The young curate was very excited. He had spent the day at a post-ordination training day, normally a deadly dull occasion (workshops on “new ways of being church for Generation FLK1”, “Fresh Expressions for the Cappuccino Church”, or “Pixellating Networks for Time-Poor Professionals”) brightened only by opportunities for the diocese’s curates to complain about their training vicars. This day was different; it had actually been engrossing: a study day on the life, work and example of the Anglican Divine, George Herbert.
“George Herbert is so great,” the curate burbled to his vicar. “He turned down a life at court, he worked in a poor rural parish, he wrote loads of great hymns, his congregation loved him, and even stopped work in the fields to say their prayers when he rang the evensong bell, and he wrote this brilliant book on how to be a country vicar which is full of really good advice.”
His training incumbent, relieved not to be on the receiving end of projected disappointment and misplaced stress, coughed, turned over a page in his copy of the Church Times, and said,
“If you meet George Herbert on the road— kill him!”
The curate was shocked. Was there no limit to his vicar’s cynicism and philistinism? He added a new grievance to his store, and resolved that day to make George Herbert the model, and his incumbent the anti-model, for his own ministry.
The years passed and rough edges were rubbed off the curate. He worked in positions of increasing responsibility, sometimes sought and sometime thrust upon him. He watched as synods of the church discarded all the new initiatives which had seemed so bright and productive in the first years of his ministry. He watched as bishops rediscovered all those initiatives and introduced them as the next best hope for the salvation of the church. He was even allowed, occasionally, a curate of his own, to train and to encourage and to form (although the church hierarchs never used such a hierarchical verb as “form” any more).
One day this latter-day curate returned from a post-ordination training day, which had been spent on the spirituality of the Anglican Divines, and as his curate spoke of his enthusiasm for the poetry, prose and example of George Herbert, he found himself saying
“If you meet George Herbert on the road— kill him!”
And so it goes, Herbertcidal thoughts all the way down.
Is this just mere clerical cynicism, or passive-aggressive vicars? Pause for a moment, and wonder whether something else might be going on here. Perhaps in this flippant, throw-away remark, a spiritual truth can be glimpsed. Perhaps the two priests, the first incumbent and the curate in his later life, half remembered a story about a Zen Master, and applied it to their own situation and religious tradition: inculturating the Zen story, as the jargon goes.
This is the story: Lin-Chi was born in Shandong province of China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – AD 907). He trained as a Buddhist monk, in the Zen school. Partly because of the particular Zen tradition in which he was trained, and partly because of his character, his own teaching was marked by abrupt, almost absurd, sayings, and deliberately provocative behaviour. He wanted to surprise his disciples into enlightenment, make them realise that the Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment meant not being attached to anything in this world of illusion and self-deception. He even went so far as to seemingly deny fundamental Buddhist doctrines. For example, his students recorded this koan, or saying:
Followers of the Way2, if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords with the Dharma3, never be misled by others. Whether you’re facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha…If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go.4
Lin Chi was not advocating patricidal, matricidal, genocidal behaviour here. Rather he was saying, if you think that you have reached enlightenment, and if you have a vision of the Buddha, be very careful; that vision is more likely to be a projection of your own fantasy buddha on to the matter of the world. It is more likely to be an expression of your own prejudices than a genuine manifestation of the Enlightened One. Purge yourself of even these illusions!
Lin-Chi’s teaching is not so very different from another description of discipleship, which can cause so much difficulty for conscientious preachers:
To another Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ [Luke 9.59-62]
To be fit for the kingdom of God, the spiritual equivalent of the Buddhist goal of enlightenment, seems to involve renouncing all those ties which make us human; our involvement within a wider society, our responsibilities to our family, our duties in work, culture and religion. It seems that Jesus here is advocating a posture of non-attachment, rather like the Buddhist doctrine of dukkhanirodha, the third of the Four Noble Truths which lead to freedom from the inevitable suffering and impermanence of this life. Perhaps it is good to examine our attachments, every so often if not frequently, to see what things we have elevated to the positions of importance or pre-eminence in our lives.
But why kill George Herbert? What possible danger can the saint of Bemerton, courtier, poet and parson, pose to Christian ministers today? Is there really something more than sneering clerical cussedness going on here?
The answer lies in the way that Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson. Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, preacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar. He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.
I think that there are at least three reasons for this. First, Herbert’s Country Parson itself, inevitably drew attention to the nature of Herbert’s own parochial ministry. We infer the validity of his teaching and the authenticity of his suggestions from what we believe of the manner in which he lived his life. We know that Herbert, in that horrible phrase, “walked the talk”. But, as his time in parochial ministry was so short, the walk was not very long, we inevitably read from the text back into the life. The Country Parson tells us about the country parson, as it were. This is certainly what Isaak Walton did in his life of Herbert. For example, Walton tells a touching story of how, one evening walking to a musical soiree 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 a act of charity “would prove music to him at midnight”, and thanked God for the opportunity to comfort a sad soul5. This has all the hallmarks of an exemplary tale. If it didn’t happen, 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. The story goes that in the Roman Catholic church the source of all authority is the Pope; in non-conformist churches the source of all authority is the Bible, and in the Church of England the source of all authority is the previous incumbent. If the previous incumbent has died in harness, then all the guilt and wonder at his vicarious sacrifice becomes transformed 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 cavils and accommodations that make up every day life in a community of sinners trying to be saints.
Third, and on a wider plane, Herbert fits in, like the keystone or a lynchpin, to what Diarmaid MacCulloch calls “the myth of the English Reformation”. The myth appears in one of three, related, forms; that “the English Reformation did not happen, or that it happened by accident rather than design, or that it was halfhearted and sought a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism”. The myth is a question of the identity of the Church of England, its understanding of where it came from, and who it is. According to MacCulloch, the myth formed in two distinct periods; the first in the middle years of the seventeenth century under Archbishop William Laud and after the Restoration, the second in the in the first third of the nineteenth century under the influence of the Oxford Movement. In both these periods Herbert’s work was extremely popular and influential.
The myth emphasised the continuity of the Church by sharply defining who was part of the Church’s story and who was not: Christians who remained loyal to the authority of the Bishop of Rome were traitors, and Christians who wished a more thorough reform on Genevan lines were condemned as somehow not fully members of the Church of England. Later historians built on this three-fold division, so that the Elizabethan and Jacobean church was viewed through “a Laudian prism” in which the mainstream Calvinist characteristics of the church of Herbert’s day became somehow marginal6. MacCulloch points out the widespread nature of puritan iconoclasm, the sheer amount of hard work, by lawful authority, which went into refitting medieval church buildings for reformed worship, and the Calvinistic tenor of the Elizabethan prayer book. He concludes that the true nature of the Elizabeth and Jacobean Church, in which Herbert worshipped and worked was “a church which found the Swiss Reformations more congenial than the German, which reflected this alignment in its theology and practice, and in which discontinuity with the pre-Reformation past was more characteristic than continuity.”7
If the reality was discontinuity, and a later establishment of the Church wished to emphasise or discover continuity, then an example of continuity had to be found: people were posthumously co-opted in support of positions which they would have been very surprised by in their lifetimes.
Enter Herbert. One of the most interesting aspects of the Herbert’s posthumous reputation has been his adoption by the Laudian ‘High Church’ strand of the Church of England. Elizabeth Clarke has uncovered the extent to which Herbert’s social circle, his writing and his praxis all point to at least his non-, if not anti-, Laudian tendencies (we’ll look at this in a later post).
It seems that we need to get to grips with the man behind the myth. We need to learn a little more about this Angel Gabriel in Jacobean clothes.
This is part of a series of posts. Others in the series are:—
- KGH : Death to Herbertism
- KGH : Lin-Chi, the Curate and the Anglican Divine
- KGH : “…how many live so unlike him now…”
- KGH : The only thing I don’t run
- KGH : The Cult of Nice
- KGH : A little soft around the edges
- KGH : Herbertism Habilitated
- KGH : +ABC and the 3 Ws
- KGH : Witness
- KGH : Watchman — The Biblical imagery
- KGH : Watchman — Cultural Literacy
- KGH : Watchman — A Dissenting Opinion
- KGH : Watchman — Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture
- KGH : Watchman — Niebuhr and finding meaning
- KGH : Watchman — Niebuhr’s “Five Types” of culture
- KGH : Watchman — Niebuhr’s legacy
- KGH : Watchman — Not Niebuhr, but Barth
- KGH : Weaver — What is a “community”?
- KGH : Weaver — Bonhoeffer and community
- KGH : Weaver — Communities and Ethics
- KGH : Weaver — a human society unlike other human societies
- KGH : Weaver — Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together”
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 1
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 2
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 3
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 4
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 5
- KGH : Weaver — The Head of the House
- KGH : Weaver — An insight from the Masai
- KGH : Weaver — Weaving, Worship and Worth
- Doctors’ shorthand for “Funny Looking Kid”. [↩]
- That is, disciples of the Zen path to enlightenment. [↩]
- Either, the repository of the Buddha’s teaching and traditions surrounding it, or the ultimate principle behind the created order of the universe. [↩]
- Burton Watson, The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi: A Translation of the Lin-chi lu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 52. [↩]
- Isaak Walton, ‘The Life of Mr George Herbert’ in Lives of Done and Herbert, S. C. Roberts (ed.), (Cambridge: CUP, 1928 ), p. 101–102. [↩]
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘The Myth of the English Reformation’ in The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1. (Jan., 1991), p. 10. [↩]
- MacCulloch, ‘Myth’, p. 14. [↩]