Mr Herbert’s Sunday Service

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert, Day Seventeen: Tuesday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent

An modern example of a Laudian frontal on a free-standing altar at St. Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich.

Struck by yesterday’s poem The Agony I raised the question about what kind of churchmanship Herbert belonged to. Following the Restoration his The Country Parson was published, and promptly became a manual for Church of England clergy right down to this day. The biography by Isaak Walton was also published in 1670, and he was described as the model of the perfect parish priest in the Restoration Church of England.

The English Civil Wars, which Herbert missed by dying at a young age, was partly about the relationship of Parliament and King, but also very much about the nature of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The fundamental question was whether the church was sufficiently reformed, or had it become too reformed, dispensing with Christian practices that were good and holy but perceived by radicals as being “Popish”. James VI & I sought to restore the historic episcopate on the Church of Scotland. After he suceeded Elizabeth I as King of England he met with the leadership of the English Puritans in the Hampton Court Conference of 1604. Largely remembered for inaugurated the new translation known as the King James Version, the King considered a number of requests from the leaders, including: the abolition in baptism of the making of the sign of the cross on the forehead of the baptised; the suppressing of the service of confirmation; forbidding the pious custom of bowing at the name of Jesus; the requirement of the surplice; the use of a ring in marriage. He rejected all of these other requests. The Puritans were generally suspicious of the episcopacy, and doubted the usefulness of the ecclesiastical calendar. When the Puritans came to control the country under the Commonwealth, the Book of Common Prayer was forbidden, Christmas was abolished, and clergy did not wear the white surplices. All of this came back in 1660 when Charles II returned to ondon.

But was Herbert quite what the Restoration sought to make him? In her 1988 article “George Herbert and Puritan Piety” (The Journal of Religion , Apr., 1988, Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 226-241) Jeanne Clayton Hunter argues that the poet was more deeply influenced by Puritan theology than is generally acknowledged, and describes him essentially as a Calvinist. With that in mind, then, let us turn to today’s poem.

The H. Communion

Not in rich furniture, or fine array,
          Nor in a wedge of gold,
          Thou, who from me wast sold,
    To me dost now thyself convey;
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
          Leaving within me sin:

But by the way of nourishment and strength,
          Thou creep’st into my breast;
          Making thy way my rest,
    And thy small quantities my length;
Which spread their forces into every part,
          Meeting sin force and art.

Yet can these not get over to my soul,
          Leaping the wall that parts
          Our souls and fleshly hearts;
    But as th’ outworks, they may control
My rebel-flesh, and carrying thy name,
          Affright both sin and shame.

Only thy grace, which with these elements comes,
          Knoweth the ready way,
          And hath the privy key,
    Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms:
While those to spirits refin’d, at door attend
          Despatches from their friend.

Give me my captive soul, or take
          My body also thither.
Another lift like this will make
          Them both to be together.

Before that sin turn’d flesh to stone,
          And all our lump to heaven;
A fervent sigh might well have blown
          Our innocent earth to heaven.

For sure when Adam did not know
                    To sin, or sin to another;
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
                    As from one room t’ another.

Thou hast restor’d us to this ease
          By this thy heav’nly blood,
Which I can go to, when I please,
          And leave th’ earth to their food.

The poem is in two parts. The first part is four stanzas of ABBACC rhyme scheme, the second is four stanzas of ABAB. In the first stanza Herbert notes that God comes to him in humble form, not in gold or fine array, which would leave him in a state of sin. The second stanza makes clear that he comes “by the way of nourishment and strength” and in “small quantities” – the small amounts of bread and wine consumed at Holy Communion. Grace somehow overcomes the divide of flesh and soul. In the second half of the poem he begs God to unite soul and body so that he might be like Adam who can pass from heaven to Earth as easily as passing from one room to another, and then asserts this is accomplished in the blood of Holy Communion.

At the very least this is an argument for receptionism, which was the doctrine that the bread and the wine of communion become the body and blood of Christ in the receiving. As the words of administration in use in the BCP (1559) while Herbert was alive stated: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving . . . Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” While Puritans of a strong Calvinistic bent may have wished to eliminate any sense that the bread and wine were anything other than mere bread and wine, and symbols of a spiritual feeding, Herbert’s language seems to go beyond this.

Thus, while he is not what would later be called an Anglo-Catholic, and certainly shows no interest in the trend incarnated in Archbishop Laud, he is not quite a Calvinist radical. In The Country Parson he writes that in the church building

all the books appointed by Authority be there, and those not torn, or fouled, but whole and clean, and well bound; and that there be a fitting, and sightly Communion Cloth of fine linen, with an handsome, and seemly Carpet of good and costly Stuff, or Cloth, and all kept sweet and clean, in a strong and decent chest, with a Chalice, and Cover, and a Stoop, or Flagon (Chapter XIII)

Herbert was happy to use the BCP, and clearly was fine with the Communion Table being covered with what is now known to us as a “Laudian frontal” – a large, ornamented piece of cloth that hangs over the four sides of the table. Fine linen is then put on top. He advocates that at Baptism the priest is “himself in white” i.e. wearing a surplice (Chapter XXII), and when it comes to Communion he requires that all admitted to the sacrament be able to distinguish between “the Sacramental from common bread”(Ibid). He is also “a Lover of old Customs, if they be good, and harmless” (Chapter XXXV). None of this marks him out as a fervent Puritan. Nor is he a Laudian or a proto-Anglo-Catholic. As Johm M. Adrian states in his article “George Herbert, parish ‘dexterity’, and the local modification of Laudianism”,

Herbert shares with the Laudians a belief in the dignity of the clerical office, a wariness of subversive elements within the Church, and an interest in homogeneity within the parish. But unlike the Laudians (and more like his predecessors), Herbert stresses the adaptive role of the parson and makes him – not the bishop or royal chaplain – the most effective arbiter of religious experience. He is, Herbert suggests, best suited to gauge the parish temper and circumstances and to order worship accordingly. And indeed, the parson may even choose to put up with some nonconformity (for instance, with regard to kneeling) in order to better execute the spirit of the canon and avoid alienating elements of his flock.

Herbert, then, is himself – an early 17th century parson, whose piety absorbed Puritan influences and High Church values, but synthesised them into something unique. It became a model in a later time, but that model was applied with a certain number of assumptions which Herbert himself may not have shared.

Interestingly, Herbert wrote another entirely different poem entitled The Holy Communion which was not included in The Temple, but can be found in the manuscript known as W. It is a polemical poem, and for that reason Herbert may have judged it to be not as good as what he wanted in his final work. Here it is:

The H. Communion (as found in W)

O gracious Lord, how shall I know
Whether in these gifts thou be so
As thou art everywhere;
Or rather so, as thou alone
Tak’st all the Lodging, leaving none
For thy poor creature there?

First I am sure, whether bread stay
Or whether Bread do fly away
Concerneth bread, not me.
But that both thou and all thy train
Be there, to thy truth, and my gain,
Concerneth me and Thee.

And if in coming to thy foes
Thou dost come first to them, that shows
The haste of thy good will.
Or if that thou two stations makest
In Bread and me, the way thou takest
Is mores but for me still.

Then of this also I am sure
That thou didst all those pains endure
To’ abolish Sin, not Wheat.
Creatures are good, and have their place;
Sin only, which did all deface,
Thou drivest from his seat.

I could believe an Impanation
At the rate of an Incarnation,
If thou hadst died for Bread.
But that which made my soul to die,
My flesh, and fleshly villainy,
That also made thee dead.

That flesh is there, mine eyes deny:
And what should flesh but flesh descry,
The noblest sense of five?
If glorious bodies pass the sight,
Shall they be food and strength and might
Even there, where they deceive?

Into my soul this cannot pass;
Flesh (though exalted) keeps his grass
And cannot turn to soul.
Bodies and Minds are different Spheres,
Nor can they change their bounds and meres,
But keep a constant Pole.

Ann Pasternak Slater does not offer any notes to the poems in W not included in The Temple. However, it is simple enough to understand. It considers the Lutheran position (Christ is present everywhere) and the Roman Catholic position that the substance of bread and wine is replaced by those of the body and blood of Jesus, leaving only the accidents of the bread and wine. After the first stanza the rest are a diatribe against transubstantiation. It seems to stop suddenly, and the poem has an unfinished, unresolved quality. The rhyme scheme of AABCCB is fine as it is, but the insistent iambic quality and the simplicity of the rhymes leaves something to be desired. One can see why Herbert left it behind.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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1 Response to Mr Herbert’s Sunday Service

  1. Pingback: Another Advent with Herbert: The Poems So Far | The Island Parson

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