I have to admit I’m not very good at friendship. It’s often hard for people who know me now to think of me as anything other than a vicar or priest. So that should mean I nurture those who knew me before I was ordained - yet it's hard to travel or find time at weekends because of my day job, and others are not free to meet up during the week.
My friend Mark Saberton is an opera singer, and he recently got in touch to talk about George Herbert’s poems as he was performing Five Mystical Songs, the settings by Vaughan Williams, at Exeter College Oxford (you’ve missed it by now, but you can catch more at his website). Mark is one of my oldest friends from Liverpool University, when I was studying architecture, and he was reading music. I don't think we could have imagined where either of us would end up (although judging by his choice of subject he probably had a better idea than me!). Mark travels about for his job so that makes it easier for us to meet. We don’t hear much of Herbert's friends - perhaps his departure from court left him out in the cold. At least he managed to hang on to Nicholas Ferrar.
There are many who were told at vicar factory that friendships within the parish were forbidden. There are sometimes those who see you as their best friend or think they know all about you because they see you up the front. We had quite a discussion about this amongst the clergy recently; people asking when was it permissible to go back to your old place and take weddings or funerals, and when should you leave it alone?
In Herbert's day clergy were all of the same class, and mixed freely among their peers in the landed gentry. Later we redefined ourselves as a profession, but that does not fit either - many of us would not assume to be friends with our doctor or lawyer. The boundaries are more blurred. I can think of no other role where the expectations are so varied. Bishop Nick Holtam tells a story of a ”typical day” in his old parish - sitting down with a tramp, a school assembly, giving grace at a lunch with the Queen. Most of us don’t have it quite those extremes, but it is hard and there is no escaping it. I suppose that makes friendship even more important.
What I realised doing the talk after being here for 10 years is that in those early days I really didn’t have a clue about being a vicar, or what could be done, or how it was done! I think it would be safe to say that most of us have no idea what our jobs are really like until we have done them for quite a long time. Certainly the idea I had of architecture (my first profession) was nothing like I expected at University and even less when I finally got into an office.
Is it wrong to say that Herbert only had an ideal of ministry in his mind when he wrote 'The Country Parson', and that had he lived a few more years he may have radically revised his opinions? The more worrying thought is that generations of clergy have used a handbook written by someone not long after he had started the job - which may explain why his pastoral model doesn’t really work.
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