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Diary: Mark Oakley

02 September 2022


This I know

I WAS invited to contribute a chapter in a book on Anglican spiritual writers of the second half of the 20th century, and was intrigued by who I would be asked to write about — but it shouldn’t have surprised me. Harry Williams CR was someone I read voraciously at school and university and who, in his latter years and my early days of ordained life, I got to know as a friend.

Immersing myself in his books again, I found myself refreshed by his striking candour and perception. I smiled at his observation that religion is, to a large extent, what people do with “their lunacy, their phobias, their will to power, and their sexual frustrations”.

I nodded as he lamented some revision of liturgical texts’ being “clumsy constructions in flat, tired English made from assorted pieces of doctrinal Meccano”. His account of his tortured breakdown, however, still makes me wince. He goes to hell, but does not come back empty-handed — able at last to speak, not of the second-hand, but of authentic things that have been proved true in his own experience.

I remember my last visit to him at Mirfield, in a room that was known as “the departure lounge”. He wished my ministry well as I said goodbye, and reminded me not to inhale the Church of England too deeply: “It’s a small pond, in which small fish look big.”


Legacy factor

HARRY was for many years the Dean of my neighbouring college, here in Cambridge. He used to do what I now find myself doing on graduation day: preaching to the leavers, and scratching around for some profound wisdom that they can cling to for the rest of their lives.

This year, I found myself telling them not to waste their lives on jealousy. I advised that they never be reckless with other people’s hearts, and that they shouldn’t put up with people who are reckless with theirs. I quoted Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said. They will forget what you did, But they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Time has revealed this to be true for me. I am grateful for the likes of Harry, and many other wise pastors and preachers in my younger days, who made me feel that I had a place in the Church. This is still important to me — and remembered — at a time when things are sometimes said and done in august ecclesiastical gatherings which make me, and others like me, doubt it somewhat.


Jolly boating weather

I HAD a fun time on the River Thames with the Worshipful Company of Vintners as they joined with the Dyers’ Company and the Crown in the extraordinary and ancient business of “swan upping”, which takes place once a year.

The swan uppers row along and, when they see a family of swans, they shout “All up!” — to the alarm of passing pedestrians. They measure the cygnets, and check them for any signs of injury, commonly caused by fishing hooks and lines. The young cygnets are then ringed with individual numbers, as the rest of us look on with our tea and crumpets.


Saintly ducklings

SWANS have captured the human imagination for thousands of years, and are to be found in many mythologies and religious traditions. They are one of the largest birds that can fly; Hinduism celebrates their environmental beauty in connecting the air and water through their flight and their swimming. Holy people are thought to be swan-like, in that, just as the swan’s feather is in the water, and yet stays dry, so the good are in the world, but remain unstained by it.

In the Christian tradition, St Hugh of Lincoln is depicted in art as accompanied by the swan that was said to have been fiercely loyal to him during his ministry, keeping away any threatening enemies. Every vicar should get one.

“I’ve developed into quite a swan,” Rufus Wainwright said recently. “I’m one of those people that will probably look better and better as I get older — until I drop dead of beauty.”


Fathers in God

RICHARD CHARTRES’s recent 75th birthday coincided with the 30th anniversary of his consecration. I was his chaplain for four years, and there was never a dull day. Even now, it shocks me that he chose me for the job.

After two years, he introduced me to the Archbishop of Canada: “Have you met my chaplain? He manages to dampen most of my enthusiasms.” He once came back from Windsor and reported that “the Queen Mother says you remind her of William Temple. I don’t see it myself. . .” I suspect it was my shape that she was referring to.

I learned so much in those years, and was never less than admiring to be at his side as I saw him work tirelessly for people and places. “He’s the sort of bishop you might buy at Harrods,” one parishioner said to me

It was Richard who preached at Harry’s memorial service, and began with the story of the college chaplain who went to Harry to complain, very properly, about an undergraduate who had been uncommonly rude and dogmatic — even for a Trinity man. What made it worse was that the young man was an ordinand.

“Don’t worry,” said Harry. “He’ll be all right once he’s in a parish.”

“As you can guess,” Richard continued, “I was the rude and dogmatic young man, and yet another beneficiary of Harry’s friendship and reluctance to condemn.”

Well, I have cause to be thankful to both of them for the same.


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

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