Years ago, an Episcopal priest friend told me he had spent 30 years praying for God to speak to him, out loud and in English, and tell him ‘what to do’. We were having lunch the week he was retiring and moving to an island off of Maine and he told me his prayer had been answered.
After I picked my folk out of my salad and had a long drink of wine, I said, “what did God tell you to do?”
He shook his head and smiled. “God told me in an exasperated voice, ‘David, do whatever comes next!’”
Forty Years a Country Preacher are the sometimes humorous, sometimes somber but always insightful musing of George B. Gilbert, an Episcopal priest who spent his career in rural Connecticut parishes. Gilbert grew up in Vermont but came to New Haven to Berkeley Divinity School and stayed on in the Diocese of Connecticut.
To call Gilbert ‘a parish priest’ doesn’t do him justice. During his time in the hills of south-eastern Connecticut he was sometimes a farmer, sometimes a barber, often a cook and always a community organizer—even before that term came into vogue. For the first four decades of the 20th century, he did whatever was needed by those he served and those in the communities where he lived that had nothing to do with the Episcopal Church. He doesn’t spend a lot of time in his book ‘doing theology’ but he spent all of his ministry meeting the personal and spiritual and basic needs of those around him. His theology was just what God had told my friend David: George Gilbert ‘did whatever came next’ for his 40 years as a country preacher….
He estimated he had given 5000 haircuts to the rural poor he encountered. He rode his horse and later drove his oversized Nash over countless country miles to visit the many people he knew in his sprawling parishes. He helped cook and ate dinner (our ‘lunch’, this is in the country, remember) almost every Sunday of his long pastorate. He cut wood for the stoves to cook the dinners and keep the churches warm. He repaired whatever was broken in his church buildings and whatever was broken in the people he served. He steadfastly believed that ‘feeding the body’ of those he met needed to precede ‘feeding the soul’. And for all that he was a passionate preacher, a devout keeper of the sacraments, a man of prayerfulness, if not prayer and one who did all he did with a sense of calling and purpose.
I’ve been an Episcopal priest since 1976—forty-one years and counting—and deeply admire Gilbert’s attitude toward ministry. I think the ‘doing’ of ministry comes out of the ‘being’ of the minister, and George Gilbert fully embodied his priesthood. He was a ‘priest’ incarnate—occasionally disappointed and frustrated that he couldn’t do more for people, but thorough it all joyful and enlivened to be of service. His stories remind me of the response of Mother Teresa when asked by a cynical reported how she thought she could save India. “One person at a time,” she replied. Gilbert, in his time, lived out that commitment. His presence and energy seemed always totally focused on whoever was in front of him at the moment.
In my retirement, I have been serving, very part-time, three rural congregation in Connecticut, one of which is Emmanuel Church, Killingworth, where Gilbert became Rector in 1909 and served the rest of his ministry. So, I have some personal experience of the landscape where he rode his horse and drove his car and gave haircuts, and cut wood, and cooked and cooked and brought God to the rural folk. I also admire his attitude toward the institutional church. He was, in many ways, a rebel with a cause. He thought the church was out of touch with the needs of the people he served. And he, in many ways, set his sails against the wind of traditional Christianity.
Let me demonstrate that by quoting from Gilbert’s own words:
“It is not church form that makes good Christians. The essence of the Christian ministry lies deeper than that and is rooted in human relationships. Too often the theologian doesn’t know how to get along with people. The church cannot fail to be ineffective unless its clergy reach the poor and that can only be done by long and friendly acquaintance in their homes, ripening gradually into mutual affection—a link which brings them finally into the fold.”
Those are the words of a person who truly understands the nature of priesthood. George Gilbert is that person.
May his words fill you with wisdom and give you some chuckles along the way!
The Rev. Dr. Jim Bradley (6/16/2017)