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hellAs well as writing marvellous poetry, George Herbert was the author of a book of aphorisms, one of which reminds us:

“Hell is full of good meanings and wishings.”

Herbert, like all churchmen of his time, had a keen sense of the effects of sin, as he showed in his poem on it:

Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!
Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,

Pulpits and sundayes, sorrow dogging sinne,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and strategems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,

Blessings beforehand, tyes of gratefulnesse,
The sound of glorie ringing in our eares;
Without, our shame; within, our consciences;
Angels and grace, eternall hopes and fears.

Yet all these fences and their whole array
One cunning bosome-sinne blows quite away.

How true. Indeed, now, could we honestly say that we are as well guarded against sin as the people of Herbert’s day? I cannot recall the last time I heard a sermon on the subject. Nor, I fear, are we, as Herbert was, much shored up by the daily discipline of the Church and its practice. For Herbert, doctrine and practice helped transform our experience by informing it with Christian meaning; doctrine and public practice help provide that stability we need when, as will happen, God seems remote from our experience, and it is as though we cannot access Him.

That is the real meaning for me, of the Anglican via media, or middle way. It encompasses the experience of the Evangelical and the personal encounter with God, but it does so within a Catholic setting of doctrine and an ordered church life – we have the hope of glory, but we also have the discipline of confession and shame. Yet, as Herbert sees, all of these can be overthrown by one moment of carelessness – a chance we increase if we think we can wish away hell and sin by talking much of God’s love.

God is love and that love finds its focus in the redemptive death and resurrection of the Incarnate word. Christ, the one without sin, is made sin for us and offers us forgiveness if we will repent and turn to Him. Our experience of Him takes us close to Him, but how can we, unstable and sinful as we still are, find stability and the strength to keep going when our experience fails to light the way? Our faith leads us into the sacraments and participation in the life of the Church. In that way, even when He is near, but our sin makes Him seem far away, we can dwell in Him, and He is us.