I think it is called an 'Oxford compliment' when you first praise someone, and then say “but..”! (I'm not sure it is Oxford as I went to Cambridge, like George Herbert). The George Herbert Festival last July was stunning - in the speakers, in the music, the talking and discussions. I learned so much and the worldwide impact of this humble person 400 years ago is breathtaking.
One of the lasting changes the conference made in my impression is that Herbert was actually joyful! For some reason I’ve pictured him dying and suffering in the Rectory, but now I see him smiling and singing, and playing his lute! Thank you to all the organising committee and Canon Judy Rees, who didn’t just come up with the idea but steered it all the way through. There is now a commemorative booklet too (out in time for Christmas!) with photos and articles.
Legacy and impact can be measured in many ways, and Herbert scores big in most of them - geographical reach, historical longevity, influence on national and international leaders, even a cultural shift within the Church of England. He may have claimed to set his mark as high as he can, and I think he truly has threatened the moon!
For the Festival I was invited to reprise my talk with the historian John Chandler about what was similar and what different about Bemerton Parish and the Rector’s role in Herbert’s day from our own. I think I had been in the parish just 3 years when we last did the talk - and this was the total length of Herbert’s incumbency.
What I realised doing the talk after being here for 10 years is that in those early days I really didn’t have a clue about being a vicar, or what could be done, or how it was done! I think it would be safe to say that most of us have no idea what our jobs are really like until we have done them for quite a long time. Certainly the idea I had of architecture (my first profession) was nothing like I expected at University and even less when I finally got into an office.
Is it wrong to say that Herbert only had an ideal of ministry in his mind when he wrote 'The Country Parson', and that had he lived a few more years he may have radically revised his opinions? The more worrying thought is that generations of clergy have used a handbook written by someone not long after he had started the job - which may explain why his pastoral model doesn’t really work.
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