Sunday, February 25, 1996

George Herbert and the Crisis of the Episcopal Church

George Herbert and the Crisis of the Episcopal Church

By Stephen F. Noll

THIRTY years ago I converted to Christianity and was baptized in the Episcopal Church as a college student. When people ask who "brought me to the Lord," I have to name as foremost among them George Herbert. Though he died in 1633, the Anglican priest and poet spoke words of truth and love to me at the appointed time.

Now I find myself caught up in the events surrounding the trial of Walter Righter, and I ask: "What would George Herbert say to the Church crisis of our day?" Such a question may appear naively anachronistic, but I am convinced that the greatest minds address perennial questions of truth implicitly, if not with the clairvoyance we might wish. And Herbert certainly was one of those rare minds.

Herbert’s response to crisis

Herbert lived in a time of great tension within the society and culture of England. Within a decade of his death, the Puritans had ripped apart the seamless cloak of the Church in order to build a holy commonwealth. Within a generation, this experiment would be succeeded by the stifling uniformity of Lockean rationalism. While Herbert was hardly a quietist, he responded to this crisis by building up the Church in deed through his ministry at a little parish near Salisbury, and in word through his posthumous book of poems entitled The Temple.

The Temple is a collection of short lyrics, anchored by three long poems. The architecture of The Temple is significant. It begins with a long proverbial poem entitled "The Church-Porch," which lays out the basic moral rules that shape the serious Christian life. A lover of proverbs, Herbert summarizes biblical teaching on sexual ethics in one breath: "Wholly abstain or wed. Thy bounteous Lord allows thee choice of paths: take no by-ways.... Continence hath his joy: weigh both."

As a Renaissance man, he was not unaware of the power of erotic desire in the realm of culture and philosophy. But the priestly call to Christians, he believed, involves a struggle for holiness, with one’s "doctrine tuned by Christ." In matters of sexuality, the Church’s bounteous Lord had commanded options and limits. And that was that.

The acceptance of the Church’s consensus fidelium in doctrine and morals is the entry way to the temple of the human heart, beset by sin and consoled by love. Herbert’s poems are a "picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master." But they are also typological vignettes for our lives as well.

For all its recognizably modern playing with subjectivity, Herbert’s poetry is firmly rooted in the doctrines of original sin, vicarious atonement, and justification by faith. The central long poem, "The Sacrifice," counterpoises the passion of Jesus with the passions of the human heart, leading to his atoning grief: "My woe, man’s weal." This very act of sacrifice defines love and is the clue to the Eucharistic mystery: "Love is that liquor sweet and most divine, Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine."

The clash of truth

The Walter Righter affair is not just about an isolated moral violation. Bishop Righter acted on behalf of another bishop who has called into question all the central mysteries of the Christian Gospel. The clash of religious truth, of worldview, is the greater issue. I inhabit the worldview of George Herbert, which is the Great Story of the Bible. The revisionists do not, which some admit and others deny. If readers want to test this proposition, let them ask the supporters of the Righter cause this question: Why did Christ die on the Cross? Then compare the answers they receive with the meditations of George Herbert.

The doctrine of sin cuts both ways, of course, and the righteousness of the orthodox is no more acceptable to God than the error of those who move the boundaries. Herbert knows well the deception in trying to help God out: "I have considered it, and find there is no dealing with Thy might passion; For though I die for Thee, I am behind; My sins deserve the condemnation."

George Herbert’s temple was, above all, the inner sanctum of the heart. This did not mean that he was unaware of church politics. He was a defender of the Anglican settlement, writing of the British Church "I joy, dear Mother, when I view Thy perfect lineaments and hue... Neither too mean, nor yet too gay shows who is best." The Anglican mean, of course, fell within Reformation options that have been largely forgotten today by the heirs of the Enlightenment.

Yet he hardly viewed any particular Church as holding an irrevocable claim on the future. In the long poem that concludes The Temple, entitled "The Church Militant," Herbert sketches the progress of true religion in history, as it moved from east to west, dogged by the power of sin. He says of his own day: "Religion stands on tip-toe in our land, Ready to pass to the American strand." Religion in America, he continues, will have its set times too, followed by darkness. The self-destructive collapse of "mainline" American Protestantism in the past forty years may qualify as prophecy fulfilled, as the Gospel (in Anglicanism at least) has now moved east and south.

Is it an ironic coincidence that the "historic" trial that may set the Episcopal Church officially on the side of error falls on George Herbert’s day? Probably so. Herbert would not encourage superstitious reading of signs, nor a sentimental despairing for a Church rent asunder by schism and distressed by heresy. Rather, he would send us back to the Bible to read in it our sinful heart and Christ’s sacrificial love. "Stars are poor books and oftentimes do miss. This book of stars lights to eternal bliss."

SUGGESTED FURTHER READING:

George Herbert, The Country Parson, The Temple, ed. John N. Wall (Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1981).

Chana Bloch, Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (University of California Press, 1985).

Harold Tolliver, George Herbert’s Christian Narrative (Penn State University Press, 1993).


The Crisis of the Church" was first published in The Living Church (February 25, 1996).

Copyright Stephen F. Noll 1999.


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