Diary: Mark Oakley

29 November 2019

ISTOCK

Winking violets

I LIKE Manchester; so was very pleased to go there to deliver the first Ken Leech Memorial Lecture. When I was a student, many of us couldn’t get enough of Ken’s books, and the times now are such that it is only right to open them again. It was obvious to Ken — and also urgent — to understand that belief in God had to recover its political dimensions, just as political action had to reclaim some visionary heart.

The vision of God and the identi­fication of oppression were insepar­able to him, but he thought that most Anglicans found compassion easier than justice, and he had little time for bishops who peddled that line. I remember, once, eating liver and onions with him and passing on the view that, although bishops put a plus in front of their names, in many cases it should be a minus. He laughed so much I ended up with gravy in my face.

His own view on the matter? “State nominees, charming and pleasant, but bearing the marks of the Beast.” Purple has never looked quite the same since.

 

Sacred numbers

I RECOUNTED this story in the lecture, only to find myself looking at the Bishop of Manchester on the front row. He is very much in tune with Ken’s “subversive orthodoxy”, but told me afterwards that, at a recent parish raffle, he had pulled out ticket number 666. A little later, at another event, his episcopal colleague also drew 666. I suspect that the number is now banned from diocesan tombolas. Flicking through the pages of the Church Times and reading about the current challenges in the Church, I did wonder whether the ticket was actually 999.

 

Turning a blind eye

ST JOHN’S is the college of Wilberforce and Clarkson; so it seems right that we continue to engage with slavery in our day.

Last week, we had some excellent speakers at a packed-out event on human trafficking and contemporary chattelage. We learned a lot about what is going on unseen, from the nappies worn by Amazon workers denied toilet-breaks to the vicious and heartless gangs control­ling hand car-washes, as well as abuses in the hospitality, construc­tion, and agricultural industries.

The Government estimates that, in this country, there are currently tens of thousands of people enslaved against their will. It was clear, during Q&As, that we need greater aware­ness of this issue, which is likely to be happening very near to your home and workplace right now. Greater reporting to the police, or use of such resources as the Modern Slavery Helpline, is essential.

As I left the lecture theatre, I thought of Wilberforce’s words: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

 

Poetry pleaser

I AM preparing for another evening on a platform with Malcolm Guite. We frequently seem to end up at the same gigs, and no one is happier than me about that.

Almost everything about him defies the tick-box template of the modern, high-rising clergyperson. Thank God for that, I think, every time we’re together. I’m not sure what George Herbert would have made of him, but Malcolm’s recent sonnets on the phrases in Herbert’s sonnet “Prayer” are very beautiful. His breathless excitement at the world, and our life in it, is very infectious.

Being with Malcolm always reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s comment that to be alive is so amazing that there’s hardly time for anything else.

 

Lord of the dance

SOMETIMES, I fantasise about taking up a totally unexpected hobby — but what? I don’t think I’m a potter or basket-weaver. Learning Albanian has limited appeal. I occasionally go to a college yoga class, but then totter around like Julie Walter’s Mrs Overall for two days afterwards.

I asked one older Fellow whether he had any hobbies. “Being difficult for no reason, and ignoring texts,” he replied. Not sure the Dean could take those up.

What I’d really like to do is learn how to dance the Charleston. I remember Rabbi Lionel Blue, whom I miss very much, saying that his mother had a limited interest in religion: as soon as the sun had set and the fast of the Day of Atonement ended, she shot like a rocket from the synagogue to go and dance
the Charleston. I like the sound of her.

My colleagues here, however, think I’m cut out to be a judge on Strictly rather than one of the dancers, since, apparently, I remind them of one of the panel. I haven’t dared ask which.

 

Vacant blonde

I WAS very pleased to see that my former colleague Tricia Hillas is to be the next Chaplain to the Speaker. I’ve never forgotten a sermon she gave in St Paul’s on Dolly Parton. “How long does it take to have your hair done in the morning?” Parton was once asked. “Darling, I have no idea,” she replied. “I’m never there.”

 

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

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