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Diary: Mark Oakley

17 June 2022


Follow my leader

ANYONE in a leadership position will sympathise with Bill Clinton’s comment that being President is like running a cemetery: you’ve got a lot of people under you, and nobody’s listening.

As I listen to the news day by day, the question what good leadership looks like, in a complex and fragile world, becomes ever more pressing. Does it look like Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who became a politician, or Boris Johnson, a politician who tried too hard to become a comedian?

In her latest book, Amy C. Edmondson argues that leadership today needs to reject any fear-based, command-and-control culture, to secure “psychological safety” in their organisation. I’m not sure that Vladimir Putin would agree. It does remind us all, though — including us in the Church of England — of Edmund Burke’s insight that “no passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”


Something understood

I WAS once given a mug with “Let’s Get Metaphysical!” on it — and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I contributed to a BBC radio discussion on John Donne, gave a lecture at the Henry Vaughan Colloquium, and am getting ready for the George Herbert conference, here in Cambridge.

There’s something about the mind, language, and sensibilities of the Metaphysical poets’ period that draws and awakens me, not least the imaginative ability to think in metaphors, and to speak of God as if doing so really matters. As I look every day at the portrait of Donne in my study, I am reminded of the man for whom the excitement of his naked body jostled with the fear of the nakedness of his soul.

His question “What if this present were the world’s last night?” should haunt us out of any insipid Christianity. After all, as Herbert knew, “God sees hearts as we see faces.”


A face for radio

I HOPE no one saw my face as I emerged from the 23-hour flight from Sydney. W. H. Auden described his visage as looking like a wedding cake that had been left out in the rain. After a lack of sleep and, I later discovered, a perforated eardrum, thanks to the air pressure, mine looked like more like a doughnut that had been in a gale.

I’d had a lovely time at Christ Church St Laurence, though, giving some talks and sermons through Holy Week and Easter. On arrival, I was greeted by a parishioner in a characteristically frank Australian way: “Father, I hope you’re not going to be like one preacher we had. . . He was as boring as batshit.” Well, if I was, they kindly didn’t let on. No congregation could have been warmer or more engaging.


Love thy neighbour

I WAS a very proud grandson as I returned to Shropshire to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday. She looked radiant, happy, and slightly doubtful that she was that old. Inside, she reckons she’s in her forties. It is, nevertheless, true that, in the year she was born, Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy, T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land, Marcel Proust died, and insulin was first used to treat diabetes.

It was a great party, and all that was missing was my grandfather. To remember him, I quoted in my speech one of his favourite lines of Ken Dodd: “I’m so lucky to have lived a long life, and even now I’m fortunate still to have a great sex life at 84 — which is great, because I only live at 86.”


Acts of remembrance

AS THE ember cards start arriving, I think back to my own and my contemporaries’ preparation for ordination. One friend from theological college used to visit his mother, who was living with dementia. It became very painful for him when she no longer knew who he was.

One day, however, he was sitting with her in her care home when the nurse came in with a tray of tea and placed it on the table. Straight away, his mum did what she had always done at home in the kitchen: she poured the milk, put one sugar in his cup, and two in hers, and handed the cup to him. “Just for a few seconds,” he told me, “I had my mother back with me, just as she always was.”

As I prepare to preach at another friend’s first celebration of the eucharist, I remember the One whose presence we glimpse as he does now what he did back then; and I’m made aware once again of the wonderful privilege of being a priest, called, in Donne’s words, “to open life”.


Deeds, not words

COLLEGE politics are so intense, it is said, because the stakes are so low. Debates here about how an old institution can best serve contemporary people are not dissimilar to those that the Church necessarily has about how to be driven by impact and not just aspiration. It is easy to become jaundiced by the debate, and cynical about our leaders, or about our own ability to change anything.

My challenge for this summer is to remember that the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. There is so much need, anxiety, and genuine, serious worry about the future in people’s lives at the moment. We didn’t get here by accident, and we won’t get out of it by chance. Our vocation of public utility, as a Church, is always ripe for renewal. As Archbishop Tutu reminded us: ‘‘When people say that religion and politics don’t mix, I wonder which Bible it is they are reading.”


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

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