Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why George Herbert Must Die

The Guardian has a great Opinion piece this week about the need for people to get over the traditional image of the Vicar. Justin Lewis-Anthony argues that, "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." Indeed, the romantic image of the country parson embodied by George Herbert is exactly that, a romantic image. Nor is it a helpful one, as it has produced ministry that is as anaemic as it is affable, the one quirk allowed is a kind of cheerful eccentricity. "As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, put it, the parson under Herbertism is 'the anodyne divine who puts unction in your function' (source)."

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

Justin Lewis-Anthony
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)



Felicity Pickup said...

re "Anodyne"

Oops! I just googled define: anodyne and, oh dear, that is what I use mine for alot. Gotta stop leaning on rector@stxxx!? But I do want to keep the "gentlemanly and educated" bit. And I'd accept "the perfect lady" too.

M. Dale said...

This is among the most wrong headed arguments that has become very fashionable among some Anglican groups. Any other denomination would honor and venerable a man many scholars consider to be the greatest lyric / devotional poet in any language, but the "shoot ourselves in the foot" Anglicans write the nastiest of things about a devote priest and amazing person - "Why George Herbert Must Die". Perhaps Herbert should be learned from as a positive model for clergy among many other models (male and female) and instead of eliminating Herbert we begin to honor other types of Anglican Saints - Image the Catholic Church writing on why we must kill St. Francis because his example is not fitting to contemporary models - nonsense isn't it.

Tay Moss said...

M. Dale, thanks for your comment, but I think you miss the point. I don't think the argument is against George Herbert personally or as a saint, but rather against the model of priesthood that he represents. This is really an argument about vocation and ministry, not George Herbert or whether we should honor his memory. Honestly, "Aaron" is one of my favourite poems!

The fact is that the Anglican church is in crisis, and not because of the sex issue. We are in crisis because most churches are merely "managing decline" as parishioners and funds dwindle. We watch closure or merger, one after another, and fret. When you look at the demographics and trends it is downright depressing. Everyone I know who has seriously examined the issue (no matter their churchmanship) comes up with the same basic answer: the parish church as we have inherited it has become ill-suited to mission in the current UK and North American context.

The sad thing is that very few priests I know were ever trained to deal with this challenge. Certainly I learned almost nothing about mission when I at Yale Divinity School five years ago. Oh, sure, I learned theology, liturgy, history, bible and CPE taught me how to do counseling and pastoral care, but the core skills necessary to turn around a dying parish? Forget it!

I know some priests with amazing spirituality and prayer lives that nonetheless are in parishes that they have no idea what to do with. I, for one, believe that my parish is worth fighting for and I'm willing to make whatever changes are necessary to grow. Not because I'm selfishly attached to the parish community, but because I think God put us here to bring the Gospel and baptize!

Believe me, I've known the best of the scotch-sipping priests of the old model! I love them dearly, but it is no longer sufficient to be a "mass priest" anymore. Being ordained isn't about simply modeling personal holiness and hope that people find it magnetic! Read Acts, this field needs workers to go out. This is why the CoE has changed their ordination criteria so that missional gifts are a now necessary to a call to ordained ministry.

Suggested reading:
Mission Shaped Church
The Missional Leader
This Powerpoint by Bp. Cray

What it means to be a priest has been in constant change since the time of Peter and will continue to change and evolve. The point of essays like the one I quoted about George Herbert is to destabilize deeply embed expectations about the role and persona of clergy. They simply aren't helpful!


Daniel Graves said...

I don't care what you say, George Herbert is my kinda guy. :)


Tay Moss said...

Lol, Dan. I love you, too!