George Herbert and the spirit of Anglicanism

I love George Herbert. I frequently return to his verse, both for spiritual sustenance (he has such a clear grasp of what it means to desire holiness, but to be painfully aware of one’s shortcomings and failures) and for the sheer liveliness and beauty of his language. Also, according to almost all chroniclers of his period who took the time to write about him, he seems to have been an uncommonly good man – a quality that pervades his poetry and consistently impresses itself upon the reader. So, in summary, I have no quibble with George Herbert, the man or his works. However, he does serve as a useful springboard to discuss something that has nagged at me for quite a while now – namely, the question of what it is about Anglicanism that can be said to constitute its identity.

Herbert is often invoked as the paradigmatic example of Anglican faith and piety – a sort of village church in microcosm. Indeed, his treatise A Priest to the Temple, a description of the life and duties of the country parson, was considered upon its release to be a definitive description of the contemporary 17th Century Anglican clergyman (as well as impressing with the quality of its prose). I recently came across the introduction to a collection of Herbert’s poems, in which the writer – one Arthur Waugh – describes the character of the man in these very terms, and I think it is worth quoting from this passage at length, as it so accurately captures what I believe to be the real spirit of Anglicanism:

‘IT has been the happy privilege of the Church of England, out of her own spirit of sweet reasonableness and moderation, to train from time to time a band of men who, while they are nurtured on her own essence and educated in her special precepts, become in turn the strength, the support, the very embodiment of her principles and doctrine. “That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain.” And the strength and support of that branch of the Catholic Church militant in our own country has always lain upon the middle way; it has never been her method either to waste in passionate dreams, or to protest overmuch with the voices of prophecy or denunciation…The Church of England, when she has been content to speak with her own voice, has spoken more directly than the mystic, and more temperately than the enthusiast. When one thinks of the Church of England, quietly leavening the land through the gentle operation of the ages, one pictures, as it were, a broad stretch of meadow-land, rich and mellow in the light of sunset, with here and there among its bowery hollows the heavenward-pointing spire of the village church, and, close beside the yew-trees in the grave- yard, the grey walls and open porch of the country parsonage. Here, as the cattle wind homeward in the evening light, the benign, white-haired parson stands at his gate to greet the cowherd, and the village chime calls the labourers to evensong. For these contented spirits, happily removed from the stress and din of conflicting creeds and clashing dogmas, the message of the gospel tells of divine approval for work well done, of light at eventide, of rest and refreshment for the weary. For them God is not in the earthquake or in the fire, but in the still small voice.

From The Poems of George Herbert (1907), OxfordUniversity Press.

            This vision of the Church of England, of which George Herbert is often spoken of as the prime representative, is delightful. Its bucolic imagery of country fields in twilight echoing the bells calling villagers to evensong, and its talk of ‘sweet reasonableness and moderation’, is supremely comforting, even to the point of being snug. In this vision, the Anglican spirit is the religious equivalent of curling up in a comfortable armchair before a warm fire on a chilly autumn eve. This imagery is undoubtedly lovely, and reassuring, but whilst some may write it off as twee on the one hand, or ecclesiologically irrelevant on the other, I would say that this is not only the main attraction of Anglicanism, but its defining feature – a moderate and undemanding approach to doctrinal matters, coupled with a vague sense of (semi) antiquity and familiarity in worship. George Herbert himself, in the somewhat misleadingly titled The British Church, speaks of his beloved state church as being:

A fine aspect in fit array,

Neither too mean, nor yet too gay,

Shows who is best:


Outlandish looks may not compare;

For all they either painted are,

Or else undrest

This passage could serve (and I think this is Herbert’s intention) to describe both the demeanour of the English churches and the worship within them, as well as the doctrinal ‘middle way’ that was the proclaimed result of the Elizabethan Settlement. In reality of course, the new Church of England was still essentially Protestant in its character (something I have argued about Anglicanism in all its forms here and here), and its only really distinctively Catholic elements (both on paper and in practice) were in the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon. The fact that George Herbert himself, and many others I am sure, lived lives of devotion and good works, is beside the point here; as is the fact that some Anglicans (e.g.; the Caroline Divines) tried to reintroduce Catholic practices that had been jettisoned during the Reformation. What is at issue here is the existence of an essentially Anglican identity – and in that I would certainly concur – one that is different from most other Protestant denominations. Its most notable feature though, I would argue, is not that it has maintained an episcopal form of church government, but in the very spirit outlined in the passage by Arthur Waugh I quoted above.

The problem with the Church of England is that it doesn’t really have an ecclesiology. Its foundations were rooted in an act of political settlement, designed to appease extreme Calvinist/Lutheran factions on one side, and those who wished to retain some continuity with the old faith on the other (the Thirty-Nine Articles are a very good example of how theologically muddled this process was). Because of this, it has never really had a proper means of defining doctrinal development, and with respect to disciplinary/governmental issues, matters of debate had to be discussed in Parliament. Nowadays of course, both doctrine and canon law are debated and changed via General Synod, so that it is a matter of majority rules for deciding what should be done in either case. Dr Edward Norman, former canon of York Minster, now a Catholic, brought this issue to the attention of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and presented what was at stake regarding the existence of the Church of England in years to come, but to no avail (as it happens, I would recommend this text as an extremely thorough analysis of the issue of Anglican identity and authority).

So, I would suggest that the primary way in which Anglicanism is Anglican, is in this rather vague spirit of moderation and comfortableness. There is of course its rich heritage of music and the language of the Book of Common Prayer, but again these are primarily cultural legacies, rather than anything that might represent a definitive doctrinal or ecclesiological identity. In fact, when Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson, the ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, proposed an answer to the question of what exactly the Anglican patrimony being preserved was, he pointed to a text issued from the Vatican that described it as:

‘That which has nourished the Catholic faith in the Anglican tradition during the years of ecclesial separation and now prompts the desire for full communion.

            Monsignor Steenson comes across as a lovely man, and I am sure he is very good at his job, but I do not envy him when working with a definition quite as vague as that! However, he will know very well (as a convert from Episcopalianism) that what is being described here, the essence of Anglicanism, is by its very nature vague and indefinable; that it rests more in the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer and the heavenly spires of churches pouring forth soothing choral tones into the dusty evening air than it does in doctrinal definitions and recognisable channels of authority.

In looking at this topic, I have focused almost solely on the Church of England, and Anglicanism is indeed a world-wide phenomenon (something often mistaken by its supporters for catholicity), but I would also contend that this spirit is something that inhabits all Anglican churches to some degree – it is perhaps the only thing that they do all have in common. I do not have enough experience of churches outside England to make a proper judgement, and would certainly not wish to offend any of these churches, but I would also suggest that this spirit is really, at bottom, a spirit of Englishness. All the things that characterise Anglicanism – tolerance, moderation, compromise, snugness, an emotional but non-committal connection to tradition and the past, a dislike of authority, the priority of reason in theory and feeling in practice – are very English qualities. And, really, this is no surprise – all that the Anglican Communion really is is a loose federation of national churches planted during the days of the Empire. It is natural that those churches would have, in their very bones, the same qualities and commitments that the English had, and have.

Having said all this, I would like to make clear that I am not passing judgement on Anglicanism – I simply think that it is quite plain that it doesn’t have much of an identity outside of the spirit I have tried to describe above; and I think a lot of Anglicans would probably agree with me. Furthermore, as an Englishman, I am kind of glad to have the Church of England (what’s left of it), with its spirit of sweet reasonableness, around. It can be frustrating at times, for all manner of reasons, and in my more realist moments, I think disestablishment is probably a good thing, as it would sort the wheat from the chaff (so to speak) and allow its more corrosive elements to fade away into the secularism from whence they came. However, even for someone who wasn’t brought up in a church-going household, the sound of the evensong bells and the evening light shining through stained glass onto the warm wood of pews in a country chapel can still stir the soul, and it is indeed a big part of my cultural (and temperamental – I am by nature a creature of compromise!) inheritance. I just wish people would stop using that as a reason for its continued existence – if England doesn’t believe any more, I think it more than a little insincere to make a case for its national church based on emotion and a loose connection to the past. But then, as I have been arguing, that is the Anglican spirit.


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