Diary: Mark Oakley

13 September 2019

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Pitch imperfect

WHEN God came to earth as a human being, he stayed in a hotel in Bethlehem. At least, that’s my interpretation every time I’m invited to speak at Greenbelt and need an excuse not to camp in a tent — and I’m sticking to it.

Seriously, though, I am always moved to see proper Greenbelters gathering together, living for a while close up to each other, sitting and talking through the world’s needs, and the hopes and horizons that faith brings to them. I know I miss out by not being under canvas, and that my incarnational theology may be a bit off-track. St John tells us that the Word pitched his tent among us, and St Paul was a tent-maker — but presumably he didn’t have to deal with the potent smell of chemical loos. Maybe next time I’ll go for it.

 

Starred verse

I HAD a rather overwhelming surprise at this year’s Greenbelt. I was awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing (News, 30 August). I remembered again hearing Stanley Hauerwas saying that “Best” is not a theological category, and — having read the other nominated authors — I know that he is right. I was just really pleased that the judges found something of worth in a subject that feels so important to me: how the language of poetry is native to the person of faith.

Auden said that poetry was the clear expression of mixed feelings. There were certainly plenty of jumbled-up feelings inside me when I knew that the other authors hadn’t won — but also that I had the joyful prospect of phoning my grandmother (aged 97) to tell her the news.

 

Hazard warning

I AM writing this just before leaving for the Festival of Preaching in Oxford, where I’m speaking on “Danger in the Pulpit: Preaching the sermon I want to preach but never quite can”. Most preachers, I think, have one of these sermons that have never quite come out. I remember, as a curate, going to a deanery synod at which a visiting professor addressed us on the subject of being honest about the difficulties of biblical interpretation — about how a text without context can often be a pretext.

At the end, an elderly man in tears thanked the preacher for saying things that he had thought privately, but had never voiced, because he knew that his vicar would be angry with him. Suddenly, a voice from the back called the man’s name. It was his vicar, who told him — and all of us — that he had wanted to talk about this subject for more than 15 years, but had never done so because he thought John would be angry with him.

At the end of the evening, I saw them head to the pub together. They had a lot to catch up on.

 

Words of fire

IT WOULD be nice if, as Christians, we didn’t have to speak up, but could just work on what Gandhi called “the evangelism of the rose”. A rose doesn’t have to preach: it simply is, as best it can be, spreading its fragrance and allowing people to respond as they will. We, however, live in strange times: many shadows fall over the poor, the overlooked, minorities, and the vulnerable.

So the Festival was scheduled for just the right moment, because this, surely, is a preacher’s time? If we can’t think of something to say about the gospel at a time when the gospel’s priorities are being ignored or opposed, then we appear to have nodded off as a Church. John Donne described preaching as “the thunder that clears the air”. That’s an aspiration worth keeping in mind.

 

Hidden in plain sight

ONE of the reasons some refrain from saying anything too controversial from the pulpit (or anywhere else, for that matter) is clerical ambition — although caution doesn’t always pay off. As Sir Humphrey says of a priest desperately waiting for the purple in Yes, Prime Minister: “Long time, no see!”

I suspect that Jung was right: “What we ignore for the sake of ambition will one day return, knife in hand, to take its revenge.” I enjoyed repeating this to the students of Westcott House, at a late-night and very dark compline, the evening before they left to go to their parishes. I felt like Peter Cushing in a Hammer production.

Preachers often think that, if they are understated and nuanced, they can conceal their political leanings or personal views on this or that. Well, sorry, preacher, but the congregation will generally know not only how you voted, but a lot more besides; so I should just go for it, if I were you. The Bible, after all, isn’t apolitical.

It reminds me of a friend at university who, in Gay Pride Week, wore a large badge reading “Why assume I’m straight?” I took him aside and assured him that, actually, nobody had.

 

Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge. His book By Way of the Heart has just been published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.99).

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