The following is based on an article written by T. M. Parker for the Church Times to mark the centenary of the House in 1984.
This is a question to which even the Pusey House clergy - a Chapter of priests known as, but not always acting as "Priest Librarians" - do not always find an answer which can be supplied in a few words.
It is probably as well known for its Sunday High Mass and Sermon as for its world-famous library. Many hundreds of visitors, tourists and pilgrims pass through its doors year by year. And yet even those well acquainted with Oxford - both the City and University, priests as well as laymen - are often doubtful as to what the place actually is!
Some imagine it is a theological college, a seminary for the formation of priests; at one time, in fact, the Pusey House authorities were so worried that bishops might imagine that residence in Pusey House constituted training for the ministry that they asked ordinands who wanted to come as lodgers to promise that they would not try to persuade a bishop to ordain them on the strength of living in the House. Many ordinands do, however, use its resources and a great number of priestly vocations have been fostered from the congregation. Some think that it is a College or Private Hall of the university. Likewise, that is not true, although St Cross College (a college for graduates) leases some of the buildings and the House has other residential accommodation nearby.
The only satisfactory way of answering the question is to look at its history.
Pusey House was designed to fulfil a double purpose. First, it was to be the permanent memorial to Dr Pusey, professor of Hebrew, canon of Christ Church and for forty years the figure head of the Oxford Movement. It was to continue his work of restoring the Church of England's Catholic life and witness. It was to house his library, expand it and be a "house of sacred learning." Hence the title "Librarians" for the staff; no other name would quite fit. Edward King, bishop of Lincoln, is supposed to have said of Charles Gore and the first librarians that he imagined that F. E. Brightman would dust the books, Gore would read them and V. S. S. Coles would talk about them!
The second purpose of the House was a pastoral one. Throughout the nineteenth century many of the traditional links binding the university and the Church of England were being gradually eroded. At the beginning of the century the University had been an Anglican "closed shop" but, by the 1880's there were many who feared the day when college chapels would be closed and the University of Oxford, like the nineteenth century University of London, would become completely secular. In fact, the worst of these fears was never realised: the chapels are still open, many of them well used, and most colleges retain a chaplain. Pusey House does invaluable work complementing their ministry rather than seeking to compete with it.
Nineteenth century science asked questions of Church and theology which seemed to many to undermine the old structures. New movements in theology (particularly those derived from German liberal Protestantism) seemed to others to be pulling academic theology away from the worshipping community of the Church and the life of prayer. Pusey House was founded to combat both trends. It motto is significant: Deus scientiarum Dominus - Our God is a God of knowledge. The Faith of the ages has nothing to fear from academic theology, and academic theology is meaningless when divorced from the life of faith.
H. P. Liddon, who was to write Pusey's Life, said that the House was to form "in the University of the future a home of sacred learning and a rallying point for Christian Faith." R. W. Church, Dean of St Paul's and historian of the Oxford Movement, hoped that it would grow to rival the library of St Ambrose in Milan, which in the same way is in the care of a college of priests who work and pray together.
When the House was opened in 1884 the first Principal was Charles Gore. He was an eminent scholar, though at the time was regarded by some as a dangerous radical. He was prominent in Christian Socialism and made a contribution to Lux Mundi - a volume of essays - which proved highly controversial. By later standards it seems tame and uninspired, but its section on the Inspiration of Scripture profoundly distressed Liddon, who looked on it as a betrayal of the orthodoxy which Pusey had represented.
In 1892, while Principal, Gore founded the Community of the Resurrection and became its first Superior. It became the largest religious order for men in the Church of England and continues to flourish at Mirfield in Yorkshire where it moved in 1898. Gore was never completely at ease with community life and went on to be, in turn, bishop of Worcester, Birmingham and Oxford. However, he never lost contact with Mirfield or the House and for a long period of his life remained President of the Governors.
He was succeeded as Principal by R. L. Ottley from Magdalen and by the curiously named and greatly loved Stuckey Coles. Coles, best remembered for his hymn writing was in turn succeeded by Darwell Stone, arguably the greatest of all Principals. Stone was a man of exceptional learning, spiritual insight and political shrewdness whose qualities are best conveyed in the biography written by his younger colleague, the patristic scholar F. L. Cross.
Cross's piety and prodigious learning were accompanied by endearing mannerisms and eccentricities which made him the hero of many treasured Oxford stories, but many who resorted to him for confession can testify to his priestly gifts. He was to become Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and the driving force behind two remarkable reference works, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and A Patristic Greek Lexicon (which Stone had overseen and which was to be finished by others.)
Frederic Hood (known universally as "Freddy") followed Stone as Principal and exercised a remarkable pastoral ministry in Oxford and far beyond for many years before becoming Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral where, characteristically, he touched the lives of many in the City. In 1955 Fr Hugh Maycock came from Little St Mary's, Cambridge, to be Principal. On his retirement he was succeeded by the liturgical scholar Cheslyn Jones, returning to Oxford after being Principal of Chichester Theological College.
There have been Librarians who have gone on to serve the Church as bishops, including Mark Carpenter-Garnier and Humphry Beevor, bishops of Colombo and Lebombo, and in more recent times Eric Kemp, bishop of Chichester. Others have been distinguished academics, such as T. M. Parker, the Reformation historian. Others, like A. M. Allchin, have written on prayer and spirituality. But most have returned to the less unusual but no less important world of parish ministry.
The influence of Pusey House has spread through those who came to worship in their undergraduate days. Among them was Glyn Simon, one of the most distinguished Archbishops of Wales: things learned at Pusey House shaped his episcopal ministry just as much as when he was Warden of Church Hostel, Bangor. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie, came to the chapel on his first Sunday as an undergraduate and continues to look upon it as one of the holy places in his life. He remembers the people whom he used to meet in the common-room, including C. S. Lewis, John Betjeman and Harold Macmillan, an altar server of an earlier generation!
During term-time the Eucharist is celebrated daily in the Chapel built by Temple Moore and furnished by Ninian Comper. Morning Prayer is said and Evening Prayer is sung. There is a termly programme of visiting speakers and seminars. The Sunday morning High Mass sees the Church's contemporary liturgy offered to God with a combination of grandeur and restraint. The Sunday sermon is an occasion when the academic and spiritual work of the House come together. In days when short homilies are common Pusey House provides substantial sermons to stimulate both the brain and the heart.
The Library and Archive are open for eleven months of the year and are used by a wide variety of people from all parts of the world. Pusey's books were moved from Christ Church to form the nucleus of the collection. There are treasures which are ancient and very rare, but the Library also buys new books every term to keep abreast of the latest scholarship. The Archive contains an unrivalled collection of theological and ecclesiastical controversial pamphlets from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in addition to many thousands of letters and documents relating to the Catholic Revival.
For a century and more it has continued. Pusey House is true to what it set out to be, a "house of sacred learning." It has given opportunities to countless scholars - both its staff and its guests. They have all been given not only time but also an atmosphere of quiet and sustained prayer within which all Christian theology and scholarship ought to be pursued. Just as important has been its contribution to the spiritual and intellectual life of the University and, indeed, the whole Church.
It would be impossible to estimate the numbers of men and women who have discovered the riches of the Christian life within its walls. For some it has been the great discovery of the Sunday liturgy, with its opportunity to hear some of the great preachers of the day. For countless others it has been the place where first confessions have been made, or where a quiet talk with one of the Priest Librarians has elucidated some obstacle to faith or other apparently intractable personal problem. Pusey House has become part of men and women who have followed many diverse paths and the Friends of Pusey House include in their number as many bankers, stockbrokers, diplomats, lawyers or teachers as parish priests: people who knelt together as undergraduates.
It is an institution which proclaims the Catholic Faith without apology at a time when so many of our theologians and bishops seem uncertain what they believe or what they should preach. Above all, it is the combination of daily Christian worship and prayer with scholarship and unremitting pastoral work which makes Pusey House unique and indispensable.