On 25 June 2009 over forty people, including all ten members of the George Herbert in Bemerton Group, crowded into St. Andrew’s Church to hear and to participate in a reading of Herbert's poem 'The Church-porch'.
The poem was introduced by Peter Webster, a member of the Group, who emphasised its importance in the tripartite structure of George Herbert’s volume of poems, 'The Temple'. In life, as in 'The Temple', the church porch is the transition between the secular world outside the church and the spiritual world within. It offers shelter from the rain, a place to meet and greet, an architectural link between churchyard and church.
In keeping with this role, Herbert’s poem is largely secular, but he uses it to prepare the reader for the devotional poems that make up the bulk of 'The Temple'. It gives instructions on how to behave, for example:
“Drink not the third glass, which thou canst not tame”;
“Lie not: but let thy heart be true to God”;
“Never exceed thy income”;
"Laugh not too much: the witty man laughs least”.
It does so with Herbert’s customary wit, skill and craftsmanship, but in a didactic fashion that much appealed to Victorian schoolmasters, many of whom made their long-suffering pupils learn all 77 stanzas by heart. Peter discussed the probable origins of the poem and explained that it was an early work, but was periodically revised by George Herbert throughout his life.
The poem had been divided into four roughly equal sections and two members of the Group were allocated to each section, reading alternate verses. Between the sections the distinguished composer and performer, Barry Ferguson, a good friend to the Group, played three of his own compositions written specially for the event. These interludes, which had been inspired by George Herbert’s words in the poem, received their world première to much acclaim.
The Group’s founder and leader,Canon Judy Rees, concluded the reading with Superliminare which links 'The Church-porch' with 'The Church'. The audience were then invited to join the members of the Group for wine and other refreshments in a local garden, bordering the river Nadder, where the evening sun shone contentedly upon an animated gathering.
They must have enjoyed the occasion; the retiring collection amounted to nearly £200 without a single arm being twisted to donate.