Michael Brown on Edward Bouverie Pusey and the late John Webster
In heaven we shall rest because in that city we shall be kept by him. But we have an anticipation of that rest now, as we trust ourselves to his care. ―John Webster
In last October’s edition of New Directions, Fr Ian McCormack noted, in the course of his review of Brian Douglas’s The Eucharistic Theology of Edward Bouverie Pusey, that “John Webster memorably called [Pusey] a ‘crackpot’”. Readers might well regard this as a grave accusation; but is there anything to be said for the defence?
The offending word occurred in John’s inaugural lecture as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, a post he occupied from 1996 to 2003 before moving to Aberdeen and finally to St Andrews: “In Oxford, at least, the argument since the 1850 University Reform Commission has taken the form that theology’s place in the university is to be won by its conformity to an ideal of disengaged reason, an ideal which many theologians have deeply internalized (with the exception of a few crackpots like Pusey, who can safely be dismissed).” [Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II, London: T&T Clark (2005), 27.] Seen in context, it is the internalizing theologians who would have a disparaging view of Pusey, and not the lecturer. What we have is, in fact, a good example of the graceful irony that illuminated John’s writing.
After his death in May there were none of the usual notices in the religious or secular press; and that would have suited him. By contrast, there were many appreciative postings on the Internet, several of which rang variations on the theme of “the greatest living British theologian”; and that would have embarrassed him. Lord Williams led a memorial service for John at Holy Trinity Church in St Andrews on 27 August. The German-language background of much of John’s early writing was well represented; and we were reminded that in recent years John had increasingly turned to a wide range of patristic, medieval and seventeenth-century writers including Augustine, Aquinas, and John Owen (another connection with Christ Church), to help him with the composition of his projected five volume Dogmatics.
John once told me that he found the Coverdale psalter “enormously helpful”. When thinking about him, some words from Psalm 1 often come to me: “his delight is in the law of the Lord”. John delighted in scripture, whether expressing it formally or informally: “This morning’s OT reading was Isa 54: breathtaking.” He delighted not just in theology itself, but also in the sharing of theology: “Christian theology is intellectual work in an order of friendship or love, established and preserved by divine goodness.” [Theology and the Order of Love, an unpublished paper.] He would happily discuss theology with anyone who had a genuine interest, at whatever level. A few sentences, often accompanied by a book suggestion, would put me back on my minor track.
John took great care in writing essays: “I am a slow composer, agonising over phrasing, and ceaselessly consulting the OED, which helps me to find the exact phrasing.” How long did it take him to pen this passage, with its striking use of the associations of meaning between cardinal and hinge? “Christian teaching about the creation of the world out of nothing is a cardinal doctrine: on this hinge turn all the elements of the second topic of Christian theology…”. [God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, London: Bloomsbury (2015), i:99.]
As Canons of Christ Church, Professors Pusey and Webster both preached regularly in the Cathedral. Is there any closer connection between them than this institutional coincidence? Two examples suggest there might be. First, John’s published sermons (Confronted by Grace and The Grace of Truth) exhibit a robust approach to human sinfulness more akin to that of Pusey than is usual in late-twentieth-century Anglican preaching. Secondly, who does this sound like? “The Christian Gospel is instruction about how, by the goodness of God, creatures may pass from deadly corruption to fullness of life.” It is John, from an essay entitled “Mortification and Vivification” [God without Measure, ii:103]. Both content and title are far from contemporary depictions of the Christian life, and again are reminiscent of Pusey. Perhaps at the deepest level of Christian discipleship, Edward Bouverie Pusey and John Webster share a common bond.
My description of a Mothering Sunday service revealed a gap in John’s liturgical experience, and elicited a typically jovial reply: “Now as for blessing daffs, that’s a new one. If it gets established, some future Gregory Dix will write a book claiming it was an essential part of the liturgical calendar from the earliest post-apostolic era.” We also used to derive mutual amusement from strange book titles, real or accidental. Recently I came across this delightful exhibit: The Genius of Django Reinhardt, by Archbishop Dimitri. My life is the poorer for not being able to read John’s gleeful comments on the saintly hierarch’s hitherto-unknown study of the famed jazz guitarist; but it has been immeasurably enriched by his presence, and his writings.
Michael Brown is a retired civil servant. The Revd Professor John Bainbridge Webster DD died on 25 May 2016, aged 60.
Jesu mercy, Mary pray.