George Herbert, Anglican modesty, and Lent

The moment when I realised that I could not become a Roman Catholic took place in a restaurant in Islington, when we were arguing about the Roman view of Anglican orders being ‘null and void’. It shot in upon me, with terrible force, that I could not join a church that taught that George Herbert was no true priest.

The words are those of Caroline Moore, in debate with her journalist husband Charles Moore (now Baron Moore of Etchingham), when the latter crossed the Tiber following the Church of England's ordination of women to the priesthood in 1992. Caroline Moore's words capture something of the significance of George Herbert for many of us. Herbert exemplifies something that is to be particularly cherished in the Anglican way.

Ronald Blythe hints at what might lie at the heart of this in his perceptive comment:

Lent was Herbert's season. He was born in Lent, married in Lent, and died in Lent. 

Lent is the season when grandiose, exalted claims are to wither. When penitential reality is to take root. When we recognise "that all our doings without charity are nothing worth" (collect for Quinquagesima). When dependence on grace alone is learnt afresh, for "we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves" (collect for the Second Sunday in Lent). In addition to shaping the life of the individual Christian, Lent should also shape the life of the Church as a - to use the term employed by Herbert in his poem Lent - "Corporation".

One way in which Herbert points to this is indicated by Rowan Williams' suggestion that "the poetry of Herbert is very deeply linked ... to the theology of Hooker". Herbert gives poetic expression to the "contemplative pragmatism" which Hooker articulated, "that in all things God waits, and if we wait, then somehow the two waitings become tuned":

that is, an attitude of time-taking, patient, absorbing awareness of the particular situation you're in. Nothing, you may say, distinctively Anglican about that, and perhaps there isn't. But the point is that that is the kind of virtue that a great deal of Anglican literature, from the 16th Century onwards, seems to inculcate: a willingness to look at apparently secular, apparently unpromising situations, to look long enough and hard enough for God to come to light. Which means, a certain suspicion of hasty, gung-ho religious language, a certain suspicion of exaggerated religious experience.

Something of this contemplative pragmatism is seen in Herbert's advice to the Country Parson when engaging with Recusants and Puritans. The parson is to demonstrate "an humble, and ingenuous search of truth; being unmoved in arguing, and voyd of all contentiousnesse"; this is to bring those with whom the parson is engaging to consider "that God cannot be wanting to them in Doctrine, to whom he is so gracious in Life". 

In Love (III), as Williams states, "the point is that acceptance of the divine love simply requires the abandonment of all effort at assessing my own worth, negatively or positively". It is the action of the Triune God in Christ that is the Church's foundation, centre, and life: an over-active, loud, argumentative, zealous proclamation of some other basis - whether institutional or experiential - for understanding the Church can too easily obscure this. God in Christ is at work in prayer, Word, and Sacrament, sustaining and renewing the Church. This is sufficient. Here the Church is to rest.

In Aaron, the "poor priest" has no claim but "Christ is my only head, My alone-only heart and breast". Thus, "Aaron's drest": Anglican orders commend themselves by ministering Christ in Word and Sacrament, "who is not dead, But lives in me while I do rest". And so, at the Holy Communion, the priest in the temple is called "not only to receive God, but to break, and administer him"; the parson administers Baptism, "a blessing, that the world hath not the like"; and as for preaching, "the character of his Sermon is Holiness; he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but Holy". What more is required? "God cannot be wanting to them in Doctrine, to whom he is so gracious in Life."

If there is an Anglican modesty - indeed, a sober minimalism when it comes to any distinctive Anglican claims (Fisher's "we have no doctrine of our own") - it is because of this, the sufficiency of the Church's Christological centre. It is the word of Christ, in Scripture and Sacrament, which gives life to and sustains the Church, not exalted institutional or experiential claims. With a Lenten penitence, such - too often haughty - claims are to be abandoned for solus Christus. This is what we behold in the life, witness, and words of George Herbert. He is, as Malcolm Guite beautifully puts it, the "Gentle exemplar": such gentleness itself flows from and returns to the Christological centre.

There is another sense in which Herbert embodies an Anglican modesty. Williams rightly notes that, "in the controversial topography of the English Church of his day", Herbert was "neither Puritan nor Arminian". We might revise Williams' terminology at this point, replacing these terms with Reformed Conformist and Laudian. It is not so much that Herbert belonged to neither party or sensibility. It is that he was a bearer of the Christological centre which both sensibilities sought to serve. There is an episode in Herbert's life which rather gloriously illustrates this, as Izaak Walton narrates. When offered the living of Bemerton, in Wiltshire, Herbert - then in deacon's orders - hesitated. It was Laud, then Bishop of London, who convinced Herbert, during a lengthy conversation, to accept the living and receive priest's orders. And it was Davenant, leading Reformed Conformist, Bishop of Salisbury, and a Dort delegate, who instituted him to the living and ordained him priest. 

Amidst the bitter controversies of the late Jacobean and Caroline Church, with Reformed Conformist and Laudian voices increasingly loud, strident, and divisive, Herbert showed another, gentler, more modest way. Laudian and Reformed Conformist could alike serve the Christological centre, for the differences between the two sensibilities were not, and could not, be greater than the Christological centre. A contemplative pragmatism could bring each to a patient waiting upon the other, discerning there a recognition of God's work in Christ, ordered to the Church's centre, and repenting of hasty judgements of the other. Anglican comprehensiveness, in other words, rather than being a mushy fear of doctrine, it itself profoundly doctrinal, rooted in that which is primary: solus Christus.

Lent was Herbert's season. 

A season to humble us and our claims. A season to bring us back to solus Christus. A season when modesty is refound and re-received. Herbert's season and, perhaps, the Anglican season.

Besides the cleanness of sweet abstinence,

Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,

A face not fearing light:

Whereas in fulness there are sluttish fumes,

Sour exhalations, and dishonest rheums,

Revenging the delight.


  1. I especially loved this piece, B. Eagerly awaiting a book by you on Anglican spirituality someday.


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