Edward Bouverie Pusey
Priest + Renewer of the Church
18 September 1882
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From the Satucket Lectionary
In the early Church, it was the normal practice for every baptised Christian to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion at least once a week. But gradually the practice changed. It was still understood that a Christian would attend a celebration of the Liturgy every Sunday, but attending the Liturgy did not necessarily mean receiving the Sacrament. By the early 1500’s, most Christians in Western Europe other than clergy or monastics received the Sacrament once a year, at Easter. The rest of the year, a typical devout Christian would attend the Liturgy every Sunday, but, not understanding Latin, would spend most of his time praying silently or in an undertone in his pew, while the priest read the Liturgy in Latin in an undertone at the altar some distance away. Partway through the service, a bell would ring and the priest would hold up the consecrated bread and wine, and the private prayers would stop for a moment as all eyes focused on what Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself had appointed as the vehicle of His abiding presence among His people. Then the private prayers would resume.
It was the hope of the sixteenth-century Reformers to restore the ancient practice of the Church by celebrating the Liturgy in the language of the people, and encouraging the people to participate, not only by listening to the readings and joining in the prayers, but also by reverently receiving the Sacrament at every Liturgy they attended. In England, at least, they only partly achieved their goals.
The English Reformers provided that, at every celebration of the Liturgy, after the prayers and Bible readings and the sermon and Creed, there would be a general confession of sins, and that those intending to receive the Sacrament would come forward and kneel at the altar rail to repeat the Prayer of Confession, while the rest of the congregation would remain in their pews, and recite the prayer along with them. The priest would turn around and see how many worshippers were at the rail. If there were at least three, he would place the bread and wine on the altar and proceed to consecrate them. Unless there were at least three, he was to close the service at that point with a Blessing and Dismissal. The theory was that when the people were thus dramatically reminded that receiving the Sacrament was the reason for having the service, they would flock to receive. Instead, they simply got used to the idea that the Liturgy would be celebrated only a few times a year. On most Sundays, the Sunday morning service in most parishes consisted of Morning Prayer (one Reading from the Psalms, one Old Testament Reading, one New Testament Reading, interspersed with Prayers and Hymns, taking about fifteen minutes), Litany (prayer with responses, taking about eight minutes), and Ante-Communion (first part of the Liturgy, with the Ten Commandments, a reading from an Epistle and another from a Gospel, the Creed, plus a few hymns and prayers, lasting about fifteen minutes). As the years passed, this was reduced in many parishes to Morning Prayer with Hymns and Sermon.
Then, in the 1830’s, several lecturers at Oxford University, reading their copies of the Book of Common Prayer, noticed that this was not the intended state of affairs. The Prayer Book provided for a sermon at the Liturgy, but not at Morning Prayer, for the taking of a collection at the Liturgy, but not at Morning Prayer. In every way it was clear that the compilers of the Prayer Book had intended the Liturgy to be the principal service on every Sunday and Feast Day. So the lecturers got busy and wrote a series of pamphlets explaining this and various related points to their readers. They called the pamphlets Tracts for the Times, by Residents in Oxford, and the public referred to them as The Oxford Tracts.
The immediate result was a total washout. The majority of their readers, both clergy and laity, responded in effect by saying: “Yes, you have shown that the universal custom of the Church from apostolic times down to the sixteenth century was for every Christian congregation to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. You have shown that it was the clear intent of the reformers here in England to continue this practice. And I suppose that in theory it would be a good thing if we did continue it. But, well, you
The problem was that Englishmen had forgotten what it was like to celebrate the Liturgy every Sunday. Because they had no experience of such a thing, they simply could not imagine its actually being done. And when an occasional priest who had been convinced by the Tracts tried to abolish ten o’clock Morning Prayer on Sundays in favor of a ten o’clock Liturgy instead, his congregation simply refused to have anything to do with it. Eventually the leaders of the Tractarian Movement (as it came to be called) saw their mistake and began advising priests as follows. “Don’t try to change the ten o’clock service. Leave it as Morning Prayer. Start another service at eight o’clock. Make it Holy Communion. Get anyone you can to come to it. But be there every Sunday at eight and celebrate the Liturgy even if there is only one person present besides yourself. And keep it up for YEARS!” And they did. Eventually the generation of Anglicans who said, “But we have never had the Liturgy except at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. That’s the way it has always been!” was replaced by a new generation who said: “Every Sunday we have Holy Communion at eight and Morning Prayer at ten, and Evening Prayer at six. That’s the way it has always been!” At first, it was understood that the Early Service was only for the exceptionally devout, perhaps ten per cent of a typical congregation. But the numbers grew, and gradually the ten o’clock service became Holy Communion on the first Sunday of each month, and the rest of the time Morning Prayer, and then the first and third Sundays of each month, and every Sunday in Lent, and then…. It is perhaps worth mentioning that, while the Tractarians were recovering for the Anglican Church the practice of celebrating the Liturgy every Sunday and every major Feast Day (and, in the larger parishes, every day), other Churches that had lost that practice in the sixteenth century were also recovering it (partly because their theologians were paying some attention to the Tractarians), and the Roman Catholic Church was gradually encouraging its people to receive the Holy Communion every Sunday, and more generally to be participants in the Liturgy and not mere spectators. Indeed, I understand that in the East Orthodox Churches, the receiving of the Holy Communion by the ordinary layperson every Sunday is far commoner now than it was a century ago.
[NOTE: A correspondent reminds me that, almost a century before the Tractarians, the Wesleys were receiving the Holy Communion daily at Oxford. He suggests that the picture of a pre-Tractarian England in which frequent celebrations of the Eucharist were unheard-of smacks of Puseyite propaganda. Point taken. It was wrong of me to state that frequent celebrations were unheard-of. On the other hand, there were many parishes in which celebrations were rare, and the Tractarian movement greatly reduced the number of such parishes.]
Back to the subject of the Oxford Tracts. There were ninety Tracts in all, written over the eight years from 1833 to 1841 — about one Tract per month. They created a school of thought and action in the Anglican Communion that came to be called the Tractarian Movement, or Puseyism, or the Oxford Movement. (Kindly note that the Oxford Group, or Moral Re-Armament, or Buchmanism, was founded in the 1920’s or 1930’s by Frank Buchman, and is not at all the same thing). The Tractarians defended what is sometimes called High Anglicanism, or High Churchmanship, which involves emphasis on the continuity of the Anglican Church from earliest times (in the third century or earlier) through the sixteenth century, and down to the present. Part of what is meant by continuity is illustrated by something I have heard from a friend who teaches English history of the Tudor and Stuart period. He has researched the history of a certain small monastery. In the early 1500’s, the monks chanted the Psalms in Latin every day from the book called the Breviary, as a part of the monastic routine. When their monastery was abolished by Henry VIII, they were not simply set adrift, but were attached to the choir of a cathedral, where they continued to chant the Psalms in Latin. When King Henry died and Edward succeeded him, they chanted the Psalms in English as part of Morning and Evening Prayer, as found in the Book of Common Prayer. When Mary came to the throne, they switched back to Latin and the Breviary. When Mary died and Elizabeth came to the throne, they returned to chanting the Psalms in English from the Book of Common Prayer. And through all these years, they never missed a day. There is no reason to suppose that they thought of themselves as having turned their backs on one Church or religion and adopted another. (The change from Latin to English was doubtless a jolt for some of them, but no more so than the same change for Roman Catholic monks in our own time.)
It must not be supposed that the Tractarians were concerned only with a renewed emphasis on the sacraments. They were instrumental in stirring up the Church’s concern for the welfare, both spiritual and material, of the working classes. The building of factories had flooded many areas with workers who were without churches to minister to them. The Tractarians built churches in these areas, and in slum areas, and staffed them with dedicated priests. The influence of their work was widespread. For example: One disciple of Pusey was R M Benson, the founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist. One of Benson’s disciples was Fr C N Field, who came to America and became deeply interested in the housing conditions of the poor in Boston. One of his disciples was Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch. She says that it was Fr Field and the other priests of the SSJE who first taught her to visit the poor. Mrs Simkhovitch is accounted one of the founders of social work. She founded Greenwich House in New York City. One of her disciples was Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the New Deal. She and Mrs Simkhovitch went to Harold Ickes and persuaded him to put public housing on the agenda of the New Deal. Thus the American public housing program of the 1930’s and after was indirectly a result of the Tractarian movement. [I owe this point to Mr. Robert Rea.]
The leaders of the Tractarian Movement were Richard Hurrell Froude, John Keble, Pusey, and John Henry Newman, all fellows of Oriel College, Oxford.
Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800–16 September 1882) was competent in Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, and was Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, from 1828 until his death. He wrote two of the Oxford Tracts (on Fasting and on Baptism), and preached a sermon on the Eucharist that got him suspended from university preaching for two years. This episode gained publicity for the Tractarian Movement, and greatly increased the sales of the Tracts. In 1845 he helped to found a convent in London, the first Anglican convent since the 1500’s. His best-known books defend the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the inerrancy of Scripture (see his Daniel the Prophet, and The Minor Prophets). In the great cholera epidemic of 1866, he did outstanding work in caring for the sick. Two years after his death, his friends and admirers established Pusey House at Oxford, a library and study center.
Although the Tractarians were Anglicans, there is perhaps no Christian group that has not been in some degree influenced, directly or indirectly, by their work.
[A number of his works, and books about him, are also online thanks to Project Canterbury.]