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So great a cloud of witnesses

21 December 2017

Approaching a landmark in his ministry, Mark Oakley remembers that in the beginning was the Word


The Word became flesh: the lower level of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth

The Word became flesh: the lower level of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth

AS ANOTHER year draws to an end, I have become very conscious that next year is the 25th anniversary of my ordin­ation. I have been remem­bering with affection many people who inspired and taught me in my earlier days, especially when I was first ordained and serving my cur­acy in London. Many of them have died, but, as with all good teachers and friends, I know that bits of them are living in me, somewhere. There are many Anglicans among them and, as I sit here now, writing this, some come straight to my mind in all their reverence and rebellion.

I’m thinking of Harry Williams CR, not always easy, and a little imperious, who taught me that, just because the Church talks a lot about truth, it doesn’t mean that it is always good at honesty, and that we can be very skilled at hiding our­selves behind our pieties and easy fluency.

I’m thinking also of Eric James, who showed me that a sermon is not a script but an event, and it can help us to reimagine the world. John Fenton helped me to understand that taking the Bible seriously means studying it properly, and being as open about your questions with it as you must be in letting it question your answers.

Michael Mayne encouraged me to see God in the world as poetry is the poem, and never to inhale the Establishment too deeply. Monica Furlong first showed me the Church from a woman’s mind and heart, and encouraged me to write, and not to hide too much behind others’ thoughts.

Ken Leech hammered home in me the fact that Christian spirit­uality is the business of learning to speak up for others, and that Christians will always find excuses to talk more about compassion than justice — and that this is scan­dal­ous. He instilled in me, too, the belief that “spirituality” is not having a massage while listening to wind-chimes. Rather, it is the dreadful, painful assault on the ego, born in the self-scrutinies of prayer and in the food of the eucharist that make us more hungry for God.

I’m thinking, too, of Jim Cotter, who bravely held an honest, hopeful light for those made to feel personal shame because of who they had dis­covered themselves to be. Bill Van­stone, with a similar spirit, pulled me back to the truth that, at the evening of life, we will be judged on our love, and, therefore, for the Christian, love must always be the final word.

Finally, John Slater, as my train­ing incumbent, showed me that all these things could be lived in a ministry among people’s lives; and that theology is what happens on the way to the pulpit, and on the way to the hospital bed. I will never forget the privilege of anointing John — the man who had shown me how to anoint the dying — as he finally made the sign of the cross for the last time at the age of 59.


THESE Anglican pastors and writers allowed me to believe that it was possible to try to think critically and live faithfully at the same time. They encouraged me — and many others — to be unafraid to reason, and unashamed to adore.

Some of them were prophets, looking into the future and re­­port­ing back. It made them uncom­fortable figures, and not the sort for ready preferment. They all wanted a Church that was less concerned about being right than with being loving. Orthodoxy, for them, was not so much the discip­line of having certain beliefs as about the com­mitment to believing in a certain, healthy way — with a love of scripture, and of the tradi­tion, and a desire to bring to the top of that tradition’s soil the wisdom that can lie forgotten. All this with an unflinching commitment to the heart’s searching questions.

These were people who had a desire to maintain integrity, even at the expense of a mind’s easy certainty, or any lurking ministerial ambitions. As I look back with a gratitude that I only wish I had better demonstrated, I see that they were full not only of longing for God, but of God’s longing for us. And, as I list their names in 2017, how long ago it all feels, and what a different, more anxious place we seem to live in.


THE former Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, said that the effectiveness of a preacher was not to be found in their wit, cleverness, or authority, but in their “nearnesse”. As people listened, did they feel that this preacher was a human being just like them?

It was another poet, R. S. Thomas, who said that a good poem made its way to the intellect by way of the heart. Both understood that “nearness” to the human is the only key to engaging in any public forum, or in any private life. It means striving for the resonant be­­fore the relevant, identifying the words from which we cannot retreat.

This “nearness” is what lies at the heart of a parochial or community ministry. The pastors who share in the lives of their people will always want to be truthful to those they know, and love, and live among. Such nearness is demanding, and can drain a great deal of energy, especially if you feel isolated, and unsupported by your peers or leaders. The pastors, though — no matter how frazzled, disillusioned, or empty they feel — are the begin­ning of courage, because the “near­ness” is where hope always begins.

This, of course, is a Christmas truth, and one that I am trying to take with me into the New Year. Only closeness to the human can first begin salvation. The parish priests and pastors of the Church are ambassadors for God’s nearness to his people, reassuring us that all our loose ends find a home in grace. This insight lay deep within those teachers of mine, and argues still for a serious and fearless theology of experience in any attempt at apolo­getics today.


THE other thing I learned from them, as I look back, is the necessary reverence for words: an acknowledgement of their sacra-mentality. They all searched, in their ministries and writings, for words that were not just learned, but felt.

This is not an easy time for words. We are living at a time when we are spending money we don’t have on things we don’t want in order to impress people we don’t like. Consumerism makes words seductive rather than truthful, as they lure us towards our wallets. Technology, for all its brilliance, now also gives us too many words; we trip over them as they come at us from every direction, and the danger is that our care for words decreases as the words themselves proliferate. We make them as disposable as anything else.

Then there are our political leaders who, in many parts of the world, now campaign in graffiti, and govern in tweets. The way that words are currently being used by some influential communicators — with continual talk of “individuals” rather than “people”; of “losers”, “swarms”, and “sad” failures — all makes a world where we see our­selves as competitors not citizens, consumers not commun­ities. It leads to a world in which, as has been observed, if you are not at the table you are probably on the menu.


IN THE end, nations are largely the stories that they feed them­selves: if fed lies, they will, in time, suffer the consequences. That is the other Christmas truth that I want to live out better in 2018: words become flesh; so use them with care. If words are not respected as carriers of truth and meaning, this quickly leads to human beings’ not being respected, either.

The same ears as listen to poli­ticians, salespeople, and news com­mentators are listening to the person who is trying to point to the rumour of God, to the transcendent sense that, ultimately, reality is trustworthy. Sadly, the language with which we do this as a Church can reflect the superficial or clinical vocabularies of the hectic newsroom or the droning boardroom, the Church at the moment occasionally sounding as if it simply offers us the choice — in Brian McLaren’s words — between “ignorance on fire or intelligence on ice”.


FOR all their acknowledged faults and limitations, I am in debt to my Anglican teachers who, like God’s spies, were explor­ing the immense intimacies of life as well as the intimate immensities. All of them were consequently drawn to the poetic: the language that helps us to distil, read between lines, distrust the first impression. They took time with poems because they knew that poems alert us to the dangers of quick clarity and the avoidance of difficulty.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has argued that one of the tests of genuine faith, as opposed to bad religion, is whether it stops you ignoring things. The test of faith is how much more it lets you see, and how much it stops you denying, resisting, or ignoring aspects of what is real.

Poetry has the same testing criteria. For many of our Anglican forebears (and not just two decades ago), poetry and faith were neces­sary disciplines of attentiveness.

Likewise, if there was to be reform in the Church — and there always needs to be — it had to be based on gospel justice, trans­parency, and humaneness. If there was to be renewal in the Church, it must be to the gospel’s insistence on the mystery of God: a God who is not the object of our knowledge, but the cause of our wonder.

There must, they argued in their different ways, be a continuous renewal of commitment to the poor and overlooked — those whom we do not want to get near to because they dislodge our world, and yet are the ones to whom God’s heart endlessly pours out like a waterfall.

The Church — humbler but braver — becomes more itself when not selfish. These pastors were clear in believing that the Church is called to deepen the mystery of God, not to resolve it; to invite everyone to have the chair pulled from be­­neath their mind, so as to fall on the grace of God in a joyful surrender.

Although we live in altered times, as I look ahead to a new year, I sense, deep within me, that I will lose much of this wisdom at my peril, and that to remember some particular people in my life at the year’s close will help to re-member me — to put me back together — for whatever 2018 might bring.


TWENTY-FIVE years ago, on my ordination card, I quoted the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “I greet Him the days I meet Him and bless when I understand.” I am deeply thankful for men and women in my life whose Christian faith, shaped in the Anglican spirit, helped me to do both of those things while not making me despair in the darker, harder times.

They believed in incarnation — the nearness of God, willing us to share that closeness in and with each other, carefully using the words that truthfully change the world. I hope that I can take them with me as 2017 winds down, and time looks at me once again, enquir­ing who I have become, and offering a little space for amendment of life.


The Revd Mark Oakley is Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and the author of The Splash of Words: Believ­ing in poetry (Canterbury Press, £12.99) (CT Bookshop £11.70).

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