is she invisible and silent, absent from any consideration?
Apologies for taking so long to reply to this! Chapter nine deals with “The Parson’s state of life”, and he suggests that there is an argument for clerical celibacy on the grounds of vocation, but an argument for matrimony in the practical elements of ministry (visiting people, avoiding scandal, personal chastity etc). When it comes to choice, he’s keen on choosing a wife “by ear” rather than “by eye”, so a “humble and liberal disposition” is better than beauty, riches or title, and the Parson is imagined as being very sure to be just to his wife – and under that he mentions giving her control of the household, not undermining her in front of the servants or visitors, and not considering his goods to be his own. Herbert seems to assume that healing and dispensing medicines is an expected part of being a parson’s wife, likewise arranging charity. He suggests that unmarried men are more likely to fall into convincing themselves that their promotion to a high place is necessary for everyone’s good, or harmfully abstruse theological speculation, whereas married men are more likely to fall into complacency, love of pleasure and desire for an easy life.
There’s some keen insight in those comments!