Before I came to this country, I was the rector of the parish of St. Mary’s Welwyn in Hertfordshire, just north of London. It is a very ancient parish, part of the building had been paid for by King Edward the Confessor – and on one of the walls there is a panel listing all the rectors of the parish with their names and dates. They go back for a thousand years. It was always a strange feeling to read the names – Saxon names, Norman French names – and then right at the end, my name!
Many English parish churches have private patrons, who have the right to appoint the rector to particular livings. The patrons of Welwyn are All Soul’s College, Oxford – and in past centuries it was a very wealthy living. In the 18th century for example, the landed gentry would typically ensure that their eldest son inherit the title and property, the second son might become an officer in the army – and traditionally the third son would go into the church – and they would look for a wealthy and comfortable living for him.
There were no seminaries to train them to be a clergyman – it was enough that they be ‘gentlemen.’ Many of them of course preferred hunting to preaching. Many of them rarely visited the parish, preferring to live in London, and paying a curate to do all the work!
Things had changed by the time I was rector! Although, if I had been there even 50 years before, I’d still have been Lord of the Manor. I did still have the rector’s stocks in the churchyard, where my predecessors could publically punish wrongdoers. The only thing left of any substance from the past, was to do with the pub next door to the church. It was a 15th century coaching inn – the Wellington. As rector, I still had the right to the first pint drawn from every new barrel of beer! (And I did occasionally exercise my right!)
Through the 18th century and into the early decades of the 19th century, the Church of England had descended more and more into a state of spiritual torpor and inertia. The historian R. W. Church described the churches as being empty, the worship dreary and stagnant. The clergy had generally sunk into a spirit of quiet worldliness. He writes, “The supernatural was certainly forgotten, and altars, so far from being regarded as sacred, were used continually as fit resting places for hats and coats, while fonts became convenient receptacles for walking stocks and umbrellas.”
But then in the middle of the 19th century something extraordinary happened: one of the most significant movements of the Holy Spirit in the history of the church. It began in Oxford, and is often called the Oxford Movement.
In an extraordinary way, the Spirit was drawing individuals to know and love God in a new and intimate way. They were discovering that God’s Spirit could transform a person and make that person holy. That God had become truly man in the mystery of the Incarnation, so that we could be restored to that divine life which God longs to share with us.
The worship they longed to offer was no longer dreary and stagnant, but full of beauty, witnessing to the transcendent reality of God, and to man’s capacity to respond to and enter into that reality. The historian Donald Allchin, describing the early founders of the Oxford Movement writes, “They were men wounded with divine love, knowing themselves called to be saints.”
And indeed the Oxford Movement raised up men and women of great sanctity, who often lived lives of heroic self-sacrifice and service.
We think of three men in particular, as the leaders of the Oxford Movement. The most famous was John Henry Newman, who later became a Roman Catholic, and was recently beatified in England.
The second most famous one was John Keble, partly because he was also a poet, and we sing many of his poems as hymns, “New Every Morning is the Love” and “Blest are the pure in heart.” He also had a college named after him in Oxford.
The third leader of the Oxford Movement, less well known perhaps, is the man whom we commemorate today: Edward Bouverie Pusey. Pusey was a profound theologian – professor of Hebrew at Oxford from the age of 28, as well as a Patristic scholar. He provided much of the intellectual underpinning of the movement.
He was also a great preacher and a deeply spiritual man. Under his influence, and by his example, men and women, who had been touched by God in a new way, began to offer their lives in new and sacrificial ways – especially in three ways.
Firstly, men had a deep sense of vocation to be priests. They did not look for comfortable livings, but offered themselves to serve as priests in the new parishes being built in the slums of East London and other cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, which had been transformed by the Industrial Revolution. They often worked tirelessly and heroically, ministering in the most terrible conditions – but with a deep sense of vocation, and supported by a renewed and vibrant life of personal prayer.
Secondly, both men and women answered the call to become missionaries and to serve in India and Africa, as part of the newly formed missionary societies.
And then, thirdly, for the first time since the Reformation, there was the revival of the Religious Life, the monastic life, in the Church of England. And it is directly out of this movement, this outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Oxford Movement, that we, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, was founded. Edward Pusey was deeply committed to reviving the religious life. After his wife died, he gave most of his money away to build churches for the poor, and to establishing the religious life. It was Pusey who established the first order of women religious in the Church of England since the Reformation in 1845 at Ascot Priory in Berkshire.
And it is Edward Pusey whom we brothers of the SSJE remember with particular thanksgiving, because he was the mentor of our founder Richard Meux Benson. Week by week, month by month, Benson would be encouraged and guided by Pusey as he planned and dreamed and prayed about the forming of our Society. And so it was that, on December 27, 1866 our Society was founded, the first religious community for men in the Church of England since the Reformation.
And when Benson wanted to set up a house of SSJE in America, he went to Pusey to get his advice. Pusey advised Boston. Part of the ministry of SSJE in Oxford had always been with students at the university. Pusey said you should go to a place in America with a great university – and so because of Harvard, in 1870 Fr. Benson set sail for Boston – and we’ve been here ever since!
I have been reflecting on the spirit of the Oxford Movement. What it must have been like to have been caught up in such a dynamic spiritual revival. What was the source of such energy and renewal.
I think a clue is to be found in the Gospel readings chosen for this day – chosen for Edward Bouverie Pusey. It is from St. Matthew chapter 13: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
The Oxford Movement was about rediscovering a treasure, which in the Church of England had remained hidden for far too long. The discovery of this treasure was experienced as being wounded with divine love. Once those men and women of the Oxford Movement had glimpsed that treasure, their thirst for God was so intense, that nothing else mattered. Power, celebrity, comfortable parish livings, were nothing compared to the treasure that had wounded their hearts. They longed for God, the living God – and in pursuit of that treasure, they gave themselves away – in slum parishes, on the mission field in distant lands, and in the vowed religious life.
So today, we give thanks to God for the life of Edward Bouverie Pusey and for his vision – the vision glorious.
We might ask ourselves, we who worship here in this place which owes so much to that vision – Have I glimpsed that treasure in my own life? What would I sell, what would I be prepared to give up – what lesser treasures would I release from my anxious grasp – for the sake of that treasure?
May God bless each one of us.
May God wound us with divine love.
May we know ourselves to be called to be saints.
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