George Herbert on the pastor blessing

Many evangelicals are so suspicious of anything vaguely “churchy” that they are no longer happy to use a benediction at the end of a service.  That is, they no longer feel comfortable blessing people: “The blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be among you and remain with you always, Amen.” Certainly, many will routinely change the “you” to “us”, or even add a “May” to the blessing, to turn it into a request or hope instead of a benediction.

Nowadays, evangelical church meetings might end with a short prayer, related perhaps to the theme of the sermon. Possibly a doxology taken from the Bible could be safely employed, such as Jude 24-25 or Hebrews 13:20-21 (which is still suspiciously like a blessing in verse 20). We seem reluctant to announce that God blesses people, or to be the instrument/means/conduit/vessel through which that blessing is announced.

No doubt there is something theological about this, linked with our implicit sacramentology or our theology of word and Spirit. But George Herbert was having none of it! He was keen to bless the people, as their spiritual father (on which see a previous chapter) and did not think it was empty or superfluous to do so. Indeed, he even goes so far as to talk about the pastor cursing also, and he doesn’t mean using bad language!

What are we to make of this…? Is it more than an April Fools Day joke…?

CHAPTER 36
The Parson Blessing

The country parson wonders that blessing the people is in so little use with his brethren. Whereas he thinks it not only a grave, and reverend thing, but a beneficial also.

Those who use it not, do so either out of niceness, because they like the salutations and compliments and forms of worldly language better — which conformity and fashionableness is so exceedingly unbefitting a Minister, that it deserves reproof, not refutation; or else, because they think it empty and superfluous.

But that which the Apostles used so diligently in their writings, nay, which our Saviour himself used (Mark 10:16) cannot be vain and superfluous. But this was not proper to Christ or the Apostles only, no more than to be a spiritual father was appropriated to them. And if temporal fathers bless their children, how much more may and ought spiritual fathers?

Besides, the priests of the Old Testament were commanded to bless the people, and the form thereof is prescribed (Numbers 6:22-27). Now as the Apostle argues in another case, if the ministration of condemnation did bless, how shall not the ministration of the Spirit exceed in blessing? (2 Corinthians 3)

The fruit of this blessing good Hannah found and received with great joy (1 Samuel 1:17-18) though it came from a man disallowed by God. For it was not the person, but priesthood, that blessed, so that even ill priests may bless.

Neither have the Ministers power of blessing only, but also of cursing. So in the Old Testament, Elisha cursed the children (2 Kings 2:24) which though our Saviour reproved as unfitting for his particular, who was to show all humility before his Passion, yet he allows in his Apostles. And therefore St. Peter used that fearful imprecation to Simon Magus (Acts 8:18-25), “Your money perish with you” — and the event confirmed it. So did St. Paul (2 Timothy 4:14 and 1 Timothy 1:20) — speaking of Alexander the Coppersmith, who had withstood his preaching, “The Lord (he said) reward him according to his works.” And again, of Hymeneus and Alexander, he said he had “delivered them to Satan, that they might learn not to Blaspheme.”

The forms both of blessing and cursing are expounded in the Book of Common Prayer. The one in “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ etc” and “The Peace of God etc.” The other in general in the Commination.

Now blessing differs from prayer, in assurance, because it is not performed by way of request, but of confidence and power effectually applying God’s favour to the blessed, by the interesting of that dignity wherewith God has invested the Priest and engaging of God’s own power and institution for a blessing. The neglect of this duty in Ministers themselves has made the people also neglect it, so that they are so far from craving this benefit from their ghostly father that they oftentimes go out of church before he has blessed them. In the time of Popery, the priest’s Benedicite, and his holy water, were over-highly valued; and now we are fallen to the clean contrary, even from superstition to coldness and atheism.

But the parson first values the gift in himself, and then teaches his parish to value it. And it is observable that if a Minister talk with a great man in the ordinary course of complementing language, he shall be esteemed as ordinary complementers; but if he often interpose a blessing, when the other gives him just opportunity by speaking any good, this unusual form begets a reverence, and makes him esteemed according to his profession. The same is to be observed in writing letters also.

To conclude, if all men are to bless upon occasion, as appears from Romans 12:14, how much more those, who are spiritual fathers?

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