MANY readers of the Church Times will know that Mark Oakley is a richly compelling communicator. Fewer of us have had the privilege of hearing him preach regularly at St Paul’s Cathedral, where he was until recently a residentiary canon. Now we have the next best thing: a book of sermons that he preached there.
These days, books of sermons are not likely to be found in the airport bookstore. Those of us who are interested in Christian things want the immediacy of the preaching event, not the two-dimensional words of last year’s wisdom. It is good to make an exception, however; and this is it.
Oakley is a master of words. He understands the power of verbal precision and the value of poetry in subverting the complacent soul. He believes, he says, in “the sacramentality of words”, and that preachers should be “the Church’s poets in residence”.
The author preaches through different parts of the Church’s year and a wide variety of both ordinary and special occasions, nearly always touching the subject with new life and unexpected relevance. His cultural references are broad and enlightening, his stories sharply focused and often moving. He uses humour wisely and well.
For the rest of us, there is no point in using these sermons as templates for our own preaching. The voice is irrevocably the author’s. But those of us who believe that Thomas Carlyle was right when he asked “Who, having been called to be a preacher, would stoop to be a king?” will find ourselves encouraged to develop our own voice, taking important principles from these cameos.
Very occasionally, this reviewer found the poetic diet a little over-rich. The images heaped up and finally toppled over. And, just occasionally, the density of ideas, touched on but left hanging, might leave the reader wondering what the main point of the sermon really was.
But I would take those problems as mere scratches on the polished surface of this richly rewarding collection. Read, mark, learn, and enjoy.
The Rt Revd John Pritchard is a former Bishop of Oxford.
By Way of the Heart: Seasons of faith
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £12.99