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If You Meet George Herbert on the Road . . . Kill Him! Herbertism and Contemporary Parish Ministry
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I feel moderately nervous offering such a provocative titled paper. My justification, which I hope you will accept, is that, although my first degree was in seventeenth century history, I am not a professional Herbert scholar, but a mere practitioner of Herbert's last vocation: a parish priest. More precisely, I am a practitioner in the Church of England, an organization which has been deeply and unconsciously influenced by Herbert's life - or rather, and this is the core of my thesis, an organization whose culture is profoundly influenced by an inaccurate memory of the life of George Herbert.

Organizational culture, the social scientists tell us, is the way in which every organization deals with questions of meaning: "Why are we here and what are we for?" Thus, "purpose, commitment, and order are generated in an organization both through the feelings and actions of its founder and through the amalgam of beliefs, ideology, language, ritual, and myth we collapse into the label of organizational culture." Within the Church of England, the cultural "amalgam" has many and varied roots, including: canon law; Western traditions of theology and religious philosophy; the reality of political establishment and the history of relations with monarchy and parliament; the Church's experiences of industrialization and social change; and the forms of worship used by the Church (lex orandi, lex credendi). The complex network of values and norms can be summed up by this aphorism: In the Roman Catholic Church the source of all authority is the pope; in Protestant Churches the source of all authority is the Bible; in the Church of England the source of all authority is the previous vicar.

The Role of Herbert as Ur-Vicar

In the Church of England authority is personalized. This authority operates on two levels, of individual minister, and the ecclesial level of the Church's perceived authenticity. Both levels are derived from the way in which the Church has used the life and ministry of George Herbert. He has been, and continues to be, the exemplar for the English parson. Whether the individual minister is High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the parson, poet, teacher, and preacher. He is the saint of Bemerton, the Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.

There are at least three reasons for this. First, Herbert's own book, The Country Parson itself, inevitably draws attention to his parochial ministry. From the book we have some idea of how Herbert lived his life, and therefore we may impute both validity and authenticity to his writing. We believe Herbert, in that horrible phrase, "walked the talk." But, as his time in parochial ministry was so short, we inevitably read from the text back into the life. The Country Parson (the book) tells us about the country parson (the person), as it were. For example, Walton tells a touching story of how, one evening walking to a musical soirée in Salisbury, Herbert stopped to help a "poor man with a poorer horse." The parson took off his "canonical coat," reloaded the burdened animal, and became "soiled and discomposed" in the process. He told his friends that such an act of charity "would prove music to him at midnight" and thanked God for the opportunity to comfort a sad soul. This has all the hallmarks of an exemplary tale. If it didn't happen, then Herbert was the sort of man to whom it ought to have happened.

Second, Herbert died young and in post. This has always been the fast-track to canonization in the folk-religion of the Church of England: if a parson dies in harness then all the guilt and wonder at his vicarious sacrifice transforms into hagiography. Herbert died before his parochial ministry could be compromised; not just by the ructions and turmoil of the English Civil Wars, but also by the regular mundane bruises and accommodations that make up every day life in a community of sinners trying to be saints. It is diverting (although perhaps anachronistically unfair, attempting to second-guess his behavior) to imagine how Herbert might have managed parish life in the turbulence of the Civil Wars. Would he...

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