This essay is so good that I'm going to reprint it here in it's entirety. You can find the source at the Guardian. I also recommend the essay series by Justin on the subject, Kill George.
Why George Herbert must die
The image of the vicar as a kindly, smiling presence, ministering to all the various needs of an ideal community, is one we must ditch
Close your eyes and picture a vicar of the Church of England. Whether you are a regular churchgoer or someone who once watched an episode of The Vicar of Dibley, your mental image will more than likely be this: a smiling, benign, inoffensive and unworldly cleric. This image has its origins in the life and ministry of one man, George Herbert (1594-1633). The memory of priest, pastor, poet and polemicist is revered everywhere, inside and outside the church. A contemporary diocesan bishop sets as required reading for his clergy Herbert's treatise, The Country Parson. In September 2005 Country Life awarded the prize of "Britain's Best-Loved Rector" to a man whose ministry could be read directly from the same pages. The generations of "telly-vicars" in All Gas and Gaiters, Dad's Army, The Vicar of Dibley, and Jam and Jerusalem, are the direct successors of a half-remembered and half-digested picture of Herbert's exemplary country parson.
Herbert's abiding influence is explained by the way his life story is usually told. Born into an aristocratic family in the late 1500s, and destined for a glittering career in court, or Parliament, or the university, Herbert threw it over to serve in a distinctly unglamorous rural parish, where, beloved by his parishioners, he died in equal obscurity, having spent his time writing poems, hymns and teaching his parishioners in the ways of faith. This is not an entirely accurate account. Herbert's "obscure" parish was within walking distance of both Salisbury Cathedral close, and Wilton House, the country seat of his cousins, the Earls of Pembroke. His parish had fewer than 200 people, and he ministered with the assistance of two other clergy. When he died, having been a parish priest for less than three years, he had just completed a "character book", The Country Parson, which was an extended CV, an application for preferment. Like all good popular icons, he died young, and left a beautiful body (of work).
So why does Herbert play such an important role in the self-understanding of the Church of England? It's not just his poems, undeniably beautiful and important though they are. It is more to do with what sociologists call the "organisational culture" of the church, the unconscious answer to the question "why are we here, and what are we for?" The organisational culture of the Church of England is a complex amalgam of politics, culture, theology, history and sociology that can be neatly summed up this way: 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.
For many reasons (to do with legitimacy after reformations, continuity after revolutions, and fearfulness in the face of industrialisation), George Herbert plays the role of ur-Vicar, the echt-Rector. He is the unwitting foundation stone of what I call "Herbertism". Under Herbertism, parsons are not just representatives of the Church of England, they are the Church of England in any given place (think what the common attitude of "say one for me, vicar!" betrays about the relationship of parson to institution). The parsons' workplace is the parish church, in which they are readily found at all hours of the day or night. They officiate at the rites of passage of a community, or a family or an individual: they will bless the opening of a cricket pavilion as readily as a marriage or a birth. The religion and god which they represent are both benign, and they, remembering the gentlemanly roots of their profession, will never behave in an impolite or upsetting manner. They are well-educated, highly-educated even, although they should never show it, because much education about God is the product of "ivory-towers" and therefore not appreciated in wider society. The only acceptable characteristic of their learning is a tendency to be unworldly, even eccentric. They are ubiquitous, present for every activity in a community, whether "church" or "civic", so they can affirm and encourage, marking especially worthy contributions to neighbourhood life by individuals or groups. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, put it, the parson under Herbertism is "the anodyne divine who puts unction in your function".
This has costs, for the lives and health of the church's parsons, and also for the ability of the church to fulfil its mission. Too often Herbertism gets in the way of Christianity. The solution must begin with ridding the false memory of Herbert, who he wasn't and what he didn't do. Much of our reverence for "George Herbert" is the worshipping of a fantasy pastor, an impossible and inaccurate role model, a cause of guilt and anxiety. Like the Zen Master, if we meet George Herbert on the road, we must kill him. (source)