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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, June 27, 2009
    The title catches the eye. The subtitle engages the brain. If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him. Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry. Justin Lewis-Anthony (who online is the 3 Minute Theologian and offline convenes Affirming Catholicism) regrets that 'In the Roman Catholic church the source of all authority is the pope; in Protestant churches the source of all authority is the Bible; in the Church of England the source of all authority is the previous vicar.' His reasons for us wanting to kill George Herbert are to do with the way Herbert evokes this situation (as Lewis-Anthony put it in the Guardian recently):
    For many reasons (to do with legitimacy after reformations, continuity after revolutions, and fearfulness in the face of industrialisation), George Herbert plays the role of ur-Vicar, the echt-Rector. He is the unwitting foundation stone of what I call "Herbertism". Under Herbertism, parsons are not just representatives of the Church of England, they are the Church of England in any given place (think what the common attitude of "say one for me, vicar!" betrays about the relationship of parson to institution). The parsons' workplace is the parish church, in which they are readily found at all hours of the day or night. They officiate at the rites of passage of a community, or a family or an individual: they will bless the opening of a cricket pavilion as readily as a marriage or a birth. The religion and god which they represent are both benign, and they, remembering the gentlemanly roots of their profession, will never behave in an impolite or upsetting manner. They are well-educated, highly-educated even, although they should never show it, because much education about God is the product of "ivory-towers" and therefore not appreciated in wider society. The only acceptable characteristic of their learning is a tendency to be unworldly, even eccentric. They are ubiquitous, present for every activity in a community, whether "church" or "civic", so they can affirm and encourage, marking especially worthy contributions to neighbourhood life by individuals or groups. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, put it, the parson under Herbertism is "the anodyne divine who puts unction in your function".
    This has costs, for the lives and health of the church's parsons, and also for the ability of the church to fulfil its mission. Too often Herbertism gets in the way of Christianity. The solution must begin with ridding the false memory of Herbert, who he wasn't and what he didn't do. Much of our reverence for "George Herbert" is the worshipping of a fantasy pastor, an impossible and inaccurate role model, a cause of guilt and anxiety. Like the Zen Master, if we meet George Herbert on the road, we must kill him.
    So down with Herbertism! We're not sure where we're going but it's not back to a mythical Bemerton. I have a copy of the book on the table (thanks Mike). Should be an interesting ride.