The Church as Text in George Herbert’s Temple and Country Parson

Though George Herbert’s major poetry sequence uses a structuring architectural metaphor, surprisingly little has been written about Herbert’s concern with church buildings themselves. Though he was a priest, and though he named parts of a church throughout The Temple, critics typically make no attempt to relate his written work to the physical structures in which he worshipped and ministered and which, in a number of cases, he helped rebuild and even redesign. Herbert wrote at a time when the arranging of church interiors was anything but irrelevant. With the Reformation came a re-evaluation of the uses of the church building. Long-standing hierarchical and mystical conceptions of sacred space were challenged by a new imperative to demystify and to share that space. The Edwardian Book of Common Prayer demanded a new level of commonality within the church building itself, opening notions of the church building and its uses to questioning through to the 1630s, when Herbert ministered, and beyond, as the conflict between Laudians and Puritans came to a head. In short, Herbert wrote about the church building at a time when it was most in question, in the midst of what could be termed a crisis of sacred space. Positions here ranged from moves to reestablish the medieval sense of awe and power of the church to the demands of radical reformers (Henry Barrow) that all Romish churches should be torn down. I argue that Herbert’s achievement was in asserting the church building as a positive teaching space, rather than allowing prevailing controversy to turn the church into an arena of doctrinal conflict. Herbert taught readers to find their own stories in the gospel message of the church building, much as he taught readers to find their own stories in Scripture. I will argue that, in treating it as a text to be read, Herbert accomplished a particularly Protestant sanctification of the church building, though not one without contradictions.

Writing the Church

The value George Herbert places on architecture in his poetry is borne out in his re-building of actual churches. As Amy Charles points out, he rebuilt three churches during his life. Of these, the most well known is the stone cruciform church of Leighton Bromswold. Herbert became prebend of Leighton Ecclesia in 1626, at which time the church had not been in use for almost twenty years. Instead, services were being held in the manor hall of the Duke of Lennox. As Charles puts it, for Herbert "with his sense of what was fitting and proper in everything related to the worship of God," it was "intolerable for a church to remain in this state" (128). His passionate belief that the church had to be rebuilt tells us that for him, the place that the congregation gathered had real importance. As Izaac Walton records, Herbert’s mother tried to persuade him not to rebuild Leighton Bromswold, saying "George, it is not for your weak body and empty purse to undertake to build churches" (283). Herbert went on to fight against failing health and to raise money from his many well-placed friends in order to see the church rebuilding begun. Walton writes that he made the rebuilding

so much his whole business that he became restless, till he saw it finished as it now stands; being, for the workmanship, a costly mosaic; for the form, an exact cross; and for the decency and beauty, I am assured it is the most remarkable parish church that this nation affords. (282-83)

In rebuilding this church, Herbert consciously wrote sacred space, producing a building of expensive workmanship which the congregation could read according to the mode of The Temple, learning about themselves in God. Herbert’s intentionality in writing sacred space surfaces in his design for the pulpit and the reading pew of the church. Usually, the reading pew took its place below the level of the pulpit, indicating a hierarchy of importance between the functions performed at the two places. Herbert, however, did not agree with this arrangement. Walton writes that

by his order, the reading pew and pulpit were a little distant from each other and both of an equal height; for he would often say, ‘They should neither have a precedency or priority of the other, but that prayer and preaching, being equally useful, might agree like bretheren and have an equal honour and estimation’ (283)

Herbert consciously shaped the church building along the lines of the reformed liturgy: he designs the building assuming that the congregation will understand its message. In chapter thirteen of The Country Parson, entitled "The Parson’s Church," Herbert sets out rules giving further details on the establishment of sacred space. He says that the "country parson has a special care of his church, that all things there be decent and befitting His name by which it is called" (221). To this end, he gives four rules; first, that "all things be in good repair," second, "that the church be swept and kept clean . . . and at great festivals strawed and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense," third, that there "be fit and proper texts of Scripture everywhere painted, and that all the painting be grave and reverend, not with light colours or foolish antics," and forth, that all books "appointed by authority" be kept there in good condition, that the communion cloth be linen and "fitting and sightly," and that a poor-man’s box be conveniently located within the church (221-22).

While Herbert makes clear that his treatment of the church building is not intended to "put a holiness in things" (222), it remains that he has a precise sense of what the building should communicate to those in it, and of what activities should take place there. The church itself should not be worshipped; instead, the building should point the way to God, should tell the Gospel story. For Herbert, doing things in order and doing things to the edification of all are foundational rules of worship, which "excellently score out the way, and fully and exactly contain, even in external and indifferent things, what course is to be taken, and put them to great shame who deny the Scripture to be perfect" (222, italics mine). The principles of scripture are scored out, written in the architecture of the church, so that all may read and understand.

Reading the Church

To argue that Herbert treats the church building like a text, one must consider how he treats literal texts, most notably, the Bible. This he describes in "H. Scriptures II:"

O that I knew how all thy lights combine,

And the configurations of their glory!

Seeing not only how each verse doth shine,

But all the constellations of the story.

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion

Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:

Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,

These three do make up some Christian’s destiny:

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,

And comments on thee: for in ev’rything

Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring,

And in another make me understood.

Stars are poor books, and oftentimes do miss:

This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.

Dayton Haskin describes this reading method as typically Protestant; in it, "interpretive discovery is presented in a topographical language that suggests a conception of the Book as a vast field, or set of fields, filled with ‘places’ that bear potential relations to one another." (2) The ultimate goal of this type of reading is to find oneself through collating textual places; in this way, the Bible becomes not only God’s Word to the Church, but God’s Word to the individual believer. In reading the Bible, Herbert finally reads himself; he understands scripture in a highly personal way, saying "[t]hy words do find me out." Notably, he finds in his reading an astrological sense of mystery: the Bible holds "secrets" of "destiny," unlocked when read by the individual Christian. If the Bible is the chief text to be read by the believer, then for Herbert, church architecture acts as an important supporting text. In his poem "The Church-Floor," Herbert gathers physical places, collating them into a personal message in a way that parallels his reading of scripture:

Mark you the floor? that square and speckled stone,

Which looks so firm and strong,

Is Patience:

And th’ other black and grave, wherewith each one

Is checkered all along,


The gentle rising, which on either hand

Leads to the Choir above,

Is Confidence:

But the sweet cement, which in one sure band

Ties the whole frame, is Love

And Charity.

Hither sometimes Sin steals, and stains

The marble’s neat and curious veins:

But all is cleansed when the marble weeps.

Sometimes Death, puffing at the door,

Blows all the dust about the floor:

But while he thinks to spoil the room, he sweeps.

Blessed be the Architect, whose art

Could build so strong in a weak heart.

As Stanley Fish argues, the objects of the poem are "first distinguished (from each other and from the reader) and then brought together, as the architectural metaphor becomes alive and is finally interiorized." He goes on to say that "the strategy succeeds when the reader is no longer trying to make these distinctions, but discovers himself signified by each and every one of them (he discovers what he is)" (78-79). The similarity between the way that Herbert reads the Bible and the way he reads the church building is striking. He approaches both with a confident, self-authorizing reading which mediates the link between himself and God. While Fish argues correctly that Herbert de-emphasizes the material in favour of the spiritual, Herbert’s choice of material text is neither arbitrary nor unimportant. Herbert grants the church building a status in his poetry similar to that of the Bible and the liturgy, presenting it as one of the few sacred texts which he consistently reads to discover himself in relation to God. Herbert treats the church building as a common space, which can and should be interpreted by the individual for spiritual insight. As the Bible and the liturgy have been translated into the "Engliyshe tongue, to the end that the congregacion maye be thereby edified," (BCP 323) Herbert too opens up the church building to common understanding, teaching his readership to find themselves in it, upon their own meditation.

Herbert finds in the church floor signs of the most profound Christian truths. The final eclipsing of the earthly architect by the heavenly one should be understood not as a minimalizing of the earthly, but instead, as the raising of that architect and architecture to a sacramental level. In the design of the church, with its incorporation of differing elements, Herbert sees a model of the great design. Significantly, Herbert does not launch into consideration of any technical or learned aspects of architecture. As Fish argues, Herbert writes as a country parson, leading people without formal education into spiritual growth. His architectural language is one that any parishioner could understand: pointing to this stone, to the next stone, to the cement that joins them. In its simplicity, however, Herbert’s description of the materiality of the church opens the mind, investing the floor that all walk on every Sunday with an expansive spiritual significance.

Herbert also models his way of reading the church building in his poem "The Windows," in which he addresses the paradoxical position of himself as a preacher, fallen, yet presenting the word of God. He writes:

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?

He is a brittle crazy glass:

Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford

This glorious and transcendent place,

To be a window, through thy grace.

The preacher, otherwise flawed to the point of uselessness, becomes transformed when God affords him a place in the temple. On his own, he is a glass which is cracked and ready to fall to pieces; however, when God "anneals in glasse [his] storie," (6) he becomes a glorious window. The very infirmity of the preacher provides the material for transcendence. Again, Herbert takes a physical place in the church and reads it as sacred text, finding a place for the reader within it. If God transforms the preacher by using him as a window, making His "life to shine within" (l. 7-8), then Herbert’s reading of the preacher into the architecture of the church also transforms: he first recognizes himself in the church window, then recognizes Christ within himself. Herbert, in effect, claims the church as a text he as an individual believer can read, and then finds a place in it. By extension, he teaches his reader to treat the church building as a personal space, a place that all believers can read for themselves through the Holy Spirit’s empowering.

The Politics of Reading the Church

However, Herbert finds himself in a paradoxical position. As an individual believer, he can read the church building with freedom, collating its places and finding his own place as he will. As a priest, however, he writes the building, constraining the readings of his parishioners by his own vision of worship. The interpretive authority of the individual believer conflicts with the ruling authority of the priest here, and it seems that commonality itself must follow the authority of the priest. The common worship laid out by the Prayer Book, as with the more overtly hierarchical worship laid out by the medieval church before it, is still taught to the laity, enforced by the clergy.

Herbert both defines and is defined by the sacred space of the church, reflecting a central concern of his writing: the paradoxical position of the priest as both a servant and a leader. In the common space of the reformation church, the building alone apparently cannot sufficiently communicate the sacredness of its purpose, and so the priest must himself actualize this sense, producing a living spectacle of holiness. In chapter six of The Country Parson, entitled "The Parson Praying," Herbert writes:

The country parson, when he is to read divine services, composeth 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 doth, 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 also affect 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. (207)

Herbert describes here a kind of holy theatre, in which the insight of the priest must dramatically be displayed in order to inspire in the congregation an emotional understanding of the doctrine being communicated. In the medieval church, awe was produced in that the congregation did not see the priest pray; now that the priest and congregation are praying together, awe must be produced by the priest himself.

Herbert’s intent in this production of reverence is clearly that of a good priest. His actions flow out of his love for God and out of his desire that his congregation understand God in the same way he does. It also seems reasonable to assume that, in leading worship in this way, Herbert as priest would be fulfilling the expectations and in some cases the desires of his congregation. However, as Michael Schoenfeldt observes, Herbert nonetheless exercises control:

The parson’s act of self-composure, like the poet’s act of composition, is a creative and coercive gesture. Profoundly aware at once of the effect of his divine auditor upon him and of the effect his conduct has upon his congregation, the parson, like the devotional poet, addresses two very different audiences involving opposite political situations. Moved by the one and moving the other, parson and devotional poet must submit and control, amaze and be amazed, simultaneously. (1)

The priest’s coercive actions problematize the commonality of Prayer Book worship. Though every believer must depend individually upon Christ for salvation, the church still mediates that relationship, guiding the individual in the interpretation of holy scripture, and, as with Herbert, in the interpretation of sacred space. Here then, is what I referred to earlier as a crisis of sacred space, that even as authorities open the church building to a new commonality, they feel compelled to circumscribe that commonality. As Herbert encourages his parishioners to participate fully in interpreting sacred space, he also must control those interpretations.

The Prayer Book establishes that the whole congregation, not only the clergy, acts out the liturgy together. To this end, Herbert’s sensitivity to the holy theatre of the priest parallels his demand that the congregation also play out its role well. He says that, besides the example of sanctity being performed by the priest,

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 everyone, man and child, answering aloud both Amen and all other answers, which are on the clerk’s and people’s part to answer; which answers are not to be done in a huddling or slubbering fashion, gaping, or scratching the head, or spitting even in the midst of their answer, but gently and pauseably, thinking what they say. (207-08)

If the congregation is to share sacred space, then they themselves must take part in producing it. It seems that, for Herbert, the freedom of interpretation of The Temple can only follow observance of the strict guidelines of The Country Parson. Herbert’s negotiation of sacred space, then, follows in the Christian paradox explored by Milton not long after, that freedom follows obedience. Unlike the medieval church, in which sacred space is constructed out of architectural divisions and set ritual, the sacredness Herbert describes dwells in the interiority of the congregation. Because of this interiority, sacred space becomes dynamic, not static: always, continually, being produced by those present. The church building is now not itself sacred, but is read to produce the sacred in the congregation.

Works Cited

The First and Second Prayer Books of King Edward the Sixth. London: J. M. Dent, 1920.

Addleshaw, G. W. O., and Frederick Etchells. The Architectural Setting of Anglican Worship : An Inquiry into the Arrangements for Public Worship in the Church of England From the Reformation to the Present Day. London: Faber and Faber, 1948.

Charles, Amy. A Life of George Herbert. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1977.

Fish, Stanley. The Living Temple: George Herbert and Catechizing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Haskin, Dayton. Milton's Burden of Interpretation. Pittsburgh: U Penn Press, 1994.

Herbert, George. The Complete English Poems. Ed. John Tobin. London: Penguin, 1991.

Schoenfeldt, Michael. Prayer and Power: George Herbert and Renaissance Courtship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.