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22 June 2018


The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral

The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral

Noblesse oblige

IF ANY readers are old enough to remember the TV programme Call My Bluff, they may recall that the delightful Frank Muir once defined the word “saint” as “dead sinner, dug up and edited”. This came to mind as I was preparing for the installation, in the crypt of St Paul’s, of a new painting of St Martin of Tours, by Hughie O’Donoghue.

The usual image of Martin is of a rather gallant, well-off soldier on a horse, cutting off a bit of his imperial cloak and handing it down to a rough-sleeper. The story told by his friend Sulpitius, however, is rather different. Apparently, Martin had been giving out his clothes all day to the homeless, in midwinter. He then met a man in a very bad way, and cut in half the only piece of clothing he had left: his cloak. The men now resembled each other. When Martin got back, his soldier friends laughed at him because he was naked.

The story is perhaps a little too challenging for us, and editing soon began. St Ambrose said of Martin that he “raised the banners of pity in a harsh time”. He sounds like a saint we need to learn from rather quickly.

Numbering the hairs

IN THE Middle Ages, the cloak of St Martin, cappa Sancti Martini, was revered, and those who guarded it in its reliquary were called cappellanu, from which we get our word “chaplain”. I spent four years as a chaplain — to a bishop — and I think I ended up more like Obadiah Slope than St Martin. Like most ministries, it is full of privileges and pressures, and it was always at about this time of year that I became stressed, trying to organise the retreat for those to be ordained deacon.

I remember, one year, walking along the corridors of the retreat house, just hours before escorting the candidates to the cathedral. Was some last-minute solace needed? A prayer? A word of encouragement? All I was asked was whether I could supply any hair gel. Those who know me now will see how long ago this was.

Future calling

THE ordinations still continue, of course, and, as I prepare to leave St Paul’s, this year’s will be the last that I attend as a member of Chapter. After nearly eight years here, and remembering the advice of a wise pastor when I began, that those who work in cathedrals should “never inhale too deeply”, I’m starting another chapter in the hope that it will make up for some of the mistakes I’ve made in this one.

Attending ordinations is always a good way to recall one’s own vocation. I’ve noticed, however, that the whole theology of ordination can change in the stress of a single word. When an ordinand reads Isaiah 6, which ends with “Here am I. Send me,” they often put the emphasis on the final word. It seems to me that the emphasis should be on the word “send”, and it always irritates me when it isn’t — which is maybe why it’s time to move on.

Home truths

I HAD a great visit this week to the Emmaus community in Lambeth. Offering 27 formerly homeless people (known as “companions”) a home and the opportunity to work in their various social enterprises, its aim is to give its residents “a bed, and a reason to get out of it”. St Martin would be pleased.

Over the past eight years, however, there has been a 169-per-cent increase in the number of home­less living on the streets. In some parts of the country — such as the north-west — the increase has been as high as 39 per cent over the past 12 months alone. As a society, we can often be in danger of believing that homelessness is a problem that cannot be solved, and has to be lived with. When I see the energy, ima­gination, and resources being poured into other issues, though, I’m left wondering why this conclusion sounds too much like indifference or convenience to be true.

Lively oracles

I AM getting nervous at the prospect of leading an afternoon on preaching with the College of Canons. I’m taking some comfort, though, in remembering last year, when I was at the R. S. Thomas Festival in Aberdaron, where Thomas had served as vicar. It was a weekend of Thomas tribute — an R. S.-fest — where every aspect of the great priest-poet was explored.

I was delighted to be asked to give a talk — until I was told that I was following Rowan Williams. “That’s quite a warm-up act you’ve got there,” one wag observed. And, of course, the former Archbishop of Canterbury stood up and gave a talk that said everything that needed to be said, and without one note in front of him.

By the time the Q & A arrived, I was busily trying to work out how to get out of my gig to save face: a migraine perhaps? A stomach bug of projectile proportions?

Then I was distracted by a question. A woman asked Rowan what R. S. had been like as a preacher. Rowan said that he had never had the good fortune to hear him preach; so he could not really comment. A man at the back suddenly said: “Elsie here was in his congregation. She’ll know!”

All eyes turned in silent expectation to the elderly Elsie, as though wisdom from Delphi was about to be received. “You heard R. S. preach?” Rowan asked.

“Yes, I did,” she confirmed.


“Oh, yes: every Sunday for 12 years.”

“And”, Rowan enquired on behalf of us all, now on the edge of our seats, “what was he like?”

“Oh!” she said, in a glorious Welsh accent that gave her last word two striking syllables. “Dire!”

The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, and Dean-designate of St John’s College, Cambridge.

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18 March 2021
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