Today the church commemorates Edward Bouverie Pusey, a priest of the Church of England who was instrumental in the revival of church life in the 19th century. Pusey was a leader in the so-called Oxford Movement, which began in that then sleepy university town, where he was a professor of Hebrew (of all things), but which swiftly spread to almost every corner of England, the British Empire, and beyond, even to our own Episcopal Church.
Above all, the movement was a theological one, concerned with what we believe about God. It looked back to the earliest days of the church for inspiration in mission and ministry in the challenging days of the 19th century. The doctrines of the Trinity, the three-fold nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, as a Person, both truly human and truly divine, were the foundation of the movement.
These theological truths, of course, had a practical issue: the reestablishment of the spiritual title deeds of the church as a movement inspired by the Holy Spirit, rather than just a part of national life; the rediscovery of the sacramental life, God’s mysterious use of material things to convey spiritual realities (so like the Incarnation itself); and the reaffirmation of the connection between the Christian life of prayer and the formation of Christian character, our practice of the virtues, and our engagement as disciples in the world.
Pusey was a professor, but he did not live in an ivory tower. When cholera broke out in 1866, Dr. Pusey made his way to London to help nurse the sick and minister to the suffering. The Rector of the parish of Bethnal Green wrote:
“The cholera was raging round the Parish Church and Town Hall, where the Vestry, under the Rector, assembled daily…My curates were ill, unable to do any duty… wearied and at my wits end as to how I could possibly help my Vestry through their arduous duty… when my servant announced Dr. Pusey… he offered to act as my assistant curate… to visit the sick and dying whom I could not visit in my stead, and to minister to their spiritual wants… Quietly and unobtrusively this true gentleman, this humble servant of Christ, assisted me in this most trying duty of visiting the plague-stricken homes of the poor of Bethnal Green” (Liddon’s Life of Pusey).
All this, of course, at the risk of his life. Dr. Pusey demonstrated the connection between the theology we profess, the things we believe about God, and the kind of life we lead as Christians in the world.
As a theologian, Pusey was like the scribe or teacher that Jesus talks about in our Gospel today, “who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). There is an echo here of a psalm that Jesus refers to earlier in the chapter, “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35 & Ps. 78:2). The Psalmist was referring to the ancient traditions of Israel; traditions that are in danger of being forgotten, of not being handed on. Jesus applies the verse to his own parables, which reveal ancient truths about the kingdom of God that have become obscured. So it is that the Christian teacher brings out of the treasure house what is new and old: the ancient but forgotten truth, existing from the foundation of the world, now revealed in Jesus Christ himself.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field…” (Matt. 13:44); “The kingdom of heaven is like… a pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:45-46); “The kingdom of heaven is like a net… thrown into the sea” catching fish of every kind (Matt. 13:47), as Jesus says in our Gospel. We discover the kingdom, hidden and forgotten for a time, and it discovers us; catching us up, as it caught up Dr. Pusey, when we least expect it.
Pusey and his colleagues in the Oxford Movement, teachers and pastors and faithful men and women in all walks of life, were engaged in a project of retrieval: of looking back to the earliest days of the church for principles to inspire their present-day witness. The ancient truths, instead of being irrelevant to modern times, turned out to be quite subversive and unsettling. If the Word of God became flesh in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, as Pusey believed, then those who shared his humanity were of infinite worth.
The ancient truth, in other words, took on human flesh, and was discovered once again in Bethnal Green. May God bring to mind, in our own day, as he did for Edward Pusey, the forgotten truths of the faith; and inspire us as well to witness to the presence of the kingdom that is even now being discovered among us; catching us up in the net whether we’re ready or not.