Through Lent With George Herbert
I have been a priest for almost thirty years now. When I was ordained there were a variety of models of how to be a priest, and there are more now. These models include the priest as:
- church-building entrepreneur;
- social worker;
- “Pastor”; “
- Vicar” (a particular English variety);
- youth leader;
- servant leader;
- team leader;
- canon law legislator;
- conflict manager;
- spiritual guide; and
Priests tend to be one or more of these but not all of them, but even being a few of them can lead to serious burnout. A few of these models are quite problematic, reinforcing patriarchy and hierarchy, and allowing foe abuse of trust. Thank God so many of the churches in the Anglican Communion (including the Church of England) now ordain women to the priesthood, thereby subverting the worst of these.
The very word “priest” is problematic. In English it is derived from the the Greek πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) which means “elder”. In the New Testament it initially referred to the leaders of the synagogues, and it carried over to the leaders of the first Christian congregations. The presbyteroi, along with the ἐπίσκοπος epískopos, or “overseer”, and the διάκονοι (diákonι), the “servants“, were the leaders of the congregation. The different denominations argue about what these all correspond to, and to what extent they overlapped. By the fourth century, at least, there appeared to me a three-fold order of distinctive ministries, namely, the presbyterate, the bishops, and the deacons. While one could move from being a deacon to becoming a priest, it was not necessary, and it is clear that some deacons jumped straight into becoming bishops. Indeed, it appears that Ambrose of Milan was ordained directly to the episcopate shortly after being baptised. Anyway, πρεσβύτερος made its way into the Latin speaking west as “presbyter”, and then via old Germanic to Old English, by which time it had become prēost; this is now our modern English “priest”.
“Priest” translates another Greek word, ἱερεύς (ierefs in modern pronunciation), which referred not to elders in a congregation, but the people officiating at sacrifices in the pagan temples and at the Temple in Jerusalem. Already by the 3rd century the sense of the presbyter also being an ierefs was emerging. Thus, since ancient times there has been this double role – elder of the congregation, but also the one who offers sacrifices. The Reformation reformulated this, so that the Presbyter was seen fundamentally as a preacher, and the one who presides at the memorial of Christ’s death, the one sacrifice once offered. Protestants and Catholics argued at great length over whether the Mass was a sacrifice in any sense, and in what way Christ’s presence was made real in the sacrament. Protestants tended to call their clergy “ministers of word and sacrament”, while Catholics vehemently called their clergy “priests” and asserted that their saying of mass was a sacrifice. Lutherans called them pastors, and Presbyterians used presbyter or minister. Anglicans struck a middle way, officially calling them “priests” in the Book of Common Prayer, but also ministers, and often calling them something else, like “Vicar” or “Parson”.
It is interesting, then, to find Herbert quite clearly identifying himself as a “priest”. In a few years, after his death, the priesthood was abolished by the Commonwealth, along with the monarchy, the episcopate, the Book of Common Prayer, and Christmas. Under the Commonwealth there were only ministers. Herbert missed all that because of his early death, which may have been a blessing. Here is his meditation on the subject:
Blest Order, which in power dost so excel,
That with th’ one hand thou liftest to the sky,
And with the other throwest down to hell
In thy just censures; fain would I draw nigh,
Fain put thee on, exchanging my lay-sword
For that of th’ holy Word.
But thou art fire, sacred and hallow’d fire;
And I but earth and clay: should I presume
To wear thy habit, the severe attire
My slender compositions might consume.
I am both foul and brittle; much unfit
To deal in holy Writ.
Yet have I often seen, by cunning hand
And force of fire, what curious things are made
Of wretched earth. Where once I scorn’d to stand,
That earth is fitted by the fire and trade
Of skilful artists, for the boards of those
Who make the bravest shows.
But since those great ones, be they ne’re so great,
Come from the earth, from whence those vessels come;
So that at once both feeder, dish, and meat
Have one beginning and one final sum:
I do not greatly wonder at the sight,
If earth in earth delight.
But th’ holy men of God such vessels are,
As serve him up, who all the world commands:
When God vouchsafeth to become our fare,
Their hands convey him, who conveys their hands.
O what pure things, most pure must those things be,
Who bring my God to me!
Wherefore I dare not, I, put forth my hand
To hold the Ark, although it seems to shake
Through th’ old sins and new doctrines of our land.
Only, since God doth often vessels make
Of lowly matter for high uses meet,
I throw me at his feet.
There will I lie, until my Maker seek
For some mean stuff thereon to show his skill:
Then is my time. The distance of the meek
Doth flatter power. Lest good come short of ill
In praising might, the poor do by submission
What pride by opposition.
It is a simple enough poem – seven stanzas of six lines each in ABABCC rhyme in 10.10.10.10.10.7 meter, more or less in iambs. Herbert describes the priesthood as:
- blessed by God;
- having the great power to lift people to heaven or drive them to hell;
- dressed with a severe (i.e. plain) attire;
- holy vessels of God;
- servants of God;
- holders of holy things (i.e. the consecrated body and blood of Christ in the Holy Communion); and
- meek and submissive to God’s will.
In The Country Parson Herbert describes at far greater length a multitude of expectations of clergy. Herbert had a high ideal of ministry, and was undoubtedly grieved at how so many of his colleagues did not meet his minimal standards; for everything he encourages priests to do one can assume that there are those who do not do anything of the sort.
In the poem Herbert describes his own sense of unworthiness, that he is “foul and brittle”, “mean stuff” and of the earth. However, alluding to both Isaiah and Jeremiah who use the image of a potter as a metaphor for God, he knows that earth can be made into marvelous earthenware, and so submits to being used by God for these holy purposes. There Ann Pasternak Slater suggests, there is probably an allusion here to Adam as well, the primordial human being who was created out of earth and breathed into life by God.
He refers to Holy Communion, comparing it to the Ark of the Covenant in which was found the presence of God. A box covered in gold, and containing the two tablets of the covenant that Moses gave at Sinai, it was dangerous to touch, and had to be carried about by poles. He makes a contemporary reference – usual for him – to the “old sins and new doctrines of our land” that are shaken by arguments about the Lord’s Supper. For Herbert Communion is not a mere memorial, but “our fare” and “feeder, dish, and meat”.
There is a sense of awe in the poem at what the priest is called to do in preaching, pastoring, and presiding at the Holy Eucharist. Herbert falls at the feet of God, and finds that whether one is meek and submissive, or proud and imitating the majesty of God, one acknowledges divine power.
Herbert does not have a well developed baptismal theology, and so he misses the connection between the ministry of all three ordained orders and that of the priesthood of all believers (but that’s what 400 years of theological reflection does). The ministry of clergy arises from the baptismal calling and the covenant made between God in Christ with God’s people. The clergy exist to empower all the baptised to be the body of Christ in the world, and they do so in different ways. A priest presides at the table of the Lord in virtue of what they do throughout the week – they are not ordained to preside, but they preside because of what they do. If anything, this heightens the responsibility of the clergy, as they are not only concerned with salvation, but the spiritual development and sanctification of the people.
I like being a priest. It has been an honour to serve many congregations and individuals over the years. People have expected much of me, and I have not always lived up to those hopes, but then, I look back and I see all kinds of things that have come to pass, partly because I was in a certain place and time. It is a glory to plumb the depths of the Bible with people and to help them pray, to be with them at important milestones such as births and marriages, and to be with some of them as they take their last breath. It is an immense privilege to be able to speak on a weekly basis to people and remind them things about God that they already know. In all of this I have grown, although it really is not about me. I look forward to what the next thirty years may bring me in this calling.