Sermon given at Evensong on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity 2022

George Herbert

The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 25th September 2022 at 3.00 PM

Two of this month’s sermons at Evensong are based upon religious figures educated (at different times) at Westminster School and who worshipped regularly here in the Abbey.

Earlier I spoke about the recently departed Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. I now finish with the saintly George Herbert. (Born April 3, 1593, Montgomery Castle, Wales & died March 1, 1633, Bemerton, Wiltshire, England).

I very much hope that this sermon may prompt you to search out George Herbert’s writings as he is one of the foremost of our British devotional lyricists.

From his writings we know that George Herbert drew great strength from the opening words to our second lesson when Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.' 

We see this faith shining through his poetry, not least in the following words:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast,
Such a feast as mends in length,
Such a strength as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move,
Such a love as none can part,
Such a heart as joys in love.

Early in George’s life the Herbert family first moved from Wales to Oxford, and then again to London where George attended the school here at Westminster. 

He later went on to Cambridge university where he started writing poetry, especially devotional poems. His early formative years were very much lived out around this very building and he would have known much of what we see around us today.

George Herbert was born in 1593, married in 1629 and ordained the following year when he became Rector of Bemerton in Wiltshire, some 5 miles outside Salisbury. He died on 1st March 1633 and was buried at St Andrew's church, Bemerton.

Some 14 years ago in September 2008, the time of the financial crash I was attending a Precentors’ Conference in Salisbury and we were kindly invited by the author Vikram Seth who now lives in the old vicarage at Bemerton to look around the house.

Today the Old Rectory and St. Andrew's Church still face each other, but the road sitting between them is now rather busy, lying as it does on a 'rat run' to a nearby industrial estate. 

His study is still much as he left it -and the house is filled with his character. At the rear of the house, the outlook from the riverside garden is as tranquil as ever, with the spire of Salisbury Cathedral clearly visible in the distance.

George Herbert served faithfully as a parish priest, diligently visiting his parishioners and bringing them the sacraments when they were ill, and food and clothing when they were in want.

He read Morning and Evening Prayer daily in the church, encouraging the congregation to join him when possible, and ringing the church bell before each service so that those who could not come might hear it and pause in their work to join their prayers with his.

Today, however, Herbert is remembered chiefly for his two major writings: the first being, as I’ve already mentioned, his book of poems entitled, The Temple.

Indeed, several of his poems have been turned into hymns, in particular ‘Teach me, my God and King,’ and ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’

The gorgeous, “Come my way, my truth, my life,” set to the tune The Call by Ralph Vaughan Williams is hauntingly beautiful and sublime, as is  “King of Glory, King of Peace”.

The other book Herbert is renowned for is A Priest to the Temple (often known as The Country Parson), a book that offers practical advice to rural clergy on how to be a good Parish Priest.

In it, he advises how ‘things of ordinary use’ such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to ‘serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths.’ 

In chapter 13 entitled ‘The Parson’s Church’ he writes, ‘the Church [must] be swept, and kept clean of dust or Cobwebs, and at great festivals strawed, and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense.’

In chapter 23 entitled, ‘The Parson’s Completeness’ he writes, ‘The Country Parson desires to be all to his Parish, and not only a Pastor, but a Lawyer also, and a Physician.’

In every detail of parish life Herbert created a model for what he thought was the perfect parson.

However Herbert died young; he was only a priest for less than four years and in some ways he idealized the idea of the priesthood in his small, rural parish.

But above all George Herbert was not only a devoted priest, but a skilful poet and teacher, and an accomplished musician, who in his poems brings together poetry, music and architecture.

In many ways he well exemplifies the Anglican Church as the Via Media he Middle Way between Protestantism and Catholicism.

His poetry is constantly revealing the intimacy of his dealings with God and his assurance that, alone in a vast universe, we are held safe by the Crucified Christ.

Herbert stands alongside Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes for his profound influence on the Caroline Divines, including John Cosin and Jeremy Taylor, and he is ranked with John Donne as one of the great metaphysical poets.                               

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of Herbert’s diction that ‘Nothing can be more pure, manly, or unaffected.’

W.H. Auden wrote of him: ‘His poetry is the counterpart of Jeremy Taylor’s prose: together they are the finest expressions of Anglican piety at its best.’

He is remembered as a pivotal figure; enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skilful and important British devotional lyricist of his or any other time.

As you leave the Abbey through the Great West doors you must cast an eye to your left towards the Chapel of St George. This not only contains the Coronation Chair, but a stained glass window to the memory of George Herbert. The figure of George Herbert appears with a quote from his work:

Look not on pleasures as they come but go defer not the least virtue, play the man. If thou do ill the joy fades not the pain, if well the pain doth fade the joy remains.’

At the top of the window an angel holds the Herbert coats of arms.

He published none of his poetry during his lifetime, instead sending his poetic works to a friend shortly before his death, with the instruction that if his friend thought the poems worth publishing, he should do so.

Thankfully, they were published, in The Temple in 1633, a few months after his death. If you have not already discovered them, a treasury of devotional verse awaits you.