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Diary: Mark Oakley

28 September 2018


Autumn melancholy

ALTHOUGH not impressed by recent trends in Swedish politics, I am — having just moved house — now drawn to the Swedish idea of döstädning. Literally translated as “death cleaning”, it refers to the sensible business of trying to de-clutter your life of stuff, before someone else has to do it for you after your death. Although I sent boxes of books to Oxfam, and furniture and clothes to Emmaus, I still saw years of accumulation being put on the van, and wondered what I was supposed to do with it on arrival — or, perhaps, what others were.

My rooms in my new home of St John’s College, Cambridge, are two floors up a thin, winding staircase — think “Hogwarts” — and I think it’s going to take more than a couple of Jaffa cakes to keep the removers sweet when they see that the Church of England’s answer to Severus Snape has arrived with mountains of junk and half the British Library.

I leave St Paul’s after eight years, and, being an autumnal spirit and inclined to a sort of leaf-drifting melancholy, I found myself more emotional on my last day than I had imagined. I tweet a poem every day, and many seemed appropriate: Edwin Muir’s The Way, for instance, or Cavafy’s wonderful Ithaka. An anthology spookily fell open at Langston Hughes’s short and beautiful Island. I’ll let you discover it for yourself. It helped me to turn a new page of life.

The gift of welcome

WHEN I first arrived at St Paul’s, a wonderful parish priest, Donald Barnes, told me that “it’s probably a good thing never to inhale too deeply when working in a cathedral.”

I’m sure he was right. I remember asking the Dean of Visby, on the island of Gotland, why it was always so windy outside his cathedral’s door. Apparently, a local tale relates that the wind and the devil were out walking one day when, on passing the cathedral, the devil saw that the cathedral clergy were having a meeting. He told the wind to wait for him while he went in to cause a bit of trouble. The wind is still waiting.

Fortunately, my colleagues at St Paul’s have been a real joy to work with. When the Chapter gave me a farewell dinner, I took the opportunity to go around the table and celebrate publicly what each person there had taught me during my time with them, and what each had given me. I am very conscious that the Church often behaves as if the meaning of belonging is the same thing as fitting in. But these men and women made me feel that I belonged, and I will always be grateful for them.

Plus ça change

I MENTIONED Donald Barnes: last year, I was honoured to give a lecture in his memory. Donald had been a great champion for change on many issues. His local bishop didn’t agree with him, and Donald found himself on the margins — always a good place from which to get a better view.

“Don’t you ever just think of quitting the Church and leaving?” he was once asked by a frustrated fellow campaigner.

“No,” Donald replied, “but sometimes I do threaten to stay.”

Talking of lectures, the Dean mentioned at my farewell dinner that, since 2012, I had, apparently, delivered 101 of them around the place, along with 61 visiting sermons, 21 study days, and 21 retreats, and produced four books. I can’t quite believe it — although, naturally, at the end of the day, they were all variations on a theme: God is big, we are small, and language should be used carefully to mark the contours and connections between the two.

Facing both ways

SO, NOW I arrive at my new workplace. I’m pleased to be working in a community centred on education, since nothing at the moment seems so vital. As Marilynne Robinson’s English teacher told her, “You will live with your mind for the rest of your life, so make it a good companion.”

Watching the news, however, makes me feel that too many influential people probably attended the “regular course” of learning outlined by the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland: “Reeling and Writhing . . . and then the different branches of Arithmetic — Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision”.

Founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, the college has a medieval French motto that stands over the gate as I walk in to begin a new ministry. “Souvent Me Souvient”, it says: “I often remember,” or “Think of me often.”

I have a momentary memory of those I have left behind. But then porters smile, Fellows welcome, chapel and choir colleagues go out of their way to help, students keenly chat, the staff enjoy a bit of banter, and the Master tells me that he just wants me to flourish because that way the place will, too.

Maybe, I think, although the gospel stops us from going totally native anywhere, I may come to belong here, too. I hope so. I really hope so.

The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

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