George Herbert on leading services

Today, Herbert has some encouragement for those who lead services in church.

Let them be reverent and sincerely devoted, he says, touched by the Majesty of the God we come to worship. Such reverence (as opposed to the light, informal chumminess of some modern worship) ought to be infectious. Congregations need to be taught by example and instruction not to simply repeat responses by rote, but carefully consider what they are saying.

The pastor should also come down hard on people who arrive late and distract everyone else. Especially if this is done because they don’t want to chit-chat with the hoi polloi, or associate with them for reasons of class, or out of sheer ungodly superciliousness. (As in chapter 2, we see again how concerned Herbert was with the issue of class, and the way it hinders ministry.)

Thus far so good.

One rather curious detail here is that Herbert seems to consider the role of the pastor / service leader to be to bear the sins of the congregation to the heavenly altar, to be washed in Christ’s blood. This is poetically described, but I am not convinced it is part of the biblical description of the role of a minister. Pastoral ministry is difficult enough, and we are all meant to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2; Numbers 11:17?). But we cannot bear the weight of one another’s sins.

This sounds more reminiscent of the role of the high priest in the Old Testament temple, perhaps (Leviticus 10:17?). Yet even he did not really bear the sins of his people — that was the job of the sacrificial victim or scapegoat (e.g. Leviticus 16:22). The only one who bears our sins is Christ, and biblically he bore them once-and-for-all on the cross (Isaiah 53:11-12; Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 2:24). O happy day! No other shoulders were broad enough to bear them. We do not need to bring people’s sins to Christ again, though we may figuratively bring our own in penitent, heartfelt confession.

The Parson praying

The Country Parson, when he is to read divine services, composes himself to all possible reverence; lifting up his heart and hands, and eyes, and using all other gestures which may express a hearty, and unfeigned devotion.

This he does, first, as being truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God, before whom he then presents himself; yet not as himself alone, but as presenting with himself the whole Congregation, whose sins he then bears, and brings with his own to the heavenly altar to be bathed, and washed in the sacred Laver of Christ’s blood.

Secondly, as this is the true reason of his inward fear, so he is content to express this outwardly to the utmost of his power; that being first affected himself, he may affect also his people, knowing that no sermon moves them so much to a reverence, which they forget again, when they come to pray, as a devout behaviour in the very act of praying.

Accordingly his voice is humble, his words treatable, and slow; yet not so slow neither, to let the fervency of the supplicant hang and die between speaking, but with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.

Besides his example, he having often instructed his people how to carry themselves in divine service, exacts of them all possible reverence, by no means enduring either talking, or sleeping, or gazing, or leaning, or half-kneeling, or any undutiful behaviour in them, but causing them, when they sit, or stand, or kneel, to do all in a straight and steady posture, as attending to what is done in the Church, and every one, man, and child, answering aloud both Amen, and all other answers, which are on the clerks and peoples part to answer; which answers also are to be done not in a huddling, or slubbering fashion, gaping, or scratching the head, or spitting even in he midst of their answer, but gently and pausably, thinking what they say; so that while they answer “As it was in the beginning etc.” they meditate as they speak — that God has ever had his people, that have glorified him as well as now, and that he shall have so for ever. And the like in other answers.

This is that which the Apostle calls a reasonable service (Romans 12:1), when we speak not as parrots, without reason, or offer up such sacrifices as they did of old, which was of beasts devoid of reason; but when we use our reason, and apply our powers to the service of him, that gives them.

If there be any of the gentry or nobility of the parish, who sometimes make it a piece of state not to come at the beginning of service with their poor neighbours, but at mid-prayers, both to their own loss, and of theirs also who gaze upon them when they come in, and neglect the present service of God, he by no means suffers it, but after divers gentle admonitions, if they persevere, he causes them to be presented: or if the poor Church-wardens be affrighted with their greatness, notwithstanding his instruction that they ought not to be so, but even to let the world sink, so they do their duty; he presents them himself, only protesting to them, that not any ill will draws him to it, but the debt and obligation of his calling, being to obey God rather then men.


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