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E.B. Pusey’s Living Vision

Image of Pusey House Vault by Lawrence OP/Flickr

20 Minutes with George Westhaver

The Rev. George Westhaver has been principal of Pusey House, Oxford, since 2013. He studied at McGill University (Montreal), St. Mary’s University (Halifax), Wycliffe College (Toronto), and the University of Durham. He was ordained in the Diocese of Ely in 1997. He has served parishes near Cambridge and Huntingdon, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia; he was chaplain at Lincoln College, Oxford, and worked at St. Michael’s at the North Gate.

Tell me a bit about Pusey House.

Pusey House was founded in 1884 with the purpose of being “a home of sacred learning and a rallying point for the Christian faith.” Those are the words of H.P. Liddon, cofounder of the house, a canon of St. Paul’s, London, and Pusey’s biographer. At the time, the relationship between the Church of England and the University of Oxford was changing. You no longer needed to sign the 39 Articles to study or teach here, and many people, not just Anglo-Catholics, were concerned that Oxford would no longer be a safe nursery for their children and for the life of the church. Pusey House was founded to be an independent chaplaincy to the university, to promote theological study, and to encourage holiness of life, a combination that is very Oxford Movement. In this trajectory, Pusey House still has a vocation to encourage the life of the mind together with the life of prayer and adoration, thought about God, and the movement of the heart toward God, and to do this in the context of nurturing lives of discipleship in community.

One of the ways we can understand the contemporary significance of Pusey, Keble, and Newman is by seeing how they foreshadow the 20th-century Roman Catholic ressourcement movement. In their work there is a return to the Fathers, but also with an understanding that the sacramental life of the Church has an important message for the contemporary world. The life of prayer, the devotional and scholarly study of the Bible, social work: these are all things that are often separated in the academy and in church life. But a hopeful, sacramental vision of the Christian life that holds those things together is attractive to all kinds of people, including those who might not describe themselves as Anglo-Catholic. That’s an important part of the life of the house that we’re trying to encourage: that people would come from all kinds of backgrounds but find something of value in the Catholic vision.

Do you think the role of Pusey House vis-à-vis the University of Oxford has changed since its founding?

It has changed significantly: first of all, some of the worst predictions about the Church of England and Oxford didn’t come true. There is still a faculty of theology; many college chapels have a rich life. Pusey House works alongside or with the college chapels and the university. Most of the people involved at Pusey are also involved in their college chapels.

For the last 35 years, Pusey has shared its premises with St. Cross College, which now has 550 graduate students from all around the world. We work with St. Cross in all sorts of ways, the clergy at Pusey are members of the college, and a good number of our congregation comes from there.

As part of our vocation to promote theological study in a university context we started two lecture series last year. The Recollection lectures focus on significant theologians from Christian history, covering patristic writers in the autumn, medieval figures in the winter, and Anglican divines in the spring. We also have a series on Anglican history post-1688, which we host together with Mark Chapman, a member of the theology faculty and dean of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

What is your specific role within the house?

The principal has oversight of the life of the house: at the most basic level, oversight of worship, pastoral care, and administration. We have quite a full round of daily worship during term: Morning Prayer and Mass, followed by breakfast every morning. We have Evensong every day, and Compline and special services throughout the week. We share the leadership of these services — myself, the chaplain, Fr. Mark Stafford, and the students who take on roles conducting the Offices. Students and others come to see me and Fr. Mark over pastoral or vocational matters. Also, coordinating or encouraging community life is a big part of what I do. We have five men living in the house, all in different stages of considering or moving toward theological study and ordination. This year, that core has grown to include two houses where students are living in community. Three of this group are pastoral assistants working full time between Pusey House and a local parish, St. Barnabas, Jericho, as part of their vocational discernment.

Then, there are the administrative functions that I oversee, of course: making sure the place works in terms of its property, finance, and other matters. After focusing on building up the general life of the place over the last couple of years, we’re moving into a more significant fundraising period.

What are your plans for the house in the next few years?

We hope that the house will be a place for Christian renewal, study, and worship in service to the university and the wider Church. Pusey House emerges from the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Church of England, but offers the riches of that tradition to the whole Church.

Some of what we hope to do I’ve spoken about in terms of the connection between the house and the university. Next summer we will host what we hope to be the first of a series of conferences. The first one (June 29-July 1) is called “Transforming Vision: Knowing and Loving the Triune God.” We have some great speakers coming, including Rowan Williams, Kallistos Ware, and Alister McGrath.

We’re also trying to make the library and archive more useful and available as part of our support of theological study, and now have a professional librarian caring for the collection. The library has 80,000 volumes of theological literature, and the archive is one of the most significant for material related to the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism: sermons, tracts, 19th-century occasional literature, as well as primary documents and letters of key figures.

Your doctoral work focused on E.B. Pusey’s unpublished lectures on “Types and Prophecies of the Old Testament.” How does your vision for Pusey House fit with that earlier academic work?

That series represents the core of the first 12 years of the Oxford Movement. It was really, in many ways, about the recovery of the patristic interpretation of Scripture. What the Tractarians say about the Incarnation, sacraments, and social ministry comes out of that.

I see the ministry of Pusey House and some of my academic work as being closely interconnected. Pusey’s approach to reading the Bible allegorically is very much a way of re-reading the world, the Church, and the Bible sacramentally, coming from God, returning to God in Christ. This guides what we’re trying to do now.

Pusey’s basic point about reading the Bible allegorically is that we’re invited by the Bible to dig deeper. The treasure that is hid is Christ: in Scripture, in the sacraments, in the world. We’re inviting people to discover the face of Christ refracted, veiled, manifest in Scripture, in liturgy, in community. The Tractarian vision is important now: their theological and social vision, while in some ways dated, is in other ways very contemporary. You can’t know Christ in the sacraments if you don’t know him in the poor and the needy. A serious, transforming engagement with theology is lived out in relationship with the needs of the world. I think that’s an attractive vision.

You have an interest in the relationship between art and Christian doctrine. Do you have an aesthetic approach to spirituality?

Well, yes. If you go in the cathedral in Monreale, Sicily, there’s a vast mosaic of Christ Pantocrator over the altar. It’s quite beautiful. It’s a serious face; it’s a face of mercy. Then, the whole church is filled with images of Scripture, arranged theologically: the Creation, the patriarchs, other Old Testament and New Testament images, all leading to that central image. It’s a way of saying that the face of Christ is revealed and worked out in all of these particulars. Christians are invited to find their life and their sense of journey in relationship to these accounts.

My interest in art comes from the way some kinds of art offer an invitation to find our lives in relation to the work of Christ. In a culture saturated with images, it’s important to discover how the images of Scripture, read theologically, are so rich. They have a place for our hopes, our tragedies, our sorrows: but they all lead to that same place of mercy and divine love in Christ.

Does this have to do with some of the Tracts for the Times, such as “Tract 80: On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge” by Isaac Williams?

Absolutely. The notion of reserve is that in the divine communication we are only given what we are able to receive, though this is not a holding back of truth. The stories of Scripture have a depth to them. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us who our neighbor is and how to recognize the face of the stranger. But, as the Fathers read it, the parable is also an account of Christ coming down from heaven after we had gone away from Jerusalem on the Jericho road. Each way we read the Bible, the divine Word meets us in the way that we’re able to hear it. Part of Isaac Williams’s notion of reserve was that it keeps us from treating holy things with contempt: we come to know Christ as we are able to know him.

Pusey thought that this was the most important tract, which is very telling. There’s the question of how you lead people to the truth, with an invitation to explore. You cannot just tell people what to believe, that does not really work.

Pusey House was founded in memory of E.B. Pusey, and there are now commemorations of him in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England. Is E.B. Pusey a saint? Should we think of him in those terms?

He’s an important teacher and model of the holy life. Of course, in the Church of England, there’s no formal process for recognizing someone in that way. I certainly think of him as being a bright light in the communion of the saints, as someone who is a guide in the life of prayer, and as someone I trust is praying for us. I certainly ask for his prayers.

How can people help support the house?

When you’re in Oxford, come visit and get involved in the life of the house. Tell others about what we’re doing. Take a look at our website and see what we’re up to. Perhaps you might come to the conference if you’re inspired to think with us about what it means to know and love God the Holy Trinity.

We’re conscious that our work here is very much a work of grace and the fruit of the life of prayer, so we’re grateful for people’s prayers, for our work with vocations, and that we may be genuinely a place of renewal, hope, and hospitality.

People are always welcome to make financial donations as well. Pusey has never had a huge endowment, and part of my work over the next few years is raising funds for that endowment and for our activities.


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