Jack Nicholson reflects on his experiences of lockdown at the House. All views expressed are his own
The contrast between High Mass on All Saints’ Day, Sunday 1 November, and on the following Remembrance Sunday at Pusey House could not have been starker. On All Saints’ Day, 57 congregants turned up, which would be exceptional at the best of times, and approached the Chapel of the Resurrection’s maximum ‘COVID-capacity’. On the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, I was in a much-reduced serving party in a chapel devoid of a congregation. This was a blow. However, I for one have reasons to be proud of the way in which Pusey House has responded to the onset of a second lockdown to manage coronavirus, and to be profoundly grateful for the way in which this is shaping me as a Chapel Intern in the Church of England, like clay in the hands of the potter. Whatever our views on the lockdown decision, I think we can all find reason to ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ (Phil. 4:4). Rejoice.
Pusey House is a chaplaincy, library, and social space in Oxford. When it was founded in 1884, H. P. Liddon hoped the House would be a place of ‘sacred learning’ and ‘a rallying point of the Christian faith’. We have always had close ties with the University of Oxford through the many students who walk through our door. Today, we are grateful that they are still able to come in by prior arrangement; the theological library is still open for business. Oxford’s Scriptorium, in which students gather to work in community, continues to function. The Chapel is, however, closed for public worship, and our social space has been off limits to the public now for many months. It has been an interesting time in which to commence a chapel internship here, because so much of what we do normally do, especially around engagement with the congregation, has not been possible this year.
Pusey’s internship programme is a first-rate one-year ministry experience scheme because of its formational pattern of spiritual disciplines and the emphasis here upon community, which provide the bedrock on which I go about my work. Interns have always been able to shape their year here, but, as in all manner of things, I have found that I am being shaped and fashioned too. The daily round of worship, which on some days amounts to five services, provides the perfect opportunity in which to hold questions about my vocation before God. My fellow residents remain a great support to me. As my capacity to gain practical ministry experience has been disrupted, I have found myself to be ever grateful for the life of prayer and the community living afforded to me in the House.
During this period of lockdown, I have taken comfort in the fact that the House has been stripped down and made bare, because it is through this that we renew our foundational mission to be a ‘rallying point of the Christian faith’. Our Lord ‘emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ (Phil. 2:7). The House feels empty, but in that emptiness, we have found greater opportunity to come before God in prayer and to cry out. Lockdown hurts. Nonetheless, we do have cause to rejoice because like our Lord we too are emptied, and in that process, we are being tested and reminded that above all things we must place our trust in Him.
I have also taken comfort at this time in a sermon preached by Dr E. B. Pusey, to whom this House stands as a memorial, at the University Church, in 1864. ‘Suffering,’ Pusey said, ‘is in the order of salvation’. ‘[T]ender’ and ‘blessed’, ‘[it] is our Redeemer’s own medicinal hand’. This is not often said! Our trials are an opportunity for repentance, that we would be granted newness of life. ‘He gives to each of us just our own trial, what, by His grace, will most amend us, what will bring us most to Himself, what will most draw out the good which he has implanted in us, or turn out the evil which would most estrange or ruin us.’ Pusey lost his wife and two daughters before the age of 45. If we are uncomfortable with the emphasis he placed on God as the author of our suffering, I agree with our Principal Father George Westhaver that Pusey’s language here is one way of drawing near the love and wisdom of God, and of apprehending the face of Christ.
What makes the ongoing trial of coronavirus so difficult, however, is the fact that we are physically apart from our brothers and sisters in Christ. As an intern here at Pusey House, I can rejoice in the fact that I live with a small number of brethren, with whom I continue to come before God in the Chapel; it is an untold privilege to be allowed to continue to worship in this way. This is also difficult for me, especially after my experience at All Saints’ of sub-deaconing for the very first time, when it was equally a privilege to intercede on behalf of the congregation who were bodily present. When I began my internship, I said that my hope would be ‘treasure the company of everyone who walks through our door’. However, it breaks my heart to say that unless one enters for private prayer or for study, our door today is closed.
Still, I have reason to rejoice and be proud of how the team at Pusey House has chosen to respond to lockdown. For one thing, we have adopted a maximal approach of identifying things that we can do as a private chapel and quasi-religious community which is affiliated with the University. To be a member of that community, which now meets to pray for our brothers and sisters who are unable to be present in the flesh, and to carry them up to the throne of grace, is a formative experience for which I shall always be grateful. Our Chaplain Father Mark Stafford has articulated why this should be so. In a statement on the eve of lockdown, he reminded us all that we have faith that ‘We will be bodily resurrected, and bodily united in the Spirt, as the very Body of Christ, and our meeting together is a sacrament of that reality’. I pray that our actions would serve as a rallying point of the Christian faith and as a reminder that we all have reason to rejoice.
From its early days, Pusey House has emphasised community as an important part of its witness. It was here that the Community of the Resurrection was founded on St James’ Day in 1892, of which Charles Gore was the first elected superior. Gore was also the first principal of Pusey House, and, in forming the initial Society of the Resurrection in 1887, he articulated his view of how the Church ought to respond to dislocating tendencies of late nineteenth-century Britain. He wrote, ‘The necessities of our time seem […] to demand of the English Church […] a new development of the disciplined Christian life’ and, specifically, ‘of association in community for purposes of worship, study, and work’. His prayer was that the Society, which involved the clergy of the House who wanted to be linked by a common rule and a life of prayer, would ‘afford help and encouragement’ to the Church in adapting to an uncertain period in our national life. If he saw us today, I think Gore would have good cause to rejoice.
Today, the brethren at the Community of the Resurrection have clearly articulated for us why the life of prayer in community matters to us all. Father George Guiver C. R. has described intentional religious communities as ‘like pools of water in a dried-up river bed’. By this, he means that they stand out in a world in which the horizontal, civic, or associational bonds holding our society together have fractured; the vertical bond of our relationship with the State has tended to increase. I have been reminded of this today, following the State’s decision to plunge us into a second national lockdown, and when one response has been to go online which risks atomising us further if our present practices are sustained. If you are moved to watch our live-stream on Facebook, however, I pray that even as you feel apart, you would find a reminder of what genuine community is and prepare to be re-enveloped in it with joy when the time comes. For it is in so doing that we might find in this period of suffering the medicinal hand of God.
In the foreword to the edited collection Oneness: The dynamics of monasticism (Norwich: SCM, 2017), Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby writes of his gratitude to religious communities, the likes of which Dr Pusey and Pusey House helped to spearhead in the nineteenth-century. Coming from a different theological upbringing to my own, he is nonetheless passionate like me that ‘prayer is the source and prayer changes everything’, and that religious communities are a profound witness to the fact; they energise the whole Church. This is not least because they remind us that true community is rooted in God and that no prayer is ever just a private affair. It is, therefore, an exciting time to be a chapel intern at Pusey House, which has revivified its role as a quasi-religious community in adapting to the current lockdown. For I too am reminded that in ministry, as in all things, God is our bedrock, castle, and our rescuing knight.
Our Principal Father George is not the only one to have cast this second lockdown as an opportunity for repentance. However, I was struck by his words on Remembrance Sunday at Pusey House, when he suggested that if there is a lack of understanding of the positive contribution of the Church to our society, this is all the more reason for repentance. To those who tuned in to our service on YouTube, he posed this question: ‘Do we show the world, as we should, both the love and the wisdom of God?’ If we did, perhaps our response to the Coronavirus pandemic would have been different. It is incumbent on us to ask could it be that the Church has failed, and why.
If the Church has failed during the Coronavirus pandemic, this Chapel Intern is nonetheless immensely proud that he is being shaped and formed by the liturgy of the Church of England and by the community here at Pusey House. Together with the whole House, I feel stripped down and made bare, but I have faith that through this process I am being renewed in the spirit of my mind and prepared for ministry through the simple task of putting my trust in Him. Aptly, my fellow intern reminds me of the collect for the Public Baptism of Infants in the Book of Common Prayer, when we pray that all who have been received into ‘the ark of Christ’s Church’ would be ‘joyful in hope’, that they would thus ‘pass the waves’ of this troublesome world. I hope that the House, through testifying to the power of community and prayer, would rally us to come back together, united in the knowledge and the love of Christ, at the close of the tempest which currently afflicts us. Together we can indeed rejoice.
Jack Nicholson is one of three Chapel Interns at Pusey House in Oxford this academic year. During lockdown, Pusey House has adopted a policy of live-streaming services via its Facebook page, attended and led by members of the Greater Chapter who are essential to the House’s functions.