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Diary: Mark Oakley

06 November 2020


Shared bouquets

IT WAS a treat to go to St Etheldreda’s, Hatfield, to preach the annual sermon initiated by Elizabeth I’s adviser, William Cecil (an alumnus of St John’s). Wonderful hospitality was shown to me afterwards by Cecil’s descendants at the neighbouring Hatfield House. I am now able to say that I have slept in the Duke of Wellington’s bed. Come to think of it, many were able to say the same in Wellington’s lifetime.

When I worked at St Paul’s Cathedral, I used to walk past Wellington’s tomb most days and hear the guides telling visitors about all his military triumphs. I preferred to remember the anecdote that Churchill used to tell of him. When a friend asked Wellington in later life, “If you had your life over again, is there any way in which you could have done better?” the old Duke replied, “Yes, I should have given more praise.”


Love your enemies

AS REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY, approaches, I think of my grandfather. I once wrote to a newspaper to recount the story of my visit to Dresden, where, in a taxi, I discovered that the driver’s mother had died in the bombing on the same night as my grandfather had navigated a Lancaster over the city. The driver stopped the car and turned round to me with his arm outstretched. “And now we shake hands,” he said.

A few days after the paper published this story, I was contacted by an elderly man who had been on a ship struck by a German U-boat off the coast of Cornwall.

Fifty years later, having told a local newspaper about how he survived by being rescued by fishermen, he received a case of wine from the Mosel — from the U-boat’s commandant.They eventually met up, and their families even went on holiday together. Not so much spears into ploughshares as submarines into bottles. “It put both our lives in tune again before we go,” the man told me in tears.


Spoiler alert

LIKE many, I have tried to use the extended periods at home over the past months to get round to those books that I feel I ought to have read but never have. So far, I’ve managed Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

I’m now immersed in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and hope to finish it before retirement. It’s so long that I was tempted to read the last page so that — if I die before I finish it — at least I’ll know how it turned out. One particular sentence has lingered in my mind as I’ve followed the US election campaign: “There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.”


Reflected glory

IT WAS fun to be part of the Festival of Preaching again. I had been asked to speak on “How to preach when you don’t have anything to say”; I can only assume that the organisers thought that I was a particularly good example of someone to whom this applies. I said that I always take comfort from Quentin Crisp’s comment, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.”

But I was encouraged, on the same day, by the clergy of Worcester diocese. Taking part in their online diocesan conference, I found myself both moved and strengthened by the resilience, commitment, and seriousness of clergy working in difficult and demanding times. And I always feel better when that Anglican ingredient of irony helps us see ourselves a bit better — for each other’s sake.


Secrets of all hearts

MAYA ANGELOU always used to say that there was no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you. This came to mind as I read Adi Cooper’s safeguarding report after the abuse and murder of Peter Farquhar (News, 25 October), a gay man frightened to be honest about himself in his church, and consequently open to manipulation and blackmail.

The report concludes that the Church’s culture and policies put people at risk and vulnerable to exploitation. I hear this time and time again in my study, as ordinands, clergy, and lay leaders tell their stories of fear, discrimination, and heartbreak as they navigate a “Now you see me, now you don’t” existence with bishops, DDOs, panels, congregations — and, often, with themselves.

We are breathing very stale air now, and need to open the window quickly. It’s time to honour our words that we are not a homophobic institution, because — forgive me — the evidence so far proves otherwise.


Homeward bound

IT WAS a happy evening, with pizza and a Negroni. Another priest and I were celebrating 30 years of friendship, having met on our first day at theological college.

William Cecil of Hatfield is reported to have said that old age is the Outpatients Department of purgatory; not having quite got there yet, we enjoyed our exploration of reaching our fifties: the period of life when your narrow waist and broad mind famously begin to change places.

I understood, again, what a wonderful thing friendship is: a place for all our loose ends to find a home, and a small but privileged glimpse into the nature of the One who, gently but relentlessly, calls us ever nearer.


The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.

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