SOME years ago, I was invited to re-edit a famous little book, George Herbert’s The Country Parson, because it was more than 300 years old and full of words that would puzzle today’s readers. It is a famous book, written in 1631 — very soon after its youthful author had been appointed Rector of a tiny Wiltshire parish, Bemerton.
The rural clergy have, over the centuries, written a vast number of books, on botany, local history, devotions, poetry, gossip, travel — every subject under the sun — and this with rarely leaving their livings. As for diaries, theirs are among the best in the language. Who can live without Francis Kilvert?
But Herbert’s The Country Parson remains special. For one thing, it is alarmingly strict. He had famously given up being a rather grand academic at Cambridge University, and had chosen to look after the tiniest parish imaginable. He was tall and thin, and ill. It was the fenny ague, or consumption. He was newly married, and the greatest poet of the Church of England, although no one knew this.
He was an excellent musician, and his parishioners would have listened to him playing the flute, probably in the church porch. He was a very good gardener, and a lover of old proverbs. His household, of about a dozen relatives and servants, walked across the busy Salisbury road several times a day to sing psalms and say their prayers, while he would often walk on to sing with the Salisbury Cathedral choir.
Disconcertingly for Bemerton, their new priest knew a lot about farming, gardening, and housekeeping, and far too much about village life. Generally, his hospitality included having the Lord Jesus to dinner, laying a place for him, or riding beside him in the Wiltshire countryside. So they began to call him “Holy Mr Herbert.”
When he died, aged 39, and his poems were published and became a best-seller, the Church of England had to re-evaluate itself. Something extraordinary had happened to it. It was no longer merely reformed, it had become sacred in its own way, inspired and confident. Although, how many of its ministers could live by the rules of The Country Parson, heaven alone knew.
One of the requirements of all faiths is that we should try to live according to the perfected self. Herbert, being such a great religious writer, was able to find a language for this — a wonderful domestic language.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws
Makes that and th’ action fine.
Herbert was, of course, teaching the servant Christ, the Saviour who washed his friends’ feet after they had tramped around Palestine. Herbert’s clergy were to cover both themselves and the sanctuary with snowy linen, yet enter the filthiest cottage; they were to teach the poorest children to read and write, and the parish to eat from its fields, orchards, and gardens, and to cure its ailments from its own medicine chest — the one which grew outside. They were not to dress up when they came to church, but walk in just as they were, in their field clothes.
They still drink from the chalice he used, ring the bell he rang, sing the songs he sang, go to Salisbury Cathedral to join “the singing men” there, as he did. His parson must never forget that he was Christ’s deputy: he was to be of his people, yet set apart.