To Be a Window Through Thy Grace: A Reading of George Herbert’s “The Windows”

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During my time in seminary, I decided to take a class in preaching to practice the craft in preparation for my future ministry. While the course taught me a suitable method for preparing my sermons, I never received a theological explanation regarding the how, why, or what of preaching, especially as it pertained to Anglican theology. Do Anglicans have a distinct theology of preaching? What does it even mean to have a theology of preaching in the first place?

As I thought about what an Anglican theology of preaching would look like, I was struck by a poem titled The Windows written by Anglican priest and poet George Herbert. While the poem did not answer all my questions regarding an Anglican theology of preaching, it reinvigorated my theological imagination. It also helped me contextualize a fundamental theology of preaching within the Anglican tradition.

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(While this article will analyze this poem by stanzas, reading the whole poem first would be best.)

The Paradox of Preaching

Herbert begins his poem by wrestling with a theological paradox: how can sinful people unqualified for spiritual work accomplish the spiritual act of preaching?

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle, crazy glass
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

Herbert clearly desires to serve the Lord through preaching. He views the pulpit as a “glorious and transcendent place” where the “eternal word” is proclaimed. But Herbert also sees humanity, and by extension himself, as a “brittle crazy glass” and thus “unfit to deal in holy writ.” A truly “glorious and transcendent” place is not composed of so frail and faulty a material as “brittle crazy glass.”

And yet, by the grace of the Triune God who dwells within His holy “temple,” humanity is invited to the spiritual act of preaching the Gospel. This invitation is expressed in a way that befits humanity’s frail nature. “Brittle crazy glass” becomes a “window” within the holy temple of the Lord.

From Brittle and Crazy to Light and Glory

As the poem continues, Herbert expands upon his metaphor of “brittle glass” by describing how God’s grace works within the preacher’s life.

But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
    Making thy life to shine within
The holy Preacher’s, then the light and glory
    More rev’rend grows, and more doth win;
    Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

The “brittle” material of glass becomes valuable insofar that it enables “light” to shine through it. Likewise, the material of the preacher’s life becomes valuable insofar that it reflects the “story” and “life” of the Triune God. The preacher’s life, gifts, and talents are powerless by themselves. When the gospel light fails to shine through the preacher, the message is “waterish, bleak, and thin.” Preaching becomes most powerful when the “life” of God “shine(s) within/The holy Preacher’s.”

The Mingling of Doctrine and Life

Herbert ends his brief poem by continuing his reflection on this cooperation between divinity and humanity.

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

Hebert’s metaphor of the preacher being a “brittle crazy glass” is now transformed into the preacher being a stained glass window in which “colours and light … combine and mingle.” For Herbert, the effectiveness of a sermon is rather dependent upon this mingling of divine and human activity. When this combination functions at its best, it “bring(s) … A strong regard and awe.” Divine action cooperates with human agency, and the Word manifests within the preacher’s sermon. But when this combination is absent, the preacher’s “speech,” which stands “alone,” then “vanish(es) like a flaring thing” that “rings” only within the congregation’s “ear” and not their “conscience.”

The Sacramental Preaching of Anglicans

In his gospel account, Luke records the story of two disciples encountering Jesus while walking to the town of Emmaus. They ultimately recognize Jesus when he “breaks the bread” to eat with them. This occurred after he had explained how his resurrection fulfills the promises within scripture. The exposition of holy scripture and the breaking of bread reveal the fullness of Jesus’ identity.

It’s no accident that Anglican worship is framed in the same way. Just like the disciples walking to Emmaus, Anglicans encounter Jesus by hearing the exposition of scripture and partaking of the bread. Anglicans place preaching adjacent to receiving the eucharist because both scripture and the eucharist are divinely sanctioned ways people encounter the crucified and risen Messiah. An Anglican theology of preaching recognizes that the preacher’s physical proclamation makes the spiritual reality of the gospel known. Thus, Anglicans believe that sacramental preaching is gospel preaching.

But as Herbert notes, preaching is at its most potent when the preacher’s life is comingled with the life of the Triune God. While rhetorical methods play a role in effective sermons, the spiritual power that changes hearts does not come from well-written outlines or manuscripts.

Instead, it is the fruit of a life that postures itself to be in communion with the Triune God who graciously reveals Himself through His creation.

Cover image: “Stained Glass Window” by Vintage Medical, courtesy of Canva.

Published on

June 12, 2023

Author

Russell Vick

Russell Vick is currently the curate at Incarnation Anglican Church in South Arlington, VA, where he is undergoing the discernment process for holy orders.

View more from Russell Vick

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