Review: If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him

If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill himIf you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him by Justin Lewis-Anthony
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a book that I was meant to read at the time I read it, i.e. during my present sabbatical in between parish assignments. Recommended to me by a Dominican friar a little over twelve months ago, this book has languished on my ‘to read’ list in the time since. I knew I would get to it eventually, but that ‘eventually’ was a nebulous thing always subject to something else that needed reading first. Reading it now was both fortuitous and a profound blessing.

Drawing on his own experience as a priest in the Church of England, Justin Lewis-Anthony is at pains to explore what he believes to be the most significant challenge facing parish ministry in the present age. And the answer Lewis-Anthony produces centres on an overly romanticised and (all but) deified memory of George Herbert, a priest of the Church of England, who spent less than four years as a parish priest in a country setting in the early 17th century.

Because of his poetry and hymn writing, Herbert is well remembered within the Church of England – and rightly so for those reasons. His accounts of how to be a priest, however, while perfectly set out for his time and place, are not easily transferable to the modern context (or any context outsider his own) of parish ministry. Despite that unsuitability, Herbert is often held out as the example to be emulated by parish clergy in all times and places according to Lewis-Anthony.

For a Catholic comparison think of the Cure d’Ars…

Lewis-Anthony sets about describing how the Herbertian model of parish ministry is no longer applicable and attempts to ‘kill it off’ (hence the book’s title) to be replaced by something that is more relevant to contemporary times. In doing so, Lewis-Anthony believes that a model of parish ministry centres on the role of the clergy as Witness, Watchman, and Weaver (the author is fond of mnemonics starting with the same letter!), which must take into consideration the five R’s: Rule (as in Rule of Life), Role (what am I here for in this place), Responsibilities (to whom, for whom, with whom), Reckoning (how am I to manage this), and Reconciling (how to manage expectations and conflict). There is a lot of wisdom in Lewis-Anthony’s model, most of which I would argue comes because he has managed to ‘kill off’ Herbertianism (Lewis-Anthony labels his model as the KGH model, the ‘Kill George Herbert’ model).

As I’ve already mentioned, this book is written in the context of the Church of England. However, there is wisdom here that is equally applicable to other contexts, including my own Australian Catholic setting. I am glad I read this book while between parish assignments for no other reason than it requires me to contemplate how I might go about moving into my next assignment, i.e., will I simply repeat what I have done before in other settings which may or may not have been effective and appropriate, or will move forward open to a possibility of doing things differently in a new setting that I will discover only once I get there.

Time will be the ultimate judge on that score.

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