Nigel Palmer takes a look at this Oxford Movement Father

I think it’s fair to say that of the three great figures of the Oxford Movement about whom you are hearing today, Edward Bouverie Pusey, born in 1800, died in 1882, is perhaps the least known to the average church-goer in the Church of England.  His life has none of the drama and sweep of the life of Newman, immortalised in his writings, and now of course canonised by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint for our veneration.  It has none of the George Herbert like sweetness of the life of John Keble, revered for his parish ministry in Hampshire, in former times for his poetry, and still a figure whose full measure has yet to be taken for its permeating influence on so many key figures in the Oxford Movement, Newman and Pusey among them.

Pusey was born into an aristocratic family, who took their surname from the village of Pusey not far from Oxford, and attended Eton and Oxford as an undergraduate.  He was appointed the Regius Professor of Hebrew and canon of Christ Church Cathedral at the University of Oxford by the Duke of Wellington as a very young man, so great was his reputation even then for learning and scholarship. He enjoyed that position for over fifty three years, lived at Christ Church most of his life, and was buried at the last in the nave of Christ Church Cathedral. He was bereaved of his dear wife at an early age, for which he blamed his own sinfulness, and became a figure of great austerity, who would not lift his eyes from the pavement of The High for fear of vanity, even to greet a friend. Compared to glitter of Newman and the idyllic sweetness of Keble, his life seems almost dull by comparison. 

But nothing could be farther from the truth.  Born into the purple of the nineteenth century upper classes, he used his wealth and position to further and influence the cause of religion in this country in a way that few other figures of his age did, other than Gladstone, beyond the narrow frontiers of an Oxford college. It was Pusey who identified as a very young man who identified the tendencies of the new German school of Biblical studies to undermine religious truth and doctrine by appealing to a spurious historicism. But instead of merely ranting against it from the pulpit as some of his more conservative contemporaries did, he actually went to Germany to study it, AND to learn Hebrew and German fluently (as few of his contemporaries did), the better to confound them. Newman may have initiated The Tracts for The Times, the evangelical calling cards for the Tractarian Movement but it was Pusey in writing Tract XVIII (18) on Fasting (held then in deep suspicion as a popish practice) and identifying his authorship by his initials, that launched them on to the national stage and in the national debate. He relaunched the study of the Church Fathers as the foundation of Anglo-Catholic thinking and published editions of their work. He almost singlehandedly supervised the revival of religious life in the Church of England, especially the revival of religious orders for women, some of whose foundations he personally financed. Readers of Serenhedd James’s recent history of The Society of St John will remember that Fr Benson turned to Pusey to approve the detail of the rule he had devised for the Cowley Fathers before instituting it.  And he crops up over and over again in Tractarian history as a mentor for anyone who sought his help; Arthur Mackonochie in the slums of this your parish of St Alban’s, Holborn,  Charles Lowder in the slums of the East End, where Pusey supported his efforts to combat the cholera, and in the foundation of the rule of the Society of the Holy Cross, and Thomas Thellusson Carter in the founding of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. He practically reinvented the sacrament of confession and reconciliation in the Church of England, being a much loved spiritual confessor to many distinguished and not so distinguished persons in the Church.  He was no lover of ritual for its own sake, although the curious may see at Pusey House in Oxford  (founded in his memory after his death) a chasuble which he wore when celebrating in later life, and a rosary sent to him as a gesture of friendship by Cardinal Newman. He nonetheless stoutly defended and gave practical help and succour to those who engaged in and suffered for their ritualistic practices under varying eccentric decisions of the Privy Council and the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 like Mackonochie, Lowder and Arthur Tooth. After Newman’s reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, and Keble’s departure for the rural delights of Hampshire parish life, Pusey remained, a solitary figure battling the claims of both liberalism and Rome, so much so that the movement he alone was left to lead became known as “Puseyism” in the cartoons of “Punch” and the Evangelical press, and its adherents “Puseyites.” .

Above all he was the leading upholder of the validity of the Church of England’s claims to be a true and integral part of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. And in no field was he more fervent than in advocating proof of that validity than in his teaching on the sacraments, and most notable the Blessed Sacrament.  We think of Mackonochie and Tooth as martyrs for the Catholic faith, but Pusey was no less of a martyr for that faith by virtue of the condemnation by the Oxford authorities of his teaching on the Eucharist in the sermon he preached at Christ Church on May 14th 1843, entitled ‘The Holy Eucharist a Comfort to the Penitent’ This led to his suspension by the University of his licence to preach for two years. We may think that this is light punishment compared to the hardships suffered by Mackonochie and Tooth, but it was a devastating blowto Pusey’s reputation and academic career, the cornerstone of his whole life, and the Tractarian Movement generally, coming so soon, as it did, after the condemnation by the University of Newman’s Tract XC (90) which had sought to put a Catholic gloss on the interpretation of the Thirty Nine Articles. The whole sorry story, in which Pusey was judged without recourse to independent defenders or assistance by what can only be described as an academic kangaroo court, may be read by you in Chapter XXIX (29) of Volume II of Liddon’s monumental Life of Pusey but here is Pusey himself summarising what he said some sixteen years after the event:

[My sermon]  implied rather than stated even the doctrine of the Real Objective Presence, and was written chiefly in the language of the Fathers.  Its one object was to inculcate the love of our Redeemer for us sinners in the Holy Eucharist, both as a Sacrament and as a commemorative Sacrifice.  As a Sacrament, in that He, our Redeemer, God and man, vouchsafes to be “our spiritual food and sustenance in that holy Sacrament.”  As a commemorative Sacrifice, in that He enables us therein to plead to the Father that one meritorious Sacrifice on the Cross, which He, our High Priest, unceasingly pleads in His own Divine Person in Heaven.”

We today may find Pusey’s language a little dated, but the substance of the doctrine of the effect of the Eucharist is not dissimilar to the agreed statement of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission on Eucharistic doctrine in the early 1980s. And although Pusey felt constrained to keep silent to the public at large, the public at large showed their interest and support by buying copies of what became known as ‘the condemned sermon’ in huge quantities- some 180,000 copies. It is very hard for us in our secular multi media age to realise the intense interest that the debate in Oxford engendered. “But” as Liddon says, “in 1843 the whole Church of England viewed the theological decisions of the ordinary University officials as utterances of grave ecclesiastical importance.” And although there were at the time sections of the Church of England then, as now, who regarded the Holy Communion service as no more than a commemorative meal, the publicity afforded to the “higher” view of the Eucharist by Pusey’s suspension undoubtedly had the effect of more widely spreading the very Eucharistic doctrine, which the University authorities had sought to suppress.

Pusey himself rejected “transubstantiation” as a term to describe what happens to the elements of bread and wine when they are consecrated, initially reminiscent of Elizabeth I’s refusal to speculate in too much detail as to the effect of the words of consecration:

“‘Twas God the Word that spake it,

He took the Bread that brake it:

And what that Word did make it,

That I believe and take it”

But Elizabeth I’s rather cynical jingle is only that of a consummate politician.  It is clear from Pusey’s private refusal to recant parts of his sermon to the University authorities that he was not prepared to back down from his higher view of the Blessed Sacrament, which he felt justified not just by tradition or the early Church Fathers but by the consistent teachings of the Church of England itself. And it was this belief, a belief in the very heart of the Catholic tradition within its most sacred mystery, I think, that ultimately saved Pusey from imitating Newman and some of his followers and going over to Rome, 

In the long run, this elevation of the Sacrament of Holy Communion to something demonstrably within the canons of the Church of England may be said to have had one all important effect, with two important consequences. The effect was that it encouraged more general devotion to the sacred mystery which is the Real Presence of the Eucharist.  Pusey’s “Selected Letters” contain some touching notes of devotional advice to communicants, just three of which I share with you, as I find them valuable myself:

Always choose some special thing to ask for at Holy Communion, and make it your earnest aim afterwards.”

After Holy Communion, take some text or word by which to recall It often.”

Seek not at Holy Communion to feel anything; go, not as hoping or expecting to find comfort or pleasure, but pray Him only to come Himself to dwell in your heart and unite Himself with it.”

I quote these very brief extracts, if only because I think Pusey is sometimes seen as a very forbidding unapproachable figure. He refused to have his portrait painted , as a matter of humility, and the consequence is that those portraits which do exist, made up from rather muddy photographs, make him look ineffably stern and rather disagreeable, unlike the luminous portraits by George Richmond of Keble and Newman. These short extracts I have quoted show I think him in his special rôle as a valuable pastoral and spiritual adviser, a role he would have valued just as much as his battles against the liberalising tendencies of his age, and whose advice stems from the heart.

I said there were two important consequences of this increasing devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.  The first was the rise of what historians call “ritualism”, a much misunderstood and abused term within parts of the Church of England.  As you know here at St Alban’s, and as I know in my parish of Kentish Town, the worship of God in the Mass accompanied by reverence, the finest music, singing, vestments, candles, processions, banners and incense, and the adorning of churches with statues of Our Lady and the saints and tabernacles on altars is not, where its intentions are sincere, mere theatrical show and flummery. It is the evidence of a desire to surround God sacramentally present in the Blessed Sacrament with the best and most beautiful things that the Church has historically offered to God as part of Her worship. Perhaps it was coming to that understanding later in life, that made Pusey accept the gift of the red velvet chasuble from the Wantage sisters now at Pusey House, and the rosary from his old friend John Henry Newman. We cannot at either St Alban’s or St Benet’s think that increasing the beauty of worship is anything but a good and wonderful thing.

The second consequence of the higher understanding of the Eucharist which Pusey preached was not one which I think he or indeed any of the Tractarians could necessarily have predicted.  That was the rise of the service of the Mass or Eucharist or Parish Communion, whatever it may be actually called, to be the central service of the parish Sunday, to the extent that today the celebration of Mattins is now almost universally confined to some of the Chapels Royal and cathedrals.  This from the time when Pusey was first ordained that parishioners were only urged to receive the Blessed Sacrament three times a year. As an Anglo-Catholic, I rejoice at that change and increase, since the Mass is at the heart of our faith, and the basis for the  sacramental and incarnational understanding of our Christian faith and religion. I feel Edward Bouverie Pusey would have rejoiced at that as well. With his customary humility, he would have denied responsibility for these developments, or any of his achievements, seeing his rôle always as an enabler of other people’s ambitions. He nonetheless deserves our respect and our devotion, as the Tractarian who kept the faith, and stayed loyal to his Church and his people throughout long years of personal difficulty and division. I for one find no difficulty in thinking him just as much a saint of the Church as his more celebrated brother of the Birmingham Oratory or the luminous visionary of “The Christian Year.”

Fr Nigel Palmer is an Assistant Priest at St Benet’s, Kentish Town. This talk was given at St Alban’s, Holborn, Second Sunday in Lent, 8th March 2020