PERHAPS BEST KNOWN for four hymns – King of glory, King of peace, Let all the world in every corner sing, Teach me, my God and King, and The God of love my Shepherd is – George Herbert, the poet and pastor, is also important as the writer of A Priest to the Temple or the Country Parson.
His biography was engagingly written by Izaak Walton, and from it he emerges as an intensely human and lovable character, stamped by a deep and genuine spirituality.
It comes as something of a surprise to learn that this brilliant young man, who had seemed destined for the life of a courtier, but then turned his attention to the study of divinity, was ordained priest less than three years before his early death a few weeks short of his fortieth birthday in 1633.
His Country Parson might appear on first reading to be distilled from the experience of a long parochial ministry. In fact he was parish priest at Bemerton near Salisbury for less than three years, and the manual was a handbook of rules for the exercise of his ministry that he wrote at the time of his ordination.
One aspect of Herbert’s ministry is vividly brought out in Walton’s biography. Twice daily, at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., he conducted the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer in Bemerton church. His congregation consisted of his own family, many of his parishioners, and “many gentlemen in the neighbourhood”. Walton’s account illustrates the affection and respect of his working-class parishioners by referring to their practice of pausing in their work of ploughing when the church bell rang for divine service, so as to join momentarily in the devotions before resuming their work.
Space permits the mention of only three details from the Country Parson.
One was the thorough study to be made in the early years of the ministry, especially of the Fathers and later theological writers, the fruits of which were to be recorded in a handbook of his own making, which would thereafter serve as the “storehouse of his sermons”.
A second was the continual acquisition of knowledge. Alongside the chief object of his study, the Bible, was anything pertaining to the life of his people, which would enable him the better to communicate the Gospel to them. “He condescends even to the knowledge of tillage and pasturage, and makes great use of them in teaching, because people, by what they understand, are best led to what they understand not”.
Finally there is the awe and thoroughness with which he approaches the ministrations of the Sunday services, with careful prayer beforehand, and careful consideration of the particular circumstances of any of his parishioners.
There can be little doubt that Herbert put these ideals into practice during his own ministry. They still serve as a shining example to all who are called to the pastoral ministry today, and encourage us to concentrate our time and attention on the things that really matter.
Anthony Gelston, Durham