Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

George Herbert and the Architecture of Anglican Worship

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

George Herbert and the Architecture of Anglican Worship

Article excerpt


Designation of George Herbert as Protestant in doctrine and poetic practice has been fashionable of late, and it has become common to locate the latter, in Barbara Lewalski's terminology, within the category of "Protestant poetics."1 About Herbert's identification of himself as a Protestant there can be no doubt, but it is important to understand what this meant-and not to confuse one's own prejudices with the evidence that we have concerning this poet, whose allegiance to the Book of Common Prayer would have included belief in and obedience to a national Anglican Church that he considered the truest form of the "one Catholic and Apostolic Church."2 Within its structure, the individual, whether lay or clerical, was invited to respond to God's grace, and Herbert's poetry traces his own struggles at the same time that he outlines a pathway to salvation consistent with Prayer Book spirituality. Throughout he is never far from the physical church building, the liturgy, and the prayers of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer. "Protestant" and "Roman Catholic" comprise one set of disIMAGE FORMULA53

tinctions, while for him the former excludes the more strictly "Reformed" religion of Calvin's followers in Scotland, Switzerland, Holland, and France who jettisoned the liturgy which Cranmer's Prayer Book had saved for England. The term "catholic" for Herbert and others of his time meant a religion in touch with the church fathers, especially St. Augustine, whose doctrine of divine grace had also been the core of Luther's thought, but it also signified a religious practice that drew its substance from the canonical hours, the mass (but not as sacrifice, and not involving transubstantiation), and even from Eastern Orthodoxy.3 While not a Laudian, Herbert also cannot be reduced to the Calvinism that Daniel W Doerksen, for example, has recently attributed to him.4

Yet Doerksen observes that Herbert's "The British Church," which must be seen as the most important text with regard to the distinction that he drew between Anglicanism and the principal rival branches of Western Christendom, is his most nearly Laudian statement.5 Not present in the Williams manuscript, this poem contrasts nude and unpleasing Geneva (the Reformed churches) and the wanton Whore of Babylon upon the seven hills of Rome (the Roman Catholic Church) with the "Mother" Church of England, noted for her beauty and decency. The Anglican Church is thus the Middle Way, as established in the time of Elizabeth I, and halfway between (in Herbert's view) two unsatisfactory alternatives, one guilty of idolatry from "kiss[ing] so long her painted shrine"(line 16), the other lacking all modesty, implying not only slovenliness but also antagonism toward liturgical worship: "she wholly goes on th' other side" (line 23; italics mine).6 If one is tempted to argue that the latter was less reprehensible than the former, it should be remembered that in the England of the time there existed a strong prejudice against the unclothed body-a prejudice so strong that, in the mystery plays that had been staged up until the 1570s, nudity, as in the case of Adam and Eve, had IMAGE FORMULA55

been simulated by full leather body stockings.7 There is, however, no reason to see "The British Church" as specifically Laudian, since what the poet celebrates about Anglicanism is its stripping away of the superstition which he saw in Roman rites at the same time that the iconoclasm and rejection of the liturgy in Reformed worship are eschewed.

But in pursuit of a Herbert whose "Word-centered" Christianity is dominant, Doerksen will only grudgingly admit that the liturgy finds "indirect expression in some other poems."8 His rigorous pursuit of Calvinist doctrine may at times be useful, but for Herbert much of this was merely theologically conventional, while the core of his religious practice was focused on personal piety (always a struggle for him) and a non-exclusive devotional practice. …

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