William Davage remembers his days at Pusey House


Perhaps the saddest line in English literature is when Sir Andrew Aguecheek says, ‘I was adored once too…’ It speaks of the transient, impermanent nature of love, almost bereavement. I feel something like that when beginning a sentence, ‘I was Priest Librarian of Pusey House once…’ and slip into anecdotage. Twenty-five years ago this month I joined the Chapter of Pusey House as Priest Librarian and Custodian of the Library and remained there for 17 years.

I served under two principals, Fr Philip Ursell and Fr Jonathan Baker, and colleagues, Frs Kenneth Macnab, Lawrence Crumb, Peter Groves, and Barry Orford. Their gifts of intellect, theological, spiritual and pastoral expertise and insights were beyond anything I could offer. I learned more from them than I was able to provide. Fr Ursell once said, finding me pouring over a Boden catalogue with an undergraduate from the congregation: ‘You may not have any effect on their spiritual life, but you taught them how to dress.’ The work of the Chapter could not have been done without immense support from a series of sacristans (not least our editor), servers, singers, musicians, Friends of the House, senior members of the congregation and, by no means least, John Hanks (treasurer) and Dr Ann Chippindale, unstinting in her support and practical assistance, not least preparation of State Lunch on Sundays. Her sherry with a touch of trifle has entered into legend.

In 1994 the House was not as secure as it may have outwardly appeared. A disadvantageous agreement with the University of Oxford, entered into about a decade earlier, was unravelling and there was a sense of institutional threat having over the House. There were times when closure seemed imminent. Various storms were weathered by tenacity, political acumen and bloody-mindedness, and Fr Ursell’s great achievement was to keep the House open doing its work, albeit under constraints not experienced by his predecessors. A new principal and a new master of St Cross College (proxy for the university) were able to reach an agreement in a short time and the lawyers, necessarily, took sometime longer to implement a new accord. This freed Fr Jonathan Baker to implement a programme of refurbishment: en suite accommodation for residents, redecoration of public rooms, rewiring of chapel and library, and a new heating system. This enabled a much higher profile in the Anglo-Catholic movement spurred by his prominence in the theological and ecclesial debates of the time.

Fr Orford conceived the idea of a Festschrift for Fr Ursell to mark his retirement in 2002. We edited, and were among the contributors to, ‘Piety and Learning: The Principals of Pusey House 18842002.’ It is the only history of the House. We thought we might utilize the same format for a history of the House, but other commitments intervened and it fizzled out. Perhaps there is now scope for an historian or a group from the younger generation to consider such an enterprise.

Until then random memories crowd in. Notable sermons from Rowan Williams (as Bishop of Monmouth, Archbishop of Wales, and then Canterbury), Fr Bill Scott (St Mary’s, Graham Terrace, Savoy Chapel, St James’s Chapel), a series for the 125th anniversary of the House by former Puseyites, and the celebrations themselves; Dr Ward’s sermon for that anniversary (not least its testicular reference), and Fr Ursell’s Remembrance Day sermon which had several in tears at its peroration. There were the occasional duds: two of the worst sermons I ever heard (no names, only painful memories). Retreats to Bec, the Triduum at Ascot Priory (highly significant for many of the young) and providing the serving team at the National Pilgrimage to Walsingham. Meeting scholars using the library and archive, not least Henry Chadwick. Meeting young scholars and researchers. Using the library and archive—such a privilege to have a rich resource within a few steps of my study. Breakfasts day by day in term: humour, wit, and gales of laughter. Saturday morning, 8am Mass attended by about 17 survivors from a college ball: ladies in evening dresses, gentlemen in white tie and none communicated as they had taken drink after midnight. Informal drinks in summer in the garden after Evening Prayer sometimes followed by a spontaneous supper. Being in the company of the young kept me on my toes. Dealing with emotional crises, usually sex or religion, sometimes both at once. The Wednesday Supper Club, an initiative of the young, that became a mid-week focus of House life. The odd mistake: a term card which had three different dates for Ash Wednesday, all incorrect. The disciplined round of worship, Offices and Mass. Enough.

I decided to leave in 2011, two or three years before I originally intended, for two reasons: I was generously offered accommodation in London, and I had begun to feel that I had seen it all before and was in danger of being the one who said, ‘We did this years ago and it did not work then.’ Time to go. At luncheon after the Friends’ Festival I was moved and overwhelmed by the generosity of my colleagues, the Governors, and of the Friends. For perhaps the first time, but not (sadly, as some of my friends might hope) the last time, I was rendered speechless. When Fr Ursell offered me the post he said, ‘You do know that there will be no preferment.’ I said that I was aware of that. He was right.


William Davage was Priest Librarian of Pusey House

from 1994 until 2011. Thurifer is away