At home I have a groaning shelf of books published since 1900 about ministry in the Church of England. Justin Lewis-Anthony’s If you meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him is the latest and, no mean feat, by far the best. The trouble with “how-to” books about ministry is that they can easily become part of an oppressive structure that keys into a significant vulnerability in sincere ministers. You woke up this morning with 25 things you hadn't done, and felt vaguely guilty about. You read the how-to book, and now you’ve got 35. Could be time to stick your head in a gas oven. Indulging in the wrong kind of how-to stuff, spiced with paperback Evangelical fisherman’s tales by the Successful, does not make you the best priest in the street (shades of the Father Ted “Golden Cleric”) but a nervous wreck. Its nursery slopes are the way to slow death — what some do call burn-out.
Justin’s excellent book does not play this how-to game, although it does end up talking Turkey, with excellent alternative strategies and tactics to help lower spiritual and personal blood pressure, and bring a Kill-George-Herbert priest back from the Church of the Planet Zog into the Church of England.
Justin’s thesis is that we in the C of E have indulged in harmful romanticism about ministry, focussed around a gentle bucolic fantasy about the ministry of George Herbert. Roman Catholic friends tell me of a similar phenomenon in their tradition about the Curé d’Ars. This ecumenical dimension, as well as a certain Cambridge historian’s reluctance to use any “-ism” except baptism, made me judder a bit over terms like “Herbertism” but the term does clarify the discussion and provides a tool to enable us to continue to enjoy Herbert’s sublime poetry without being sucked into a lot of crushing sentimentality and hype about his three year ministry as a parish priest in the seventeenth century, in a parish of under 500, with two curates to do the dirty work.
Back in the late eighties, when I was an urban vicar, I almost had a breakdown through the unsustainable and unrealistic expectations I was putting on myself. I can see it now, but it brought its own tunnel vision at the time. As well as lifebelts from spiritual advisers, teachers and friends, I read Bonhoeffer, then Vincent Donovan, then Martin Thornton, then Rowan Williams, then Sara Savage, as healing and hope gradually dawned. The analytical sections of this book reprised almost exactly the path I found towards recovery. Dame Edna would call it spooky. If I’d been able to read this book years ago it would have saved me a lot of trouble. Therefore I commend this book 110%.
The combination of high fantasy and self-expectations, an apparent duty to say yes to everybody all the time, a one-man-band mentality about ministry, historical romanticism and exhaustion almost got me. Care Bears who attenuate everything else about their lives get crocked. I don’t now mind admitting it, and the more we all admitted our need to be needed, got some boundaries in and stood up to our own fantasies and the cult of nice, the more we could all begin to be half the people God made us to be, as priests and ministers of the gospel.
This book is a vastly intelligent, compassionate, understanding and helpful resource. Some will find it a bit clever, so if you prefer your books stupid, you may be disappointed. Of course, if the cap does not fit you don’t have to wear it. It does fit many of us. The fact is that almost all of us vicars have been on this game for far too long. It has done us no favours. As crocked care bears we may even have sought a way off the not-so-merry-go-round. This book offers the most cogent escape route I know, historically and theologically, as well as practically. Take it, and get a life!