at Pusey House
Jack Nicholson looks back at the early days of Pusey House and what we might learn from them today
On Sunday 25 October 1868, the Rev’d Brooke Foss Westcott (who in 1881 founded the Cambridge Clergy Training School ‘Westcott House’) preached at Harrow School. The boys gathered in the Chapel heard these words: ‘History […] teaches us that social evils must be met by social organization. A life of absolute and calculated sacrifice is a spring of immeasurable power […] We want a rule which shall answer the complexity of our own age […] and it is to a congregation like this that the call to fulfil it comes.’
Westcott reminded the boys in the school that no lesser figures than Saint Antony the Great, the third century ‘Father of All Monks’; Saint Benedict, who in 509 composed his Rule for monastic living; and Saint Francis of Assisi, who in 1209 founded the Franciscan Order, were no older than they when they heard God’s call to order their lives and thus respond to the challenges of the day. These men had ‘worked marvels’, and in the fast-paced world of Victorian Britain, so could they.
As Chapel Intern at Pusey House in Oxford this academic year, and an historian of 19th century Britain, I have been struck by Westcott’s words on that occasion. In COVID-Britain, and as Anglicans who are ipso facto interested in weaving our past experiences into our present-day problems and concerns, it is well worth reflecting on them. We too want to respond to the complexity of our own age with hope in the Lord. And I would ask for your prayers, since it seems to me that it is to the younger generation that the call to do that comes.
Said sermon, unsurprisingly, caused controversy among parents of those boys, many of whom Protestant figures, who felt that Westcott was encouraging their loved ones to become cloistered monks. Provocatively, the preacher chose to print his words and distribute them to every boy in the school, expressing the hope that ‘God, in His great love, will even thus, by words most unworthily spoken, lead someone among us to think on one peculiar work of the English Church, and, in due time, to offer himself for the fulfilment of it as His spirit shall teach.’
That someone was Charles Gore, who was in the Chapel on that day in 1868, aged 15, and who went on to become the first Principal of Pusey House from 1883 to 1892 after a stint as Vice-Principal of Cuddesdon College. Gore would serve as the Superior (or ‘Senior’) of the Community of the Resurrection. From Pusey House he went on to be a notable Canon at Westminster Abbey; then Bishop successively of Worcester, Birmingham, and Oxford before his death in 1932.
Gore was not called upon to be a monk. His sense of the incarnational presence, as famously broadcast in his edited volume Lux Mundi in 1889, stymied a withdrawal from the world in the manner of the more traditional ‘Cowley Fathers’. This was a man who loved life in the world; he remarked in jest to one abstemious clergyman’s wife that he drank only alcohol as a point of principle. However, on all accounts he was a man who sacrificed himself for the needs of others; he was known by a colleague to ‘be consumed’ by a desire ‘to be conformed in thought and action [with Christ]’. In the words of another, at Pusey House he was also convinced that the ‘greatest need of the Church was a band of priests, pledged to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience’ in order to serve the world in mission. Crucially, he believed that those priests, if borrowing from principles of monastic living, needed to be ‘alive to the changed conditions of modern life’.
The late 19th century was a period of rapid change in our national life. If, on the one hand, this was the ‘age of progress’, characterised by advances in industry and science, it was on the other hand an unsettling time in which to be alive. Urban slums showcased the way in which that progress had caused social evils, and Gore himself wrote that ‘Christianity, and especially the Church of England, had lamentably failed [in its] social witness’. He believed that the Church’s ‘witness to the principles of divine justice and human brotherhood’ had gone amiss in the complex age in which he lived.
One way in which Gore responded to that failure was with the foundation of the Community of the Resurrection at Pusey House in 1892. Later, in a reflection on the early Christian Church, he said that he wanted to see Christians recognise ‘in the broadest and fullest way the obligation of brotherhood and sisterhood binding them together’. The early Church ‘preferred sincerity and thoughtfulness to popularity and numbers’, and so should they. For like Westcott, Gore believed that in a life of sacrifice lies the solutions to the problems of any age. Social organisation would help more to achieve that life. However, rules were not enough, and Gore stressed that the Community of the Resurrection was first and foremost a group of friends who had signed up to a ‘few wise rules’ to help their common endeavour. They had initially called themselves ‘The Brothers of the Common Wheel’, after a visiting Bishop asked what they were doing in number 61 St Giles, which was part of the original Pusey House. ‘We are learning to ride bicycles’ was Gore’s response.
On Sunday 6 December 2020, the Rev’d Mark Stafford, the chaplain (whose Clergy Training School we eagerly await) preached in Pusey House Chapel. Those gathered in the Chapel heard these words: ‘[T]he left (or right) pedal really matters […] and it really matters what comes next, left or right [… So, r]esolutely, and continually […] press down on which ever pedal comes up next […] to move further and further forward, into the fulness that knows no limit, into Christ.’
Father Mark reminded us that in our Christian discipleship it is unhelpful to defend fixed positions on continua to the exclusion of the other. Be it in terms of the distinction between faith and works, the active and the contemplative, or the incarnation and ascension, we should never allow one side to prevail in the process of being taken into and fully comprehending the life of God. Instead, we should recognise that each side is a pedal on which we must push in the process of learning to ride our bicycles or being remade into the likeness of Christ.
We were asked to consider what the living God might be asking of us today. Our world is quite different to the one inhabited by our first Principal in the late 19th century, and yet this is also an unsettling time in which to be alive. The coronavirus and the restrictions placed on our lives have showcased the social evils of the present day. Like the urban slum dwellers of the late 19th century, we too feel the pain of having been cut off from our roots – the in-person communities which have historically been our life-blood – and atomised to compete in the fast-paced world of 21st century Britain. So, we should now consider that the Church of England has failed in its social witness and, especially, in its witness to the principle of human brotherhood in which we are lost and come alive in the company of one another and the divine love. God is surely asking us, through this pandemic, to lead lives of absolute and calculated sacrifice in order to respond to the complex age in which we live.
Evidently, we are still learning to ride bicycles. During periods of national lockdown over the course of the past year, we have been asked to push pedals on one side of those bicycles by spending time in private prayer before the Lord. Our current Principal the Rev’d Dr George Westhaver has framed this past year as an opportunity to repent of situations in which we have left our Lord behind to walk in our own paths. As he puts it, ‘The Church is being asked to examine whether it shows the world, as it should, both the love and wisdom of the Triune God.’ It will not be wasted time. We are being asked to push on the pedal which God gives us in the present moment as we resolutely and continually seek our own sanctification. Moreover, we will soon be asked corporately to push on other pedals to re-engage with our communities as lockdown measures lift. The point is, however, that that will only be successful in so far as we have re-kindled a desire to be conformed to Christ in everything we think, say, and do.
Charles Gore knew the difference between and value of the left and right pedals of the bicycle: of life in the world on the one hand, and out of it on the other. Yet Gore also knew that his generation were not being asked by God to reinvent the common wheel, and nor are we. For between those pedals is Christ, who subsists in both the quietness of our hearts and in one another. The wheel keeps on turning, and when we turn with it, we discover a true brotherhood and sisterhood binding us together.
I remember vividly the first time I successfully rode a bicycle. My father had been pushing the bicycle from behind, willing me to succeed, and I got some distance along a track before I realised that he was no longer holding on and promptly fell off. Our Heavenly Father will not always be holding on to our bicycles, but he wants us to keep pushing down on those pedals and thus journey toward that celestial city at the end of life’s road, trusting that others will be moved to join us as we go.
One thing I have learned as Chapel Intern to Pusey House is the importance of social organisation or, specifically, of a core Christian community as providing the environment in which we can learn to ride bicycles together. Its members need not be called upon to be monks to show what it means to be alive in the company of one another and the divine love. It seems to me that God is asking us to witness to that fact, as we emerge from restrictions placed on our lives, in order to show to the world unrestricted lives rooted in the love of the Triune God.
Moreover, history teaches me one more thing. God will always raise up faithful servants to lead His Church and to be pastors to His flock. Charles Gore stands out as an example in the history of the English Church. Others are coming, and I know this because I am glad to count some of those people being raised up at Pusey House as my friends.
We need your prayers. Now is the time to consider the peculiar work of the English Church. All of us will fall down, but let us pray that when we do, we will get up, push whichever pedal comes up next, and thus learn to ride our bicycles in the knowledge that this continual process will give rise to lives of sacrificial love: well-springs of power to meet the complexity of our own age. I would venture to say that to pray that we would learn to ride our bicycles is what the living God is asking us to do today.
Jack Nicholson is the Chapel Intern at Pusey House, Oxford.