12 November 2015

A reminder of the worldview of a bishop who saw
Christ as the one in whom all things find fulfilment

A quiet corner in Westcott House, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I am at meetings this week in Westcott House, one of two Anglican theological colleges in Cambridge, serving the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion by preparing men and women for public ministry.

Westcott House is on Jesus Lane, beside All Saints’ Church, a landmark church in Cambridge, and opposite Jesus College. It is also around the corner from Sidney Sussex College, where I have been staying each year since 2008 when I am taking part in the annual summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

I arrived back in Cambridge yesterday [11 November 2015], and had dinner last night in Westcott House, where the residential meetings of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency Us, previously known as USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), continue until tomorrow [13 November 2015].

Westcott House describes itself as “a diverse, inclusive and international community, sharing a vision of ministry to all society and responding to a call to share in God’s work of generosity, justice and transformation in the world.” The common life at Westcott House is enriched by the links with ecumenical and interfaith partners in the Cambridge Theological Federation and by the links maintained over the decades with the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge University.

Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott (centre) with two other Cambridge theologians, George Herbert (left) and Henry Martyn (right), in a window in All Saints’ Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Westcott House began in 1881 as the Cambridge Clergy Training School and the first president was the then Regius Professor of Divinity, Brooke Foss Westcott. He was a pioneering New Testament scholar, and he had a passionate concern to raise the standard of clergy education. Over the years that vision has evolved and changed, but the theological and ecclesiastical vision of Bishop Westcott is still alive.

Westcott House says its mission is rooted in his belief that a deep engagement with scripture and participation in the sacramental life must lead to a passionate and prophetic interaction with the world.

At a time when the Church of England was increasingly dominated by two opposing camps, the Tractarians and the Evangelicals, Westcott refused to belong to either party. He believed that both of these positions were inconsistent with the spirit of scripture, which he believed to be “opposed to all dogmatism and full of all application.”

He lamented the Church’s temptation to become over-familiar with Christian teaching and thus fail to apply it: “I only wish men would pay more attention to acting and less to dogmatising.” His theological approach is one that carries the modesty appropriate to speaking of the divine. It is sacramental in viewing truth as always greater than our perception of it. But it is also uncompromising in holding that Christians believe in a God who continues to transform the real world.

Westcott’s emphasis on the Christian life as biblically-motivated action in the world found its natural expression in a strong emphasis on the incarnation. Deeply inspired by the writings of the Church Fathers, particularly Saint Irenaeus, Westcott saw Christ himself at the heart of Christian faith and regarded the incarnation as the “central event” in the life of the world. This was the event through which God has reconciled the world to God-self and all of humanity to one another.

He combined this with the progressive worldview of his age to see Christ as the one in whom all things find their fulfilment – Christus Consummator.

This theology led to a practical outworking of the Gospel that Westcott sought to live out in his own ministry through his aspiration for a transformed world: “The Gospel of Christ the Word Incarnate, of God entering into our life, is indeed good tidings, good tidings to the poor,” he said.

It has been said: “As a scholar, educator, priest and prophet, Westcott's legacy to the Church of England challenges sectarianism, ignorance, complacency and empty faith. This is the spirit which Westcott House seeks to honour today, drawing students from all backgrounds to prepare them for ministry in this historic centre of Christian learning.”

Westcott was the president of the Christian Social Union from 1889, and this did much to draw mainstream, respectable churchgoers into calling for justice for the poor and the unemployed in the face of the predominant laissez-faire economic policies of the day.

As Bishop of Durham, he intervened in the miners’ strike of 1892. However, his prophetic stands blocked his appointment by Queen Victoria as Archbishop of York.

Westcott House is next door to All Saints’ Church on Jesus Lane. This landmark Cambridge church was designed by George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), one of the most important architects of the Tractarian Movement, and was consecrated in 1864. It is regarded as one of the most complete Victorian churches in Cambridge, with works by William Morris, Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.

All Saints’ Church was made redundant in 1973, and since the it has been in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. In 2007 The Friends of All Saints was set up to ensure that the church continues to be cared for and remains open for future generations, and Westcott House regularly holds services in All Saints’ Church.

The future plans at Westcott House include an access scheme linking All Saints and Westcott House, ensuring that students and members of the public can use the space more effectively.

Bringing All Saints’ Church back to life – addressing the anomaly of a redundant church alongside a theological college – would send out a very positive message both about Westcott House and about the Church.

The theological and ecclesiastical vision of Bishop Westcott is still alive in Westcott House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Drawing on the inspiration of Bishop Westcott, the ethos of Westcott House is expressed in a Rule of Life, adopted last year.

Westcott House provides training pathways in conjunction with Cambridge University and Durham University.

In response to the 1985 report Faith in the City, Westcott House has retained a firm commitment to develop expertise and capacity in the field of urban ministry and mission. For 30 years, through a partnership with the Diocese of Manchester, it has pioneered patterns of context-based learning and innovative approaches to contextual theology. These approaches have been widely imitated and developed by other theological education institutions.

The principal of Westcott House, Canon Chris Chivers, also chairs the Trustees of Us, and is chairing the meetings this week.