James 3:13-18; 4:1-3, 7-8a
George Herbert is one of the greatest poets in the English language. He is also a saint in the Episcopal Church. He is honored as a saint not so much for his poetry, though most of it is religious, as for his life as an Anglican priest – a country parson, as he called himself. Born into one of England’s great noble families in 1593, Herbert withdrew from a life of political ambition and power to become the rector of a little country parish, not unlike Holy Cross. There he ministered and wrote his poetry until his untimely death at age 44. Herbert also wrote a book called The Country Parson, a guide for himself and others to the life a priest should live. In his book, he talks about prayer and preaching, about study, about keeping the church building clean and neat, about the ordering of the parson’s personal household.
And he devotes one chapter to “The Parson in Circuit.” Every weekday afternoon, Herbert says, the country parson should get on his horse and ride through a section of his parish, where he will find members of his flock, not dressed up and on their good behavior as on Sundays, but “naturally as they are, wallowing in the midst of their affairs.” And as he visits them, he is to commend them for what he finds good and reprove them where they need correction.
Herbert is careful to describe how this reproof part of the parson’s work is to be done, not arrogantly or abusively, but he is clear that it is to be done, without hesitation and in detail. A major part of the parson’s life, indeed a major part of the work of the Church in Herbert’s day, had to do with the practical moral formation of the people. It was expected and it was accepted, whether or not it was liked or paid attention to.