On Being a Country Parson: George Herbert and me.

My blog, Country Parson, is named in honor of George Herbert, a late sixteenth and early seventeenth century priest and poet.  His education prepared him for a successful career ar Court or the university, but he ended up becoming a village parish priest. He was only 39 when he died, but his output of prose and poetry was prodigious and published after his death in a book called “The Temple.”  Along with it he wrote a sort of handbook for rural ministry entitled “A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson.”

Written for the times in which he lived, its social values and customary ways, but with a depth of wisdom that has endured for three hundred years.  A country parson serves in a different setting requiring different talents and gifts than ministry in centers of power and commerce.  It’s as true today as it was then.

My own career thrived in centers of power and commerce and as a very late vocation priest I might have stayed to serve in that milieu.  Yet, somehow I felt a more magnetic pull to serve in the rural West.  Walla Walla was a small but prosperous city, a college town, but not on the Interstate, railroad or bus route. It had one flight a day to Seattle. I served its Episcopal Church as well as a very small congregation in a small town about thirty miles away.  They were wonderful years that I’d never trade for anything.

What Herbert’s three hundred year old wisdom to country parsons remains sound counsel for most rural place congregations regardless of location. It certainly was for me.

Rural places have little room for anonymity.  A pastor’s life is a public life. Like any other community, people in rural places have their secrets, things they don’t want widely known, but secrets are hard to keep in rural places.  Maintaining communal harmony means pretending you don’t know the secrets you’re not supposed to know, even when gossip is brought up by trusted friends.  Parishioners are especially curious about what might be going on behind the closed doors of the clergy person’s home – possible grist for the gossip mill.

It’s curiosity driven by the desire to trust the country parson and her or his family to be more representative of Jesus’ way of life and love than most people, and that his/her private life does not vary from their public life and preaching. Herbert understood that.  Had his guidance been followed better by succeeding generations, the English Church may not have found itself in such a shambles as a result of civil war and religious upheaval.

Rural clergy are looked to with expectation of godly wisdom and biblical expertise, thorough understanding of the church and its ways, the path to salvation, ways to pray, and how to resolve conflicts.  All clergy bear some measure of that kind of responsibility but larger cities offer more resources from different sources, so clergy tend to be just one item on the menu.

Herbert advocated lifelong dedication to learning in theology, history, classical literature, and a general keeping up with the arts and sciences. It’s all the more important in our day of rapid change on every front. Country Parsons who don’t try to keep up with things as best they can are flying blind, easily leading their flock on wrong paths.

Rural places demand that clergy join with other community leaders in the life of the city or town.  Amidst the nervous jokes about pastors, there is an expectation that the clergy will provide moral guidance and direction. Guidance not always well received, but community leaders want and need it.  It means country parsons need thick skins to tolerate uncomfortable situations, and an ability to address those situations and leaders with compassion and understanding. 

Herbert knew that country ways, with reluctance, changed slowly. As a community leader the parson must respect existing mores while gently but firmly moving them in more godly directions. Class structure in Herbert’s days was far more rigid than our own, and clergy were not at the top of the structure. Nevertheless, clergy could plead for what was right and good and in defense of the poor and oppressed with the authority of God behind them.  In my more peevish moments when confronted by an angry demand to know who my boss was, I said “God, who is yours?”  I don’t think Herbert would have approved, I know Jesus wouldn’t, so I offer a lenten mea culpa here, now.

Herbert’s reminder to rural clergy is that striving to do everything in public or private is an opportunity to give glory to God’s name and to bear the light of Christ wherever they are and in whatever they’re doing. Still, no one is perfect and we all mess up. Yet it’s a way of life more easily worked on than one might expect because, while doing the work, Christ is really present to lend a hand.

I regret that seminary trained clergy are often drawn to larger cities with more lucrative pulpits and compensation opportunities. Although Herbert, and I too, believe that to be a country parson may be the most fulfilling work of all. The position allows an intimacy with one’s parishioners, their families and lives, along with the possibility of being embedded in the greater life of the community. Operating at a  slower pace with time to reflect and grow into a place of greater wisdom is a clergy person’s dream. In reality the life can be fraught with generational challenges of doing things the old fashioned way and facing deeply rooted prejudices that often have been hidden from the public’s view.  In rural communities (as well as not so rural) there is an opportunity to steer a congregation towards following Jesus more closely, not quickly but surely.

I’m an old man with many adventures, successes and failures behind me, but twenty years as a country parson were the very best.  I am happy to have been one, a poor imitation of Herbert to be sure but what a wonderful time it was.

4 thoughts on “On Being a Country Parson: George Herbert and me.”

  1. Nice piece, Steve. I read Herbert in college, in a course on 17th-century Lit. His brother Edward was a lord, a well-known lutenist, and published composer (of lute music — recorded by my friend and mentor, Paul O’Dette). I “resonated” to this particularly for those reasons, and also for having been a member of your parish in the years before you came — my growing-up years — and believe me, you’re right about the gossip. My mother sometimes called St Paul’s “St Peyton’s” (referring to the popular 1950’s scandalous novel), which was pretty accurate.

  2. I’m so glad you chose that small western community. You gave so much and I for one was blessed to worship with you and know you

  3. So, in my current Anglican Spirituality Course at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Herbet figures prominently in the reading list and discussions. Wouldn’t you know!

  4. So interesting to read and digest. As true today as it was back in his time. Thank you, as always, for sharing these insights.

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