It can be a danger in parish life that local customs and traditions trump the gospel. Many ministers tell of how parishes must have things “a certain way”, even when the reasons for it are lost in antiquity and could be unhelpful. On the other hand, some customs are either reformable or even godly, provided they do not contradict scripture.
These are the issues that George Herbert must have come up against as a pastor in the little parish of Bemerton near Salisbury. He speaks in particular of “processions”, by which I think he refers to “beating the bounds”, an old tradition of walking around the parish boundaries.
He sees advantage in this, as well as in old-fashioned traditions of prayer. So he can condescend to continue such customs, because “there is much preaching in them”, and opportunities for gospel ministry.
The Parson’s Condescending
The country parson is a lover of old customs, if they be good and harmless; and the rather, because country people are much addicted to them, so that to favour them therein is to win their hearts, and to oppose them therein is to deject them.
If there be any ill in the custom that may be severed from the good, he pares the apple, and gives them the clean to feed on. Particularly, he loves Procession, and maintains it, because there are contained therein four manifest advantages. First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field: Secondly, justice in the preservation of bounds. Thirdly, charity in loving walking and neighbourly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any. Fourthly, mercy in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largesse which at that time is, or ought to be used. Wherefore he exacts of all to be present at the perambulation, and those that withdraw and sever themselves from it, he mislikes and reproves as uncharitable and unneighbourly; and if they will not reform, presents them. Nay, he is so far from condemning such assemblies, that he rather procures them to be often, as knowing that absence breeds strangeness, but presence love.
Now love is his business and aim. Wherefore he likes well that his parish at good times invite one another to their houses, and he urges them to it. And sometimes, where he knows there has been or is a little difference, he takes one of the parties, and goes with him to the other, and all dine or sup together. There is much preaching in this friendliness.
Another old custom there is of saying, when light is brought in, “God send us the light of heaven.” And the parson likes this very well; neither is he afraid of praising or praying to God at all times, but is rather glad of catching opportunities to do them. Light is a great blessing, and as great as food, for which we give thanks: and those that think this superstitious, neither know superstition, nor themselves. As for those that are ashamed to use this form, as being old and obsolete and not the fashion, he reforms and teaches them that at baptism they professed not to be ashamed of Christ’s cross, or for any shame to leave that which is good. He that is ashamed in small things, will extend his pusillanimity to is greater. Rather should a Christian soldier take such occasions to harden himself, and to further his exercises of mortification.