Gregory the Great, The Book Of Pastoral Rule

The Art of Arts

When the Anglican Communion is in turmoil over the appointment of bishops, here are some appropriate words of Gregory the Great (Feast day 3rd September) to ponder. They were written in reply to John the archbishop of Ravenna to explain Gregory’s reluctance to be a bishop.

Teaching an art

No one ventures to teach any art without having learned it after deep thought. With what rashness, then, would the pastoral office be undertaken by the unfit, seeing that the government of souls is the art of arts! For who does not realize that the wounds of the mind are more hidden than the internal wounds of the body?

Yet, although those who have no knowledge of the powers of drugs shrink from giving themselves out as physicians of the flesh, people who are utterly ignorant of spiritual precepts are often not afraid of professing themselves to be physicians of the heart, and though, by divine ordinance, those now in the highest positions are disposed to show a regard for religion, some there are who aspire to glory and esteem by an outward show of authority within the holy Church. They crave to appear as teachers and covet ascendancy over others, and, as the truth attests, `They seek the first salutations in the market place, the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues.’

Further, there are some who investigate spiritual precepts with shrewd diligence, but in the life they live trample on what they have penetrated by their understanding. They hasten to teach what they have learned, not by practice, but by study, and belie in their conduct what they teach by words. Hence it is that when the pastor walks through steep places, the flock following comes to a precipice.

Therefore, the Lord complains through the prophet of the contemptible knowledge of pastors, saying, `When you drank the clearest water, you troubled the rest with your feet. And my sheep were fed with that which you had trodden with your feet, and they drank what your feet had troubled.’ (Ezekiel 34.18)

Muddy waters

Evidently, the pastors drink water that is most clear, when with a right understanding they imbibe the streams of truth, whereas to foul the water with the feet is to corrupt the studies of holy meditation by an evil life. The sheep, of course, drink of the water befouled by those feet, when the subjects do not follow the instruction they hear, but imitate only the wicked examples they see.

While they thirst for the things said, but are perverted by the things done, they imbibe mud with their draught as if they drank from polluted fountains of water. Consequently, too, it is written by the prophet, `Bad priests are a snare of ruin to my people’ (Hosea 5.1).

Hence again, says the prophet concerning the priests, `They were a stumbling block of iniquity to the house of Israel’ (Ezekiel 44.12). For no one does more harm in the Church than one who, having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly. No-one presumes to take to task such a delinquent and the offence, serving as an example, has far-reaching consequences when the sinner is honoured out of respect paid to rank. Yet everyone who is unworthy would flee from the burden of such great guilt if with the attentive ear of the heart he pondered on that saying, `He that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea’ (Matthew 18.6; Luke 17.1-2). By the millstone is symbolized the laborious round of worldly life, and by the depth of the sea final damnation is referred to.

Therefore, if one vested with the appearance of holiness destroys others by word or example, it certainly were better that his earthly deeds, performed in a worldly guise, should press him to death, rather than that his sacred offices should have pointed him out to others for sinful imitation; surely, the punishment of hell would prove less severe if he fell alone.

The great burden

We have briefly said this much to show how great is the burden of government, lest one who is unfit for it should profane that sacred office, and through a desire of eminence should undertake a preeminence that leads to perdition.

For that reason, James, with parental concern, utters the prohibition, saying, `Be not many masters, my brethren’ (James 3.1; cf. Matthew 23.8, 10). Wherefore, even the Mediator between God and humankind, who excels in knowledge and understanding even the celestial spirits and who reigns in heaven from eternity, shrank from receiving an earthly kingdom.

Canon Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s College Durham.