A goodly heritage: Herbert's 'The British Church'

George Herbert's 'The British Church' exemplifies the native pride in the ecclesia Anglicana which was a defining characteristic of the avante garde conformists and Laudians, a native pride bequeathed to the Old High Church tradition.

It might be suggested that this native pride in our "dear mother" was what primarily set avante garde conformists and Laudians apart from conforming Calvinists.  For the latter, as Diarmaid MacCulloch points out, the Church of England was merely one of a number of Reformed churches, amongst whom others also were episcopally governed and had liturgical worship. 

By contrast, avante garde conformists and Laudians rejoiced in the particular character of what the Laudian Bramhall termed "the Britannick Churches".  There is perhaps more than an echo here of Hooker's praise for "the Churches ... within this Realme, By the goodnes of almightie God and his servant Elizabeth we are" (LEP Book V, Dedication 10).  Whereas the Reformed churches on the continent were overwhelmed in many places by the forces of the Counter-Reformation, the ecclesia Anglicana had been providentially delivered from Armada and Gunpowder Plot.  Whereas the Reformed churches on the continent were riven by divisions arising from Arminianism and Socinianism, the unity and orthodoxy of the ecclesia Anglicana was secured through the Royal Supremacy:

We hold it most agreeable to this Our Kingly Office, and Our own religious Zeal, to conserve and maintain the Church committed to Our Charge, in Unity of true Religion, and in the Bond of Peace; and not to suffer unnecessary Disputations, Altercations, or Questions to be raised, which may nourish Faction both in the Church and Commonwealth (from His Majesty's Declaration, prefixed to the Book of the Articles of Religion).

And the Royal Supremacy was central to "the Britannick Churches".  Under Elizabeth I it ensured that avante garde conformity took root in the Church of England, and stood robustly against those seeking 'further Reformation'.  In Scotland, James VI/I had reintroduced episcopacy and with the 1618 Articles of Perth conformed significant aspects of Scottish liturgical practice to that of the ecclesia Anglicana.  In Ireland, the 1634 adoption of the Articles of Religion and of new Canons demonstrated the unity of the "Britannick Churches". As historian John McCafferty has stated, they were "centred on a royal, not Canterburian, supremacy". 

As Herbert celebrates, the "British Church" was marked by a liturgical beauty "Neither too mean nor yet too gay".  While "She on the hills" was characterised by Baroque, Tridentine opulence, and "She in the valley" lacked any decent order, the "British Church" kept "The mean".  In Cranmer's words:

without some Ceremonies it is not possible to keep any order or quiet discipline in the Church.

If there is one word which captures this "mean" it is "decent", a term which consistently appears in the various directions ordering the worship of the ecclesia Anglicana, and which contrasts with both "painted shrines" and she who "nothing wears".

Here we see Herbert capturing a defining aspect of the native piety of what would become the Old High Church tradition, the sense of "a goodly heritage" (Ps.16:7).  Neither enamoured with Geneva nor casting longing looks across the Tiber, but rejoicing in the British Church.

I joy, dear mother, when I view
Thy perfect lineaments, and hue
Both sweet and bright.
Beauty in thee takes up her place,
And dates her letters from thy face,
When she doth write.

A fine aspect in fit array,
Neither too mean nor yet too gay,
Shows who is best.
Outlandish looks may not compare,
For all they either painted are,
Or else undress'd.

She on the hills which wantonly
Allureth all, in hope to be
By her preferr'd,
Hath kiss'd so long her painted shrines,
That ev'n her face by kissing shines,
For her reward.

She in the valley is so shy
Of dressing, that her hair doth lie
About her ears;
While she avoids her neighbour's pride,
She wholly goes on th' other side,
And nothing wears.

But, dearest mother, what those miss,
The mean, thy praise and glory is
And long may be.
Blessed be God, whose love it was
To double-moat thee with his grace,
And none but thee.


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