27 February 2010

Remembering George Herbert, poet, pastor, priest

George Herbert, poet, pastor and priest, remembered in the Anglican calendar on 27 February

Patrick Comerford

At the end of today’s seminar for the course leading to the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology, we celebrated the Eucharist in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

In the Eucharist we remembered George Herbert (1593-1633); although he died on 1 March 1633, George Herbert is remembered in Church calendars throughout the Anglican Communion on 27 February.

Herbert was born in Montgomery in Wales into an artistic, aristocratic family, and was educated at Trinity College Cambridge, where he excelled in languages and music. Initially he had intended to proceed to ordination, but he stayed on in Cambridge as Reader (Lecturer) in Rhetoric and as university orator.

The Backs at Trinity College Cambridge, where George Herbert was an undergraduate and later a fellow

From 1624, he was MP for Montgomeryshire and was attached to court of King James I. Eventually, he gave up all secular and political ambition and was ordained at the age of 37 in 1630. He spent his final years in south Wiltshire as Rector of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton Saint Peter, a little parish in the Diocese of Salisbury.

There he preached, wrote poetry, and helped to rebuild the church from his own pocket. He was unfailing in his pastoral care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need.

Today, he is best remembered as a writer of poems, especially the collection The Temple (1633), and his hymns, including Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life, King of Glory, King of Peace and Let all the World in Every Corner Sing.

George Herbert also wrote The Country Parson, offering practical advice to clergy. In it, he advises priests that “things of ordinary use,” such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths.”

On his deathbed, he gave the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, who founded the religious community at Little Gidding, asking him to publish it or to burn it.

An example of George Herbert’s religious poetry is The Altar. The poem itself is shaped like an altar, and this altar becomes his concept for how one should offer himself as a sacrifice to the Lord. He also makes allusions to scripture, such as Psalm 51:17, where it says that what the Lord requires is the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

At the end of today’s seminar and lectures, it was good to remember George Herbert, poet, pastor and priest, at the altar.


King of glory, king of peace,
who called your servant George Herbert
from the pursuit of worldly honours
to be a priest in the temple of his God and king:
grant us also the grace to offer ourselves
with singleness of heart in humble obedience to your service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God, shepherd of your people,
whose servant George Herbert revealed the loving service of Christ
in his ministry as a pastor of your people:
by this Eucharist in which we share
awaken within us the love of Christ
and keep us faithful to our Christian calling;
through him who laid down his life for us,
but is alive and reigns with you, now and for ever. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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