Ordained priest on Sunday, 28th June 1987, Saint Peter’s Day twenty-five years ago was my first celebration of Holy Communion. Standing in church this evening for the handful of souls gathered to remember Peter, there was a few moments to reflect on the changes in a quarter of a century, the biggest of which seemed to be that there was far more preaching than in times past.
George Herbert’s A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson has remained the ideal through the years. Herbert died in 1633, from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine.
Herbert would have caused apoplexy to the staff of a typical theological college in our own time – few of the things that fill the timetable now would have had a place on Herbert’s syllabus. Herbert’s country parson wasn’t just to be saintly he was also to be intensely practical. He was to be a lawyer and a doctor as well as a priest!
Chapter 23 of The Country Parson is entitled The Parson’s Completeness:
THE Country Parson desires to be all to his parish; and not only a Pastor, but a Lawyer also, and a Physician. Therefore he endures not that any of his flock should go to law ; but, in any controversy, that they should resort to him as their judge. To this end, he hath gotten to himself some insight in things ordinarily incident and controverted, by experience, and by reading some initiatory treatises in the law, with Dalton’s Justice of Peace, and the abridgments of the statutes; as also by discourse with men of that profession, whom he hath ever some cases to ask, when he meets with them; holding that rule, that to put men to discourse of that wherein they are most eminent, is the most gainful way of conversation. Yet, whenever any controversy is brought to him, he never decides it alone, but sends for three or four of the ablest of the parish to hear the cause with him, whom he makes to deliver their opinion first; out of which he gathers, in case he be ignorant himself, what to hold: and so the thing passeth with more authority and less envy. In judging, he follows that which is altogether right; so that if the poorest man of the parish detain but a pin unjustly from the richest, he absolutely restores it as a judge; but when he hath so done, then he assumes the Parson, and exhorts to charity.
Nevertheless there may happen sometimes some cases wherein he chooseth to permit his parishioners rather to make use of the law than himself: as in cases of an obscure and dark nature, not easily determinable by lawyers themselves; or in cases of high consequence, as establishing of inheritances; or lastly, when the persons in difference are of a contentious disposition, and cannot be gained, but that they still tall from all compromises that have been made. But then he shows them how to go to law, even as brethren, and not as enemies, neither avoiding therefore one another’s company, much less defaming one another.
Now, as the Parson is in law, so is he in sickness also. If there be any of his flock sick, he is their physician, — or at least his wife; of whom, instead of the qualities of the world, he asks no other, but to have the skill of healing a wound, or helping the sick. But if neither himself nor his wife have the skill, and his means serve, he keeps some young practitioner in his house, for the benefit of his parish; whom yet he ever exhorts not to exceed his bounds, but in difficult cases to call in help. If all fail, then he keeps good correspondence with some neighbour physician, and entertains him for the cure of his parish. Yet it is easy for any scholar to attain to such a measure of physic, as may be of much use to him, both for himself and others. This is done by seeing one anatomy, reading one book of physic, having one herbal by him. And let Fernelius be the physic author, for he writes briefly, neatly, and judiciously: especially let his Method of Physic be diligently perused, as being the practical part, and of most use. Now, both the reading of him and the knowing of herbs may be done at such times, as they may be a help and a recreation to more divine studies, nature serving grace both in comfort of diversion, and the benefit of application when need requires it; as also by way of illustration, even is our Saviour made plants and seeds to teach the people. For he was the true householder, who bringeth out of his treasury things new and old; the old things of philosophy, and the new of grace; and maketh the one serve the other. And, I conceive, our Saviour did this for three reasons. First, that by familiar things he might make his doctrine slip the more easily into the hearts even of the meanest. Secondly, that labouring people, whom he chiefly considered, might have everywhere monuments of his doctrine; remembering, in gardens, his mustard seed and lilies; in the field, his seed-corn and tares: and so not be drowned altogether in the works of their vocation, but sometimes lift up their minds to better things, even in the midst of their pains. Thirdly, that he might set a copy for parsons.
In the knowledge of simples, wherein the manifold wisdom of God is wonderfully to be seen, one thing should be carefully observed ; which is, to know what herbs may be used instead of drugs of the same nature, and to make the garden the shop. For home-bred medicines are both more easy for the Parson’s purse, and more familiar for all men’s bodies. So, where the apothecary useth, either for loosing, rhubarb; or for binding, Bolearmena ; the Parson useth damask or white roses for the one, and plantain, shepherd’s-purse, knot-grass for the other, and that with better success. As for spices, he doth not only prefer homebred things before them, but condemns them for vanities, and so shuts them out of his family; esteeming that there is no spice comparable, for herbs, to rosemary, thyme, savoury, mints; and for seeds, to fennel, and caraway-seeds. Accordingly, for salves, his wife seeks not the city, but prefers her garden and fields before all outlandish gums. And surely hyssop, valerian, mercury, adder’s-tongue, yerrow, melilot, and St. John’s wort, made into a salve; and elder, camomile, mallows, comphrey. and smallage, made into a poultice, have done great and rare cures. In curing of any, the Parson and his family use to premise prayers; for this is to cure like a Parson, and this raiseth the action from this shop to the church. But though the Parson sets forward all charitable deeds, yet he looks not in this point of curing beyond his own parish ; except the person be so poor that he is not able to reward the physician. For, as he is charitable, so he is just also. Now it is a justice and debt to the common wealth he lives in, not to encroach on others’ professions, but to live on his own. And justice is the ground of charity.
Herbert’s country parson (and his wife!) provide an entire health and social security system. The ideal is unattainable.