Diary: Mark Oakley

13 April 2018


All shapes and sizes

WHEN I was Rector of St Paul’s, Covent Garden — “the Actors’ Church” — I had the privilege of meeting many of the greats from theatre and entertainment. They would often arrive early to test the microphones for the memorial-service eulogy that they were due to deliver, and, for a minute or two, I would be treated to my own private performance.

Hearing of the death of Ken Dodd, I recalled his experiments to see whether the microphone could keep up with his physical energy. “Ah,” he said, “a memorial service! Actually, I can speak with the dead — yes, it’s true. I’m a medium . . . at least, that’s what it says in my underwear.”

I would like to tell you what Ronnie Barker recited to test the sound system, but I don’t think I can. Suffice to say that it began: “It was the harvest festival, the marrow swelled with pride. . .”.


A time to learn

NOW I’m at another St Paul’s, I go to some other unusual services. Last month, for instance, we were joined by former inmates of Pentonville prison to give thanks for the prison’s 175th anniversary. Dame Sally Coates’s recent review on education in prison, Unlocking Potential, reminds us that 42 per cent of adult prisoners report being permanently excluded from school.

It was an inspiring testimony, therefore, that was given by the rather aptly named Dr Aresti. He served time in the prison for drug offences, but used his sentence to study on the prison’s education programme, eventually securing a doctorate. He is now Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Westminster.

During the service, Gyles Brandreth read from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. Wilde had been an inmate of Pentonville, and wrote: “While to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. And such I think I have become.”


Walking back from Church House Bookshop the next day, I saw a protest going on. It was Commonwealth Day, and the protesters were calling attention to the 37 Commonwealth nations that still criminalise homosexuality — nine of them with life imprisonment. I thought of our present-day Wildes in parts of our own world, imprisoned simply because of who they are, and realised that education outside our prisons is sometimes as necessary as it is within them.


Respite care

IT WAS good to be at the launch of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s timely new book Reimagining Britain (Books, 16 March). It challenges the current political climate, in which, if you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu. So much political failure, the book suggests, is a failure in imagination.

Professor Miroslav Volf spoke, and invited us to think about spending an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year, not in striving to get more, look better, or win another point, but in simply enjoying the gift and good of what we already have. Such sabbath times, he went on, keep us human.

I know this is true, but, like St Paul, “I do not do the good I want to do.” It has made me wonder about Easter rather than New Year resolutions: perhaps, for the Christian, they would make more sense anyway?


Advertising standards

I WAS sad to read that Peter Holgate, my French teacher at school, had recently died. His obituary revealed that, when his 17-year-old daughter was approaching her first public-speaking engagement, she asked him for his advice. He told her to ask herself: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

As someone who spouts off quite a bit, I was moved by such an important — and Christian — corrective, and I was not in the least surprised that such a good man as Peter should have offered it. I feel sure that St Peter will have met him at the gates and decided that Peter himself was true, kind, and a very necessary person in this angrily reactive world.


Feet of memory

IT WAS good to welcome Professor Helen Bond to St Paul’s for a study day on the Historical Jesus. As she took everyone through the days of Holy Week, she reminded us that donkeys such as the one that Jesus rode into Jerusalem were not thought to be signs of humility, but were rather the ordinary, day-to-day mode of transport. In fact, she said, donkeys were really the Ford Mondeo of the time. I am not planning to suggest any changes to future Palm Sunday liturgies.

Anyway, I like donkeys. Apparently, they are capable of remembering a place that they have been to, or other donkeys that they have met, as long as 25 years ago. As I get older, that fact gets more impressive.


Life classes

TALKING of 25 years ago, my anniversary of ordination falls in June. When I look back, I see how ill-prepared I was for all that would come my way in the privileged ministry entrusted to me by Bishop David Hope. I still feel pretty unprepared, if I’m honest, but, maybe, just a little less surprised when life reveals itself as not being for beginners.

I remember interviewing a woman about why she wanted to be a priest. She said that she wanted to help other people to have that relationship with God which she only wished she had herself.

I think it was something of this truth that led me to have some words of Gerard Manley Hopkins on my ordination card: “I greet Him the days I meet Him, and bless when I understand.” I can still say Amen to that as I gather up so much heartfelt gratitude for all that has been, and in the hope that — please God — I might be of some use for a little time yet.


Canon Mark Oakley is Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and the author of The Splash of Words (Canterbury Press).

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