Herbert’s Sonnet “Love (1)”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Seven: Monday after the Second Sunday of Advent

Love (I)

Immortal Love, author of this great frame,
Sprung from that beauty which can never fade,
How hath man parcel’d out thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which thou hast made,
While mortal love doth all the title gain!
Which siding with Invention, they together
Bear all the sway, possessing heart and brain,
(Thy workmanship) and give Thee share in neither.
Wit fancies beauty, beauty raiseth wit;
The world is theirs, they two play out the game,
Thou standing by: and though Thy glorious name
Wrought our deliverance from th’ infernal pit,
Who sings Thy praise? Only a scarf or glove
Doth warm our hands, and make them write of love.

This is a sonnet, with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFFEGG. Pasternak Slater observes that it is one of many of his poems that contrasts divine love with romantic love, and also that it is one of five in the whole of The Church that mentions hell.

While from our perspective Herbert lived in a profoundly more religious age than our own, the point of the poem is that more attention is paid by poets to romantic love than God’s. Who was he thinking of? Shakespeare and his sonnets, which are entirely devoted to themes of romantic love or related issues? The young John Donne? Since Herbert does not say, we do not know, but the impression that is given is of a very serious, pious young man whose brilliance is put to service in this complaint.

Anthony Martin, in the essay “Herbert’s “Love” Sonnets and Love Poetry” (George Herbert Journal; Spring 1994; 17, 2; pp. 37-49), points out that Herbert unusually describes God as an “author”. This suggests that God is a poet, too, whose words are spoken and become act. Thus, the gift and skill which human poets have is “sprung from that beauty” which is God’s. God made the heart and the brain and the dust out of which human beings are made, as well as the wit and beauty which conspire to celebrate each other while ignoring the divine.

The last two lines of any sonnet usually introduce a new theme, a twist even, and this is true here. Martin notes the enigmatic quality. What is with these gloves and scarf? Martin spends several pages considering options, and notes that in Herbert’s time a “scarf” could also be a veil, and that in conventional love poetry of the time much was made of ladies’ veils and gloves. Herbert mentions them, only to subvert this allusion, speaking of them being his own. Martin eventually concludes:

The question “Who sings thy praise?” is neither rhetorical nor so simple as to be left unanswered. Rather, a complex strategy is indicated: that the poet who wishes to sing the name of love necessarily adopts conventional imagery — “only a scarf or glove” that the poet needs such convention — “Doth warm our hands”; and that it it is only through the adoption of such a submissive, secondary position that the poem can be written — “and make them write of love.” Thus the uneasy position regarding eroticism which the young Herbert expressed in the early sonnets has now been accommodated into a mature vision in which the transcendent Author, or his name, effectively underwrites any expression of love.

This sets us up to consider the poem which immediately follows “Love (1)”, namely “Love (2)”.

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Herbert’s Anthropology: A Celebration of the Human Being

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Six: Saturday after the First Sunday of Advent

Vitruvian Man (c.1490) by Leonardo da Vinci


My God, I heard this day
That none doth build a stately habitation
But he that means to dwell therein.
What house more stately hath there been,
Or can be, than is man, to whose creation
All things are in decay?

For man is ev’ry thing,
And more: he is a tree, yet bears more fruit;
A beast, yet is, or should be, more;
Reason and speech we only bring;
Parrots may thank us if they are not mute,
They go upon the score.

Man is all symmetry,
Full of proportions, one limb to another,
And all to all the world besides;
Each part may call the furthest brother,
For head with foot hath private amity,
And both with moons and tides.

Nothing hath got so far
But man hath caught and kept it as his prey;
His eyes dismount the highest star;
He is in little all the sphere;
Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they
Find their acquaintance there.

For us the winds do blow,
The earth doth rest, heav’n move, and fountains flow.
Nothing we see but means our good,
As our delight, or as our treasure;
The whole is either our cupboard of food,
Or cabinet of pleasure.

The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head;
All things unto our flesh are kind
In their descent and being; to our mind
In their ascent and cause.

Each thing is full of duty;
Waters united are our navigation;
Distinguished, our habitation;
Below, our drink; above, our meat;
Both are our cleanliness. Hath one such beauty?
Then how are all things neat!

More servants wait on man
Than he’ll take notice of; in ev’ry path
He treads down that which doth befriend him,
When sickness makes him pale and wan.
Oh mighty love! Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.

Since then, my God, thou hast
So brave a palace built, O dwell in it,
That it may dwell with thee at last!
Till then, afford us so much wit,
That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee,
And both thy servants be.


This is a complex poem, for each of the nine stanzas of six lines has a different rhythm scheme, with one exception:

Stanza 1: ABCCBA.
Stanza II: ABCABC.
Stanza IV: ABACCB.
Stanza V: AABCBC.
Stanza VIII: ABCABC (the repeat)

As well, each stanza contains three different iambic meters, which create a metrical chiasm, a symmetry around the centre of each stanza.

  1. 6
  2. 10
  3. 8
  4. 8
  5. 10
  6. 6

The structure of the poem demonstrates double complexity in meter and rhyme. This duality serves the theme of Herbert’s poem.


I once took a course at the Toronto School of Theology back around 1987 simply because of the oddness of the name: Ante-Nicene Anthropology, Part II. As is turns out, the course was all about the theology and anthropology of Origen, arguably the first systematic theologian and the first real biblical critic in the Christian world, way back in the third century. Origen should be a canonized saint but he had a few odd ideas derived from Neoplatonic thought and his reading of scripture. For example, he believed that the soul and the body were both created at separate times. He also believed that all creation would be saved. It was claimed that he literally made himself a eunuch for God, castrating himself; this may just be slander, as it is pretty extreme. He ran afoul of influential authorities, namely the Bishop of Alexandria, by being ordained a priest in Palestine although he was from Alexandria and they claimed authority over him. Finally, where he did not go down certain soon-to-be-labelled heretical paths, some of his disciples did, becoming Arians, and the master was condemned for the sins of his followers.

The key learning I took away from the course, taught by Fr John Egan SJ of blessed memory, is that anthropology is theology and vice-versa. What you think about humanity will influence your thinking about God, and what you think about God will influence your opinions on humanity.

What is striking about today’s poem is that Herbert celebrates the wonderful creation of the human being. Not for him is there Neoplatonic disparaging of the body, as some lesser mode of being than the immortal soul. Likewise one does not get the sense that the body is suspect, prone to temptation and a too frequent occasion for sin. He does not quite say with Walt Whitman, “I sing the body electric” but he is heading there.

A couple of things may be a bit disconcerting for a 21st century reader. First, Herbert is, of course, a 16th century male in England, and so he uses the term “man” to represent all of humanity; presumably anything written in the poem would apply to a woman as much as a man. That said, he probably idealises the human being as male, much as da Vinci did in his famous sketch of the Vitruvian Man. Second, he puts “man” at the apex of creation and at the centre of it. In an era which has been much affected by Darwinism and the knowledge that human activity is damaging the ecology, this assumption of prestige might sound arrogant.

I suspect Herbert here is, if anything, trying to challenge the distaste the body that shows up in certain pieties of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. And so he celebrates it, picking up on the idea of God in Christ dwelling in human beings just as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. This gives Herbert the image of humanity as “a stately dwelling”.

“Man” surpasses the rest of creation, in Herbert’s thought. Humanity is like “a tree, yet bears more fruit;” and following Aristotle, is “a beast” but with “reason and speech.” The body is symmetrical (on the outside at least) which gives to in a kind of beauty. At the centre of the Ptolomaic universe, humanity is in accord with the herbs that help that cure the ills of the flesh. Being at the centre, God appears to have crafted night and day, the oceans and the waters above and in the ground, all to our benefit. Only in the penultimate verse – the one that is a repeat – do we get a note of the arrogance of humanity that “treads down that which doth befriend him.”

Herbert uses the curious image of a human being one world “and another to attend him.” Ann Pasternak Slater notes that he states this in The Country Parson:

Thy hands both made us, and also made us Lords of all thy creatures; giving us one world in our selves, and another to serve us.

The final stanza invites God to swell in the human being, and begs that the Divine “afford us so much wit, / That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee, / And both thy servants be.”

I would like to think that were Herbert to write the poem today he would eschew the masculine imagery, and perhaps play down the supremacy of humanity over creation. We exercise a mastery over the world that is both greater and more fraught with danger than he could ever had imagined 400 years ago. We are no longer in a Ptolomaic universe, but a Copernican one, in which we are not the centre of anything except in a subjective way. As amazing a creature as we are, we are equally fascinated by the mysteries and wonders of other living things.

And yet, in the end, we will praise the Creator, not only for ourselves, but for all things, and while we may see ourselves more as stewards than lords, we still seek to serve God and each other. The poem has a technical mastery that serves its theme well, and as we consider ourselves “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14), may we be deflected to the Creator who allows us to praise God in such a manner.

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Four Last Things: “Heaven”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Five: Friday after the First Sunday of Advent

“Heaven”, “ a detail from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1500) by Hieronymus Bosch (Jheronimus van Aken, 1450-1516).


O who will show me those delights on high?
                            Echo.         I.
Thou Echo, thou art mortal, all men know.
                            Echo.         No.
Wert thou not born among the trees and leaves?
                            Echo.         Leaves.
And are there any leaves, that still abide?
                            Echo.         Bide.
What leaves are they? impart the matter wholly.
                            Echo.         Holy.
Are holy leaves the Echo then of bliss?
                            Echo.         Yes.
Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?
                            Echo.         Light.
Light to the mind : what shall the will enjoy?
                            Echo.         Joy.
But are there cares and business with the pleasure?
                            Echo.         Leisure.
Light, joy, and leisure ; but shall they persever?
                            Echo.         Ever.


I first came across what is known as Echo verse in W. H. Auden’s long poem The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, written in the depths of the Second World Wat in New York City. The final section is called, appropriately, “Postscript” and it is Ariel’s words to Caliban, left behind on island after everyone else have gone back to Milan. Without printing the whole poem, I note that the last line of each verse has an echo, that of the prompter. Thus:

I can sing as you reply
. . . I

I will sing if you will cry
. . . I

One evaporating sigh
. . . I

This is as simple as it gets.

The inspiration goes back to the story of Narcissus and Echo, best preserved in Latin in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story is told of the nymph Echo who pissed off Juno – never a good thing to do – and is cursed to be only able to say the last word or words that someone else says. She falls in love with Narcissus. She longs to call to him, but is incapable because of the curse. Finally he says, ‘ecquis adest?’ “Who is here?” and she responds ‘adest’ “Is here!”This goes on at some length until she flings herself at Narcissus, but he is repulsed – he is, after, the character after whom “narcissism” comes from, and only loves herself.

A technical depiction of an echo.

By the late 16th century and early 17th century Continental poets and English dramatists were using this effect in their own work, and Herbert is part of that trend.

Each line of the poet is ten syllables long, and the echo is one or two. The effect is of a strange dialogue in which the echo gives an answer.


It is the poet who speaks here, and the echo replies, and is, as it turns out, God. The poet in the first line asks “who will show me those delights on high?” and the echo comes back, “I”. The poet presumes to know the echo as mortal in the second line, but it denies mortality, tells the poet to wait (bide), and over the next few lines identifies itself as being among the “holy” “leaves” of bliss – scripture, probably, where pages might be called leaves (Ann Pasternak Slater, p. 488). There may also be an allusion to the leaves of the trees along the flowing river of the New Jerusalem, and “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22.2); as those leaves are eternal, so are the holy leaves of the poem.

The bliss that is conveyed by the holy leaves are: Light, Joy, and Leisure. These will persevere forever, as the last line suggests (the rhyme would have been there in Herbert’s time).

Herbert is doing a couple of interesting things here. His description of heaven sounds to me as if it is not far from what he experienced at the best moments of his life. This was a life revolving around his home, prayer, and interaction with others, and so it appears will heaven be. We do not have something complex like the painting by Bosch, with St Peter at the gate, demons tugging at us only to be fended off by angels, and an assortment of saints kneeling and standing around the throne – an extension of church, perhaps. For Herbert the description encompasses all aspects of life.

The other thing Herbert does is to find God in the echo of a human voice. Humanity does not expect to find the divine in the reflection of its own voice. recognise. But this is not that much of a stretch. Human beings are made in God’s image, so the reflection of that image speaking may contain something of the divine. The echo, an apparently meaningless, transient artifact of nature, likewise reveals God’s response to humanity’s questions.

We can find the divine in things we say or sing, and in the things we produce, the echos of our nature. We might even find the divine in poetry, even if not hallowed as sacred scripture. While many these days find the divine directly in nature, I personally find it in the other person, in my neighbour, and my obligation to be a neighbour. If we want a foretaste of heaven, we need to be with an other, and see the image of God in that person. We will find God in the unexpected places.

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Four Last Things: George Herbert’s “Judgement”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Four: Thursday after the First Sunday of Advent

“Judgement”, a detail from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1500) by Hieronymus Bosch (Jheronimus van Aken, 1450-1516).

In some ways the picture above would go better with yesterday’s poem, but Judgement follows on from Dooms-day, and in some respects are the same. The idea goes back at least as far as the middle of the second century BCE, when the Book of Daniel was written. The anonymous author writes:

At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. – Daniel 12.1-2.

In Christian understanding Jesus of Nazareth – crucified, risen, ascended – will return as the Son of Man in glory to judge “the living and the dead.” Herbert plays with this in his poem.


Almighty Judge, how shall poor wretches brook
                            Thy dreadful look,
Able a heart of iron to appall,
                            When thou shalt call
      For ev’ry man’s peculiar book?

What others mean to do, I know not well;
                            Yet I hear tell,
That some will turn thee to some leaves therein
                            So void of sin,
      That they in merit shall excel.

But I resolve, when thou shalt call for mine,
                            That to decline,
And thrust a Testament into thy hand:
                            Let that be scann’d.
      There thou shalt find my faults are thine.


The poem is a simple AABBA etc. rhyme, of a mere three stanzas. The lines are

  1. 10
  2. 4
  3. 10
  4. 4
  5. 8

The second line introduces in four syllables the thought in the third, and likewise the fifth continues the thought of the fourth.

Our Peculiar Book

The poem here is addressed to Jesus as judge. In the poem Herbert suggests that every soul raised to life has a book of their deeds which will be reviewed by the judge, and presumably, make a judgement. It is a rather terrifying prospect, frankly, and problematic, because one’s deeds will condemn the soul “to shame and everlasting contempt.” Some resourceful folk intend to simply dwell on the positive and show the Son of Man the pages that are devoid of sin. Herbert, as the speaker in the poem, suggests another strategy. Instead of opening his own book, he merely takes a Testament and puts it in the hand of Jesus, who will find that his sins – Herbert’s – are Jesus’s own.

This is an unexpected conclusion. Usually, in Calvinist influenced theology, one will find that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner. In such a way of thinking it might be expected that Christ would find his own righteousness in the book of a Christian. Herbert flips this over – the sins of the sinner are taken on by Jesus and he suffers on the sinner’s behalf. Thus, the Testament thrust into the Son of Man’s hands is not just the New Testament, as some have suggested, but the Book of a Sinner in which all the sins are taken on, as if Herbert’s name is erased and Jesus’s put in its place.

Ann Pasternak Slater suggests (p. 488) that the testament is be a reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, in which Jesus “took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them [his disciples], saying, “Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matthew 26.27-28). The word translated here as “testament” in the KJV/AV is διαθηκη which in more modern versions as “covenant”. She is undoubtedly correct that this is the testament which the poet intends to give Jesus – the testament that remits sins.

This is not one of Herbert’s great poems, but it is not a bad one. His conceit here is a simple one, that the “testament” inaugurated at the Last Supper is a book that one can switch for the book of one’s life. It is a bit of a stretch, especially the more one dwells on it, but it works in the moment.

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Four Last Things: “Dooms-day”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert:
Day Three: Wednesday after the First Sunday of Advent

“Hell,” a detail from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1500) by Hieronymus Bosch (Jheronimus van Aken, 1450-1516).

As I look at the detail above what strikes me, apart from the whimsy in the depiction of the demons and scary beasties, is how so many of the tortures of hell were, in fact, present in the 16th century of the artist. War and torture were an ever-present reality of the immediate pre-modern era, and civilians were rarely spared. We see the imminent evisceration of a man in the right, with a little creature waiting to feed on his flesh. The young couple are also being irritated by something like a crab and a goose – something I am sure has a deeper meaning of which I am unaware. I do not know what the demon with the Santa hat is doing, but were this a modern painting I would think he is taking a picture with his cell phone to put on Twitter or to sext to all the couple’s intimates. All in all, the tortures of hell were only a variation on what was already happening on earth.

George Herbert doesn’t do hell, and he is no Hieronymous Bosch. His Dooms-day is anything but hellish.


Come away,
Make no delay.
Summon all the dust to rise,
Till it stir, and rub the eyes;
While this member jogs the other,
Each one whispring, Live you brother?

Come away,
Make this the day.
Dust, alas, no music feels,
But thy trumpet: then it kneels,
As peculiar notes and strains
Cure Tarantula’s raging pains.

Come away,
O make no stay!
Let the graves make their confession,
Lest at length they plead possession:
Flesh’s stubbornness may have
Read that lesson to the grave.

Come away,
Thy flock doth stray.
Some to winds their body lend,
And in them may drown a friend:
Some in noisome vapours grow
To a plague and public woe.

Come away,
Help our decay.
Man is out of order hurled,
Parcelled out to all the world.
Lord, thy broken consort raise,
And the music shall be praise.


The rhyme scheme is simple, as usual: AABBCC, etc. The syllables per line are:

  1. 3
  2. 4
  3. 7
  4. 7
  5. 7
  6. 7

Of course, one could argue that it is really five lines of seven, but Herbert is doing something in the first two lines that suggest otherwise. First, there is the rhyme. Second, the first line, identical in all five stanzas, has an insistent quality as it is repeated, with the beats accented as a molossus ‘ ‘ ‘ or perhaps as ‘ ‘ ˘, depending on how one says it. The second line, different in each stanza, sets a brief theme for the next four lines.


As in Death, there is nothing to fear in Dooms-day. The poem is addressed to God, and perhaps Jesus Christ as the returning Son of Man. Ann Pasternak Slater notes that C. A. Patrides suggests in his The English Poems of George Herbert (London: 1974) that this is a parody of an anonymous aubade (1 : a song or poem greeting the dawn 2a : a morning love song b : a song or poem of lovers parting at dawn 3 : morning music (Merriam-Webster)) from 1600. If so, Herbert has transposed it, as Pasternak Slater says, to a more transcendent subject (p.486).

Doomsday here is the Day of Resurrection. Thus the charming picture of the resurrected coming out of their graves and saying, Live you brother? Herbert’s vision of the resurrection is influenced by the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37:

Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

In the second stanza Herbert borrows from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15.52, where the apostle writes, “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Herbert plays with the idea that the dead dust of human remains are deaf to anything except that last trumpet, and this overcomes the pain that comes from the spider known as the tarantula wolf spider.

The third stanza suggests that human stubbornness may have taught the personified grave a lesson, namely that possession is nine tenths of that law. English common law recognizes something called “adverse possession” but better known as “squatter’s rights” in which someone who does not have title to a piece of real estate but nevertheless lives on it, may over a period of time gain title to it. This old principle has been severely circumscribed over the past century, but it still exists in some common law jurisdictions. Herbert is suggesting that the grave may try to assert such rights over the dead, having held them for so long.

A few of the dead in the Paris Catacombs. Generally speaking, after being excavated the dead of a parish cemetery were kept together in the caves. The bones here would have been families and friends, known to each other in many cases, over many centuries.

The fourth stanza notes that decaying bodies (as dust presumably) may be buffeted by the wind, and fall into the eyes of their friend (a more modern concern given the frequency with which cremated ashes are scattered in tempestuous weather). A more common concern in Herbert’s times would have been the putrefaction of dead bodies and the perception that they might cause disease; there were no “garden” cemeteries on the edge of town, but rather the church kept on poring dead bodies into graveyards around city churches, even if they were already full. In Paris this led to the command in the late 18th century and early 19th century that all the dead buried within the walls of the city be exhumed and reinterred in the excavated caves underneath. In the end the bones of some six million souls were removed, and you can go on tour to see them (as my son and I did in 2014). In the poem Herbert is imploring God to end these problematic situations.

In the final stanza God is implored to “help our decay.” In the first case this refers to death, in which humanity is like a “broken consort” i.e. a shattered music group. It is also described as the dispersal of the human body as it returns to dust and is scattered to the winds, “out of order hurled, / Parcelled out to all the world.” In the resurrection of the dead we are restored to order, and we can now sing proper praise. In the second case, this might also refer to our current condition – we need a spiritual resurrection in this life, so that as a body of humanity we might rightly praise our God.

Two Questions

The Apostles’ Creed is said on a regular basis by Christians every Sunday. It is the baptismal creed in the Western Churches of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed Communions. Many people say it every day, twice, as part of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. In it is said,

I believe in Jesus Christ . . . He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

I think this raises two questions. First, do I really believe this? And second, does one have to believe this to appreciate the poem?

I answer the first question with a “yes”, but immediately qualify it. I do believe that God is not done with us when we die, but I do not have any literal idea of what that looks like, other than that it is characterized by God’s love. As a student of philosophy I studied the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who suggested that each different field of discourse are like a “language game”, with their own rules and assumptions. To apply scientific literalism to theological propositions is to confuse two different language games. The minute we start speculating on the ontological status of the resurrection we will tie ourselves into knots, leading to errors and bad behaviour. The Resurrection of the Dead is more than a poetic idea, but it is not the same as talking about Newtonian physics or Quantum mechanics. I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the firstborn of all who have died, but his appearance in the world after his death was real and spiritual, not ghostly but not quite the same as my current bodily existence. So I will use the language I find in scripture to talk of what happens to the dead, and what I trust will happen at the Last Trumpet, but I will not assert that it looks anything like “The Good Place” or Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”

And I would answer the second one that one can certainly appreciate Herbert’s poetic mastery without necessarily believing what he (and I and billions of other Christians) believe. That said, perhaps it is not an accident that agnostic poets of the Twentieth century like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden became observant Christians in the middle of their lives. Just as Christian musicians often find that their deepest piety is expressed in music, so poets may find that they are expressing something divine in their own words, and cannot help but be transformed by it. At the very least, I would hope that someone is challenged by these words, and if not themselves brought to faith, at least be impressed by the faith and skill of those wrote them.

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Four Last Things: Death

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert:
Tuesday after the First Sunday of Advent
Day Two

“Death”, a detail from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1500) by Hieronymus Bosch (Jheronimus van Aken, 1450-1516).

In Medieval Catholic teaching, and subsequent Anglo-Catholic Anglicanism and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, Advent was associated with the Four Last Things, namely Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. It is not that the readings in the lectionaries ever lent themselves to such topics, but the yearly remembrance of the First Coming of Christ calls to mind the Second Coming. The Second Coming is filled with aspects of apocalyptic judgement from Revelation, Mark 13, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and many other New Testament passages, informed by the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Also, fours Sundays of Advent lend themselves to a preaching series, so the Four Last Things were a useful peg on which to hang some hellfire and brimstone preaching. The themes were also used in retreats and other situations – for a literary example of this, one might look to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

Herbert was probably aware of this tradition, as three of his poems towards the end of The Temple are titled Death, Judgement, and Heaven. However, whereas the priest in Joyce’s novel seeks to terrify the young students to faith, Herbert’s poems are more hopeful and gentle. Let’s consider Death.


Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
                           Nothing but bones,
      The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we considered thee as at some six
                           Or ten years hence,
      After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
                         Where we did find
      The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Saviour’s death did put some blood
                           Into thy face,
      Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
                           As at Doomsday;
      When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
                           Half that we have
      Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.

On Death

Human beings seem to have two attitudes towards death.

One is to see it as a horrible thing, a constant tragedy for humanity. Christians also think like this – Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” and in Revelation 20.14 it is personified and “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.” We in Europe and much of North America live in a western death-denying society, where old people are warehoused in poorly funded government care facilities and a premium is put on youth and looking young. The elderly are not looked upon as resources of wisdom, but as impediments to the freedom of their children and a challenge to pension plans. Herbert captures this in his description of death as “an uncouth hideous thing”.

Another approach is to see it more positively – as the conclusion of a life lived, something to be accepted and dealt with. The Order of the Good Death is a US based organization that attempts to empower individuals as they deal with death and the $20 billion funeral industry there. Their buzz-word is “death-positive” in that they seek to encourage people to talk about death and overcome death anxiety, and to look to more environmentally friendly options for the disposal of the body. Most of us do not have a clue about the options around the death of a loved one or what might happen to our own bodies, and so most of us go with what is considered “normal” or the least bother to our loved ones. They have originated “death cafés” in which people come together to talk about death, and sponsor “death salons” in which fans of death-positivity come together in conferences.

In some respects this is compatible with the view of death found in the Hebrew Bible. Death is inevitable, and after death one’s soul goes into a shadowy kind of existence in Sheol, from which no one comes, and one’s normal capacity is so diminished that one cannot even praise the Lord. A good death, in the Hebrew Bible, comes after a long life in which one has many children and grandchildren, and one is blessed with flocks and fields. We see this at the end of the Book of Job, in which the protagonist’s fortunes are restored twofold.

Jews and Christians have the hope of the resurrection of the dead, and this is reflected in the poem, where Death is transformed: “Thou art grown fair and full of grace, / Much in request, much sought for as a good.” Death is now “gay and glad”, in the knowledge that “at Dooms-day . . . souls shall wear their new array, / And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.” This is a long way from the terror used by the Jesuit priest in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and is more in line with the discipline of love described in yesterday’s poem. Through Christ Death is overcome and the fear of death is taken away.

Arnold Stein analyzes the poem in great detail in pages 37-42 of George Herbert’s Lyrics (1968). He notes that the first three stanzas “give us the old wrong view of death, the next two supply the corrected present views, and the conclusion is drawn in a single [final] stanza” (p.37). He suggests that “the reader is not likely to know that an argument is . . . being produced until . . . the “Therefore” at the beginning of the sixth and last stanza” (ibid). The argument takes us through two contrasting views of death, with the result being that we no longer need have any anxiety about death, and whether we fall asleep only to rise awake again or whether we fall asleep only to die, and yet rise again, should make no difference. The calm of eternity enters into the present.

Technical Stuff

I am terrible at scanning poetry, and figuring out where the accent or stress is. It comes up in my pronunciation of Modern Greek, too, when I put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. So I won’t even try, That said, I do note that the lines of each stanza have the following number syllables:

  1. Ten
  2. Four
  3. Eight
  4. Ten

The rhyme is ABBA, CDDC, etc. We might wonder at the rhyming of blood with good but try imagining it like a Cockney would say it, or someone from northern England, where the double -oo- is shorter than we might prounounce it today, more like a short -ou- . The way the aristocracy spoke in the early 17th century was not the way their heirs did in the 20th century, with a BBC received pronunciation or the Queen’s English. For an example of how it sounded, have a listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiblRSqhL04.

Arnold Stein makes another astute observation about this poem, but which may be extended to Herbert’s style in general, which he describes as “plain” and relatively passionless:

the colloquial phrasing contributes to the casualness with which a complex and difficult human attitude is made to seem natural and easy. (p. 57)

Compared to his contemporaries Herbert does seem more accessible, and yet his themes are no less complicated and high than theirs. Stuck midway between William Shakespeare and John Milton, and overlapping with John Donne, he shares their love and mastery of phrase, but eschews some of the more dramatic effects for a direct address to the reader. With Donne you have a man whose reputation and excellence precedes him, Milton is literally on an epic level incomprehensible to someone well-versed in both the Classics and Christian theology, and Shakespeare is, well, the Bard, the genius of the Globe, whom you want to applaud. George Herbert is different: one feels as though one is sitting down with a very learned but even more approachable friend.

Tomorrow I will look at the next poem after Death, entitled Dooms-day.

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Love’s Discipline

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert:
Monday after the First Sunday of Advent

To start this retreat let’s begin with Herbert’s Discipline.


Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
                  O my God,
Take the gentle path.

For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
                  I aspire
To a full consent.

Not a word or look
I affect to own,
                  But by book,
And thy book alone.

Though I fail, I weep:
Though I halt in pace,
                  Yet I creep
To the throne of grace.

Then let wrath remove;
Love will do the deed:
                  For with love
Stony hearts will bleed.

Love is swift of foot;
Love’s a man of war,
                  And can shoot,
And can hit from far.

Who can ’scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
                  Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.

Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
         Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.


The title might make the reader think that it is a celebration of God’s discipline, understood as punishment, but it is not. My sense is that the word “discipline” had a pluriform meaning in the early 17th century, as it does now. As a verb or as a noun we might understand it to be the punishment from a teacher to a wayward student; hence, it may involve a beating with a rod or a strap, on the hand or one’s backside. In its simpler sense, though, it may merely be the becoming a disciple, adopting the rigors of training in order to master a field of study. This kind of discipline may be challenging, sometimes costly, but it is not a punishment, merely the price of admission to a guild.

Biographical Speculation

We do not know when Herbert wrote this poem, but that doesn’t have to stop us from speculating and interpolating biographical detail into its meaning. We know enough of Herbert’s biography to imagine that he may be expressing in this poem his exasperation with disappointment. Most of his adult career was focused on finding an important position in government, perhaps even at court, hopes that ended when James VI and I of Scotland and England died in 1625. He did not intend for a career in the church, and delayed ordination until the age of thirty-six; in all likelihood never expected he to be the incumbent priest of a small parish outside Salisbury. As well, he had health issues, including tuberculosis, which led to his early death at the age of thirty-nine after only three years of ordained life.

Technical Issues

Whatever Herbert was thinking, a close reading on the poem and see what its internal structure reveals. Regarding the poetic meter, Ann Pasternak Slater notes that it is

metrically interesting, each stanza alternating between an urgent trochaic trimeter catalectic ( ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ ) in the long lines slowed by a molossus ( ‘ ‘ ‘ ) in the short third line. (George Herbert, The Complete English Works, p. 482)

Yeah, I need a dictionary to figure out what she is saying, too.

  • So, the stanzas are the four line sections, with two long lines, one short third line, but then another long line (although none of them are very long.
  • If something is trochaic then it is made up of trochees (of course). A trochee is “a metrical foot consisting of one long syllable followed by one short syllable or of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable” (Merriam-Webster). You are probably more familiar with iamb, which consists of one short or unstressed syllable followed by a long or stressed syllable; it is sometimes suggested that English is naturally iambic. A foot in English poetry usually consists of two syllables, but sometimes, following Greek and Latin poetry, may have three.
  • Trimeter means there are three metrical feet. Shakespeare usually wrote in iambic pentameter – five feet of iambs. Herbert is not Shakespeare, and so plays with a wide variety of poetic forms.
  • Catalectic indicates that the last foot is missing a final syllable.

So, putting this all together, Pasternak Slater, in saying that the first, second, and fourth lines are each a trochaic trimeter catalectic, she means that each line has five syllables ending on an accent, represented symbolically by ‘ ˘ ‘ ˘ ‘ . We can see this in the first line: Thrów awáy thy ród.

  • Finally, a molossus is just a foot of three long syllables: ‘ ‘ ‘ : O my God, It does indeed interrupt the trochees. In terms of content the third line sets up the fourth, and the third and fourth either contrast with the first two lines, or expands upon those first two. Finally, the rhyme structure is simple enough, ABAB, CDCD, etc.


In the first few stanzas the poet pleads with God to “Throw away thy rod . . . thy wrath.” The speaker in the poet does not want God to act in anger, but to recognise that they have already turned to God. The poet is all too aware of how far they fall short of the glory of God.

Then, in the fifth stanza – just after the midpoint of the poem – he introduces the figure of Love – capital “L” Love. Love will remove love, and is described as having a bow and a “man of war.” There is some connection here to Cupid/Eros, who shoots arrows of romantic love, although we are not to imagine this Love as being a chubby boy with wings or someone whose projectiles result in romantic love between humans, but between God and human. Really, Herbert here imagines Love as someone quite different. Not the image at left, but more like the one on the right.

Indeed, not even God escapes this Love. Herbert writes, “That which wrought on thee/Brought thee low” – a reference to the fact that in love God emptied the Word into human form and death on the cross. The poet desires that this same kind of love work on him. The final stanza restates the first and generalizes this desire for Love’s arrows all humankind.

Perhaps, then, this is another kind of discipline, a discipline of love. It has an erotic dimension, not in some fetishized way, but as an ascetic practice that makes the “stony hearts” bleed.


In my own life punishment or the fear of it has never featured very greatly; perhaps that speaks to the privilege that I as an upper-class “white” male enjoy. I have never felt the whip to be much of a goad to action, but the promise of recognition or simply the pleasure of achieving something has always been more influential. For much of my life that manifested itself as being competitive, as I attempted to climb the career ladder, such as it was in the Anglican Church of Canada. Now it mostly shows itself in a desire to be of use to others, whether in the parish in which I work, to my family, to the church in general, or the community in which I live. I like to tell myself that this is more of a discipline of love, which is itself grounded in the love of God. The discipline is kenotic – as Christ is poured out from divinity to humanity, from life to death, so I am called to let go of things to which I am attached in order to be able to give of myself completely.

Of course, Love has its erotic dimension as well, which Herbert would have appreciated. C. S. Lewis famously differentiated between “eros” and “agapē” in his book The Four Loves (1960), and argued that only the latter was divine love. However, in both the pre-Christian Jewish-Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (known as the Septuagint) and in the New Testament the division is not so obvious – divine love is described using both terms. And it may be that Herbert sees the Love that makes a stony heart bleed is a positive thing – that one wants to change, that one will do something against one’s predisposition for love of another, whether a spouse, a child, or God. In terms of carrots and sticks, Gods wrath is a stick, but God’s Love is a carrot and is more powerful.

“Love needs work on me.” I am not fully there, but “my heart’s desire / Unto thine is bent”. “Though I fail . . Though I halt in pace / Yet I creep / To the throne of grace”. I’ve never been big on the wrath of God, and I was not raised to understand God as a wrathful judge. I do not see people’s misfortunes and automatically think that God is judging them (although I do believe the world is set up in a way such that evil deeds will usually cause an evildoer’s downfall). My God has always been a loving God who gives of God’s own self from creation to redemption and everything in between. So the discipline I desire is that of Love.

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A Slave of God?

A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday of Advent
November 28, 2021, at 11:00 am
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete.
The sermon was interrupted by a stray dog just as I was reaching the conclusion.

This is not the Advent Retreat with the Poems of George Herbert – that starts tomorrow, Monday November 29, 2021!

The readings we used were from Wilda Gafny’s A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W: A Multi-Gospel Single-Year Lectionary (New York NY: Church House Publishing, 2021). They were Genesis 16.7-13, Psalm 71.4-11, Philippians 2.5-11, and Luke 1.26-38.

Annunciation (1980) by Raphael Soyer


Over the next few Sundays we will be looking at annunciations – situations in which God speaks to human beings. The Annunciation par excellance is that of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, who is told that she is to become Theotokos, the Mother of God. But with the lectionary we are using starting this Sunday we hear of other annunciations, and this week it is the annunciation to Hagar. Hagar is the slave of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Abraham, as was normal for his time, takes his wife’s slave as a concubine. Whether Hagar agreed or not we are not told; by today’s standards, a slave cannot give meaningful consent, given the power differential between a master and a slave. Hagar conceives the child who, when born, is Abraham’s eldest child Ishmael. Sarah has not conceived, and in the patriarchal society of the day, this is an embarrassment and was frequently seen as the disfavour of the gods, or, in this case, YHWH. Slaves, like survivors everywhere, are not above taking advantage of new situations, and to Sarah it seems that she is exalting herself over her mistress because she has given Abraham a son and Sarah has not. So Sarah abuses her, and Hagar runs away. And then God speaks to her. God asks her to go back to her abusive mistress – perhaps so that she can give birth safely and have this strong child, who becomes the ancestor of the Arabian people.

But what is a slave?

We are used to thinking of slaves in terms of racism. But that is not the ancient understanding. In Greek, Roman, and even more ancient times a slave was simply a person who was on the losing side of a war. They were not necessarily physically different from the people by whom they were conquered, and sometimes they were indeed of the same ethnic and linguistic group.

When a people or a nation or a city lost a war or a siege the winners often executed the men and male children, as they were the potential future enemies. Women, children, and some of the men were saved from death, but they entered the living death of being a slave. They were sold as labourers, and many families became rich from the proceeds of conquest this way.

Julius Caesar is probably the best example of this. In his Gallic War he claims to have killed off 900 thousand Gauls, and enslaved another million. This allowed him to buy the loyalty of his troops and laid the foundation for his victory in the Civil Wars and his subsequent dictatorship, as well as that of his heir Augustus.

Hagar was a slave in this way. Mary, who while not a citizen of the Roman Empire, was still a subject – but not a slave. But at the end of the Annuciation she says, in Greek, Ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου · γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου. “Here I am – the slave of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word.” Now, the word δούλη is usually softened to servant, or handmaid, but the simplest understanding of it is “slave”. Just as Hagar accepts her servitude at the request of God, so does Mary. And this is not unusual in early Christian circles – Paul also describes himself as a slave of the Lord, and when writing his letters frequently implies that his readers are slaves, too.

And perhaps most shocking of all is the idea that the Word of God is poured out, emptied out into human form and is also a slave – one that is humble, obedient, even unto death.

The Paradox of Hagar, Mary, and Jesus

Of course, the key factor with all of these examples is that these persons accept their slavery, Hagar voluntarily returns to Sarah. Mary accepts her call to be the Mother of God. Jesus voluntarily empties himself, not grasping onto divinity. This is the paradox of the incarnation and of the Christian life – we choose to be slaves. In the 1st century people became slaves involuntarily, as the alternative to a violent death. In Jesus’s case, as well as that of Paul’s, it is an acceptance of slavery that leads to death.

That’s what we are called to. To be slaves of God. To offer everything we have to God, to submit totally. God will not overwhelm us – God wants us to choose this life of obedience and humility.

And, again, the paradox is that this kind of enslavement is utterly unlike the slavery of the world. It is joyful, we are fulfilled in becoming the wonderful creatures God created us to be. In God’s service we find perfect freedom. God offers God’s own self to us, and we give ourselves back.

So this Advent, let us be poured out from our attachments into the form of Jesus Christ, and be made new.

A Note on the Lectionary

At my request, and with the approval of the Chaplaincy Council, we will, for this year only, use a new lectionary created by the Reverend Professor Wilda Gafny: A Woman’s Lectionary For The Whole Church.  This new set of readings follows the calendar of the Church of England, but it provides a somewhat different set of bible readings – passages which have often been overlooked, perhaps because they feature women. Thus, the readings this Advent season feature annunciations – not just to Mary by the angel Gabriel, but also to Hagar, Sarah and Abraham, the mother of Samson, and Hannah.

As Prof Gaffny notes, the various committees that created the Common Worship lectionary and its precursors were all dominated by men, and unconsciously projected a masculine perspective. There is nothing hallowed or sacred about any lectionary  except the fact that it is a list of readings of scripture, and while scripture is holy, the schedule of readings list not!

Wilda Gaffny is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is a priest of The Episcopal Church of the USA, and has served as an Army chaplain and congregational pastor in the AME Zion Church. She has also provided brilliant new translations of the Bible selections in her lectionary, and I hope to use them often.

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An Advent Retreat with George Herbert

Some of you may recall that in Lent 2019 I did a blog series on the poems of George Herbert, one a day during the forty days (not including the Sundays in Lent). I would like to do this again for Advent, although I may miss a day or two when I travel to London to attend the graduation ceremony of the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Herbert’s The Temple has over one-hundred and sixty-four poems, and I covered only something like forty in my previous foray. So starting on Monday, November 29th I will begin another excursion, perhaps looking at twenty-three more poems before Christmas is upon us.

As before, the edition I am using is the Everyman’s Library volume, edited by Ann Pasternak Slater  (New York/London/Toronto: Knopf/Borzoi, 1995). This excellent volume also contains The Country Parson, selected letters, Herbert’s will, and Isaak Walton’s short biography. I will also refer to my copy of Arnold Stein’s George Herbert’s Lyrics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), which, while old, is a comprehensive analysis of his English poems.

In my previous effort I dealt with the following poems; they are listed in the order in which they are printed in Pasternak Slater’s edition, and are hyper-linked to the appropriate post. I confess that it is strange to see these posts after more than two years – many of them I do not remember writing!

The Dedication
The Church-Porch (Peirirrhanterium)
The Altar
The Sacrifice
Easter Wings (1)
Easter Wings (2)
Affliction (1)
Prayer (1)
Antiphon (1) Let All The World In Every Corner Sing
Jordan (1)
Employment (1)
Praise (1)
Church Monuments
The Church-floor
The Windows
To Saints and Angels
The World
Coloss. 3.3
Justice (I)
The British Church
Sin’s Round
The Pilgrimage
Praise (2)
The Call
A Dialogue-Anthem
Love (3)

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General Synod of the Church of England November 2021: A Comparison with the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada

This past summer I was elected to be a clerical representative (technically known as a “proctor”) from the Diocese in Europe to the General Synod of the Church of England (“CoE”). As I had already been a member of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, as well as the Provincial Synod of the Ecclesiastical Province of British Columbia and Yukon, and the Diocesan Synods of Niagara (1988-1995) and British Columbia (1995-2018), you might say I am a synod hack. I even wrote a guidebook for the Synod of the Diocese of BC, which is still used in a rewritten format (they took out all the jokes and digressions, which I thought were the most interesting parts).

Me and my ID card. I did look like that three days before I arrived in Westminster. The Archbishop of Canterbury looked at it and said, “That’s just sheer deception!”

Here are some thoughts and comments about my first direct experience when we met on November 16-17.

What’s a Synod?

It comes from the Greek word η σύνοδος meaning meeting, or assembly. A diocese – a unit of a national church – will have a diocesan synod. The synod of an independent autonomous part of the Anglican Communion – a big “P” “Province” – is often called a General Synod, although in The Episcopal Church it is “General Convention”. A small “p” province – a subdivision of the national church consisting of several or many dioceses – may have a provincial synod, in between the diocesan synods and the General Synod – thus, in the Church of Nigeria there are fourteen ecclesiastical provinces, the Church of England has two, and the Anglican Church of Canada has four. Synods may range in size from a couple of dozen members to several hundred. In The Eastern Orthodox churches the synods are almost always composed of bishops assisted by a few high ranking priest-monks; thus, the Holy Synod in Athens is the governing body of the Orthodox Church of Greece.

The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece meeting in Athens. Not Anglican.

The Diocese in Europe sends seven people to the General Synod – one diocesan bishop, three laity, and three clergy. There are 467 members, divided into three houses:

  • fifty bishops (out of about 117 diocesan and suffragan bishops);
  • 197 clergy (elected from the 20,000 clergy serving in the 42 dioceses, and also elected from Cathedral deans, from clergy teaching in universities & colleges, from chaplains of the Armed Forces and Prisons, and from ordained persons in religious communities); and
  • something like 265 laity (elected from the dioceses, from among the 1.7 million active members of the Church of England i.e. those on the parish rolls and who actively worship, as opposed to the 26 million baptised members).

While the three houses usually meet together and vote together, they can and do occasionally meet separately – the House of Bishops meets separately once or twice a year, and the House of Laity met immediately after this November’s sitting was prorogued. They meet to discuss matters and elect officials, like procurator and so forth.

So here are some differences and similarities between the two General Synods of which I have been a member.


First, some similarities. Both are composed of three “houses” – bishops, clergy, and laity. For some votes a simple majority of everybody in attendance is necessary, but for more important ones a majority in all three houses is necessary, and for the most important a 2/3rds majority is required. In both Canada and England votes are often done by raised hands, but recorded votes are done with “clickers” – electronic devices that record your individual vote, which is then recorded and ultimately published several weeks later.

Both General Synods elect members to committees that run the business of the General Synod and the National Church. As well, members are appointed to a plethora of committees, commissions, and task groups. Both General Synods have representation from the chaplains of the Armed Forces and religious communities, as well as youth (although whereas Canada has a youth delegate from every diocese, i.e. thirty in total, England only has three). Both have presentations on the work of the church on which votes are not normally taken. There is a large number of reports produced in preparation for the meetings, but in an effort to save paper these are now distributed electronically. Motions are usually brought by bodies internal to the General Synod and proposed by their chair or another member, but motions can also come from diocesan synods and ordinary members. The whole operates according to parliamentary procedure as laid out in standing orders and similar to the Parliaments of the nation. Both synods operate in English (although the Canadian one occasionally has people speaking in French, Cree, Inuktitut, or some other vernacular).

Both General Synods seem to be very concerned with marriage, and whether it should be restricted to heterosexual couples or extended to any couple composed of any gender identity. If there are “parties” within the General Synod of the CoE they seem to have been elected along these lines. Both are frustrated with the declining relevance of the church in their home countries, as well as the decline in numbers of attendance and finances; there is much discussion of how to accomplish mission.

Both the CoE and the Anglican Church of Canada are concerned with representing the diverse membership of their active members, especially visible minorities and marginalized peoples in the General Synod. In England over the summer there was an effort to encourage young people and those of African and Asian heritage to run for election. That seems to have had some success, although I would say that the make-up of the General Synod of the CoE is still pretty “white bread” and skews to the over-fifty crowd. I did have a lovely conversation with Karowei Dorgu, the Bishop of Woolwich (Diocese of Southwark), who came from Nigeria to the London area as a medical doctor in 1987 but followed a call to ordained ministry. The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada likewise is pretty skewed to an older representation of people of British background, but there is always a treasured membership made up of Indigenous bishops, priests, and laity, as well as a few delegates whose forebears were from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Continental Europe.

Some of the folk at General Synod of the Church of England November 2021. The Rev Canon Smitha Prasadam, Chaplain of St Alban’s Copenhagen, and representative from the Diocese in Europe, is front and centre.

As mentioned, both General Synods have gone paper-less, using websites and special apps to provide members and interested folk with the masses of documents that used to fill a binder. Both also live-stream the proceedings, and use large screens in the assemblies themselves to project the person speaking.

A floor view of the Assembly Hall of General Synod at Church House in Westminster

There are huge differences. The most important is that England’s General Synod is a statutory body – it makes law for the realm of England. As the Church of England is an established church, it’s actions must be approved by the Sovereign via the Parliament. Thus, when a “Measure” or “canon” is approved by General Synod it goes to a committee of the Houses of Parliament that then either recommends its approval by the House of Lords and the Hose of Commons, or its rejection. A Measure from General Synod is almost always presented for approval, and after motions from Parliament doing so, the Queen signs her consent. It then comes back to General Synod for implementation. Obviously there is no separation between church and state as is understood by the US Constitution, although it would be going too far to say that the Church of England is just another branch of the government; it is better to say that the Church of England as the official church in the realm enjoys certain privileges and obligations that other faith groups do not, and as such is subject to the will of the people as expressed through Parliament.

In Canada the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, while incorporated by an Act of Parliament, is merely one unestablished faith group among many, and its actions govern only those who voluntarily submit to them. As a result, ecclesiastical law in Canada is a small subset of administrative law for non-profits and charities, whereas in England it has an extensive body of legislation and case history.

The Queen addresses the opening session of the General Synod of the Church of England sometime in the 1990s. This year she was advised not to attend for reasons of health, so the Earl of Wessex, the Prince Edward, did so on her behalf. Security was very stringent. This is a view from the press gallery.

Since Canadian bishops are elected from by the synods their dioceses and ratified by the provincial Houses of Bishops, there is a sense of ownership and loyalty of these bishops by the dioceses. English bishops are nominated by a confidential Crown Appointments Commission and ratified by the UK Prime Minister’s office, after which they are appointed by the Queen who directs an body to elect a particular individual. Since the great body of the ordinary clergy and people have no say in who the bishops are, there is no rooted loyalty to them. Also, the dioceses are far larger in England than in Canada, and so it is much harder to have much of a personal relationship. Thus, not surprisingly, I have heard from my clergy colleagues a greater distrust of the bench of bishops in the Church of England than I ever experienced in the Anglican Church of Canada (or The Episcopal Church).

The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada was created in 1893 by the two Ecclesiastical Provinces of Canada and Rupert’s Land, along with three western dioceses. Subsequently the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario was carved out of “Canada”, and British Columbia and Yukon was created out of the western dioceses that were part of no province. Each of these provinces have an archbishop and its own provincial synod, and the chair of General Synod is the Primate of Canada who is also an archbishop. Further, the National Indigenous Bishop was raised to being the National Indigenous Archbishop. Thus Canada has five to six archbishops, offices that were all created in the last 150 years or so.

England, on the other hand, has only two archbishops, York and Canterbury, both of which go back some 1400 years. In medieval times the bishops and clergy of the two ecclesiastical provinces of York and Canterbury had separate provincial “convocations” which from the 17th century until the 20th century hardly ever met. Legislation for the Church of England was dealt with by Parliament itself until the early 20th century, when it devolved authority to a “Church Assembly” which included laity for the first time. This was reorganised by Act of Parliament into General Synod only in 1970. Thus, the Canadian General Synod is older by some 77 years.

Differences: 2) Organization

The Canadian General Synod has an executive called the Council of General Synod, or CoGS, which consists of some thirty members elected from General Synod itself, and there are a number of committees which report to CoGS and whose membership is largely elected from GS. There is no such body in the Church of England, although one is being proposed by the Governance Review Task Group. Instead, at the moment, there are no fewer than seven national bodies with national executive responsibility, and some 120 committees, tasks groups, and commissions working away at important issues, whose interrelations are complex. There are proposals to reorganise and simplify all of this.

The English General Synod is much larger than the Canadian one, consisting of 467 members elected to a five year term, whereas that of Canada is something like 287 and they serve only for three years. The Canadian one meets only once every three years for a week to ten days, whereas the English one meets twice a year for two to five days. The English synod meets in the Assembly Hall of the purpose built Church House in London, adjacent to the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, as well as at the University of York, whereas the Canadian General Synod moves from city to city across the country and gathers in rented facilities – usually hotels and universities. While services often take place in cathedrals or other large churches, this is not always the case – in 2016 everything was done in a hotel ballroom in a suburb of Toronto.

Differences: 3) Culture

The biggest difference in culture between the two churches is that while both have “parishes” they understand the term differently. In theory both have a geographical meaning. In Canada parish boundaries are largely ignored. While a parish church may be rooted in a particular neighbourhood or city, members will travel across those boundaries to go to the church they like. There is a sense of obligation to the community around them, but it is not defined by any diocesan definition of its territory. In England there is a strong sense that the incumbent, clergy, and lay leadership on the Parochial Church Council has a responsibility to everybody within the parish boundaries, regardless of whether they are active in the church or belong to any faith group. This is manifested by the legislated requirement that the incumbent must baptise, marry, or bury any individual or couple that present themselves for these sacramental acts. In Canada there is no such legal obligation.

Fan boy moment at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada 2016. The Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church on the left, and the Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council. I’m the guy in the middle.

Another cultural difference is that I have yet to see any highlighting of ecumenical or Anglican Communion links in the General Synod of the CoE, whereas they are always visible in the Canadian one. The Canadian General Synod invariably had prominent visitors from other parts of the Anglican Communion – the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the General Secretary of the Anglican Communion, and the Archbishop of York. Likewise we had at least two joint meetings with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and presentations from the United Church of Canada and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. I have only been to one sitting of this General Synod of the CoE, and it may yet happen, but I have yet to see anything like this there. There were ecumenical guests, but only two or three. I was obliged to be absent from Tuesday’s proceedings (I was self-isolating because of what was later determined to be a false positive Covid-19 test), so I may have missed the parts where their presence was noted. Nevertheless, the impression given is that the General Synod does not pay much attention to the Communion or other churches; as the established Church of England, it can be quite insular. You would never know that there are other Anglican Churches in the United Kingdom, such as the Church in Wales, The Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Church of Ireland.

Differences 4) Superficial

There are a number of superficial differences.

  • The Canadian General Synod meets at tables, not chairs.
  • The Primate in Canada usually chairs most of the proceedings, whereas in England each item has its own chair, and it is not clear to me if the person chairing is always a member of General Synod.
  • The legal counsel attending and advising Synod in England are obvious, as they are in their legal robes and wigs. In Canada lawyers never wear wigs, and the Chancellor and Registrar only dress up for formal services, like the installation of a new primate.
  • I understand that at the summer sitting in York the dress can get pretty casual, but what I saw in Westminister was that clergy dressed up as clergy and laity often wore ties and “smart casual”.
  • In Canada we have but one Primate, but England has two, the Archbishop of York who is the Primate of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the Primate of All England. They seem to function very much as a tag team, and they both give the Presidential Address. With the National Indigenous Archbishop in the Anglican Church of Canada we come close to this, but he does not have the formal role in General Synod that the Archbishop of York does in his.
The Most Rev Fred Hiltz preaches at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada in 2016 in a hotel ballroom in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

The Church of England carries the burden of 1420 years of institutional history, one that has carried it from Augustine’s monks meeting in the tiny little ruin of St Martin’s Church in Canterbury in the Kingdom of Kent in 597, to the Synod of Whitby in 664 in which the pre-existing Celtic Church conformed to Roman practice, through the Reformation in the 16th Century, the Civil Wars of the 17th Century, down to the present day and the disestablishment of the church in Wales and Ireland. If given a clean sheet of white paper nobody would design a structure for a national church that looks like the one that the Church of England has (as is evident from the structures in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion). Nevertheless, it is much loved by its members, and resists major change. One of my concerns is how much this impedes the effectiveness of carrying out the mission of God.

If this comparison of two General Synods does anything perhaps it is that it describes some of the culture shock I am experiencing as a new member of the English General Synod and as a long-ordained priest new to the Church of England. English Anglicans look and talk like Anglicans elsewhere, but in many ways (of which I suspect they are only dimly aware), they do think and act differently from most Anglicans in the Communion. That said, I appreciate the opportunity to attend on behalf of the Diocese in Europe, and pray that I might in some small way be able to influence its proceedings in a positive way.

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