Two Pulpits

The Prayers of George Herbert

Taylor’s maternal great-grandfather was baptized as a boy at St. Mary the Virgin, Leighton Bromswold Church; as a young man he was sent off to war from there. While tracing her family’s roots in the town of Huntingdon, England, we visited the church, which has parts dating back to 1250. Over time, the church fell into disrepair, our guide told us. But the great metaphysical poet and priest George Herbert (1593–1633) oversaw the building’s reconstruction and expansion. At Herbert’s insistence, the church was to have not one, but two pulpits. Why? While Puritans elevated the preaching of God’s Word (as those in the Reformed tradition often do), Herbert believed that prayers should have the same importance. So in 1626, the two pulpits were constructed according to Herbert’s instruction: “They should neither have a precedency or priority of the other; but that prayer and preaching, being equally useful, might agree like brethren, and have an equal honour and estimation” (Izaak Walton, Life of Mr. George Herbert, ebook reprint, London: Tho. Newcomb, 1675, p. 353).

Those in the Reformed tradition might refer to The Reformed Pastor, the autobiography of 17th-century pastor Richard Baxter. Herbert wrote an earlier, comparable work: The Country Parson: His Character, and Rule of Holy Life. In it, he talks about the importance of publicly leading prayer and the necessity of the pray-er having a profound respect for the God to whom one is speaking: “The Country Parson . . . being affected himself, he may affect also 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 behavior in the very act of praying” (Ch. VI).

Ironically, Herbert’s poems are often set to music and sung in the church, but they’re less often used as prayers. Below are some possible prayers to use in worship, drawn from George Herbert: The Complete English Works (London: Everyman’s Library, 1995). (Editors’ note: While the language of the prayers is updated for contemporary usage, certain archaic words are retained to preserve the style and form of the prayers.)

Prayers of Adoration

Antiphon (2)

To capture Herbert’s antiphonal intent, the leader could read the part marked Chor., with one side of the church reading as Men and the other side as Angels.

Chor. Praise be the God of love,
          Men. Here below,
         Angels. And here above:
Chor. Who has dealt his mercies so,
         Angels. To his friend,
         Men. And to his foe,
Chor. That both grace and glory tend
         Angels. Us of old,
         Men. And us in the end.
Chor. The great shepherd of the fold
         Angels. Us did make,
         Men. and for us was sold. . . .
Chor. . . . Lord, thy praises should be more.
         Men. We have none,
         Angels. And we no store.
Chor. Praise be to God alone,
          Who has made of two folds one.
—adapted from “Antiphon (II)” (p. 90)

Providence

The ABAB rhyme scheme lends itself well to being read by a younger member of the congregation.

. . . You are in small things great, not small in any:
Thy even praise can neither rise, nor fall.
You are in all things one, in each thing many:
For you are infinite in one and all. . . .
—adapted excerpt from “Providence” (p. 114)

Paradise

Print this poem in the bulletin or project it to allow people to see the visual wordplay.

I bless you, Lord, because I GROW
Among your trees, which in a ROW
To you both fruit and order OW.

What open force, or hidden CHARM
Can bruise my fruit, or bring me HARM,
While the enclosure is your ARM?

Enclose me full for fear I START.
But to me rather sharp and TART,
Then let me want your hand and ART.

When you do greater judgements SPARE,
And with your knife but prune and PARE,
Ev’n fruitful trees more fruitful ARE.

Such sharpness shows the sweetest FREND:
Such cuttings rather heal than REND:
And such beginnings touch their END.
—adapted from “Paradise” (p. 129)

Prayers of Confession

Sin

Lord, with what care have you girded us round!
      Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
     Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and Sundays, sorrow dogging sin,
     Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
     Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, ties of gratefulness,
     The sound of glory ringing in our ears.
     Without, our shame; within, our consciences;
Angels and grace, eternal hopes and fears.
     Yet all these fences and their whole array
     One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away.
—adapted from “Sin (I)” (pp. 43–44)

Herbert Poems Set to Music

Sources

Repentance

Lord, I confess my sin is great;
Great is my sin. Oh! gently treat
With your quick flower, your momentary bloom;
                 Whose life still pressing
                 Is one undressing,
A steady aiming at a tomb. . . .
—adapted excerpt from “Repentance” (p. 46)

Sin’s Round

Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am,
That my offenses repeat in a ring.
My thoughts are working like a busy flame,
Until their dragon they hatch and bring:
And when they once have perfected their drafts,
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts. . . .
—adapted from “Sin’s Round” (p. 118)

Prayer Before the Sermon

O Almighty and ever-living Lord God!

Majesty, and Power, and Brightness, and Glory! . . .

Awake all my powers to glorify thee!

And now, O Lord! . . . bless thy word wherever spoken this day throughout the universal Church. O make it a word of power and peace, to convert those who are not yet thine, and to confirm those that are; particularly, bless it in this thy own kingdom. . . .

Bless this portion here assembled together, with thy unworthy servant speaking unto them: Lord Jesu! Teach me that I may teach them. Sanctify and enable all my powers, that in their full strength they may deliver thy message reverently, readily, faithfully, and fruitfully.

O make thy word a swift word, passing from the ear to the heart, from the heart to the life and conversation: that as the rain returns not empty, so neither may thy word, but accomplish that for which it is given.

. . . O Lord forgive! O Lord, hearken, and do so for thy blessed Son’s sake, in whose sweet and pleasing words we say, Our Father . . .
—adapted selections from “The Author’s Prayer Before Sermon” (pp. 255–256)

Prayer After the Sermon

Blessed be God, the Father of all mercy, who continues to pour his benefits upon us. You have elected us, you have called us, you have justified, sanctified, and glorified us. You were born for us, and you lived and died for us. You have given us the blessings of this life and of a better.

O Lord, your blessings hang in clusters, they come trooping upon us! They break forth like mighty waters on every side.

And now, Lord, you have fed us with the bread of life; so man did eat angels’ food. O Lord, bless it: O Lord, make it health and strength unto us, still striving and prospering so long within us until our obedience reaches the measure of your love, who has done for us as much as may be.

Grant this, dear Father, for your Son’s sake, our only Savior, to whom with you and the Holy Ghost, three Persons, but one most glorious, incomprehensible God, be ascribed all honor, and glory, and praise forever.
—adapted from “A Prayer After Sermon

Prayers of the People

Our life is hid with Christ in God

Print this poem in the bulletin or project it to allow people to see the visual wordplay.

My words and thoughts do both express this notion,
That Life has, like the sun, a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnal friend,
The other Hid, and does obliquely bend.
One life is wrapped In flesh, and tends to earth.
The other winds towards Him, whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
      Quitting which daily labor all My pleasure,
            To gain at harvest an eternal Treasure.
—adapted from “Our life is hid with Christ in God,” based on Colossians 3:3 (p. 82)

Prayer (II)

      Of what an easy quick access,
My blessed Lord, art thou! how suddenly
      May our requests thine ear invade!
To show that state dislikes not easiness.
If I but lift mine eyes, my suit is made:
Thou canst no more not hear, than thou canst die.
—“Prayer (II)” (p. 100)

Offering Prayers

The Dedication

Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee;
Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came,
And must return. Accept of them and me,
And make us strive, who shall sing best thy name.
      Turn their eyes hither, who shall make a gain:
      Theirs, who shall hurt themselves or me, refrain.
—“The Dedication” (p. 5)

An Offering

Come, bring your gift. If blessings were as slow
As our returns, what would become of fools?
What have you there? a heart? but is it pure?
Search well and see; for hearts have many holes.
Yet one pure heart is nothing to bestow:
In Christ two natures met to be your cure.
—adapted from “An Offering” (p. 143)

Benediction

Blessed be my God and dear Master, the spring and fountain of all goodness.
—“Letter to Mr. Nicholas Ferrar Regarding Support for Leighton” (p. 299)

Rev. Dr. Daniel Scott is the minister at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Bradford, West Gwillimbury, Ontario, and an associate professor at Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto, Ontario.

Taylor Scott-Reimer is the director of training at Plan to Protect, an organization that advocates abuse prevention for churches and the vulnerable sector.