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Diary: Mark Oakley

17 March 2023


Breathing space

WHEN I was the Rector of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, I was frequently invited to the theatre. Once, after a rather intense experimental production, I heard two people chatting on the bus. “What was the play like?” asked one. “Well, put it this way,” said the other: “I didn’t even understand the interval.”

I think many of us feel the same about the way we live our lives. We do such a lot, the diaries are proudly filled up; but we have so little time to experience any of it. When we do get some intervals — periods to waste time, or reflect — we can still be hyperventilating for all the “devices and desires” that we have at our disposal to keep us in touch with everyone else, but somewhat out of touch with ourselves.

I’ve tried to stick to a rule of having a “sabbath time” — for an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year — but with mixed results. So, I was pleased to find myself at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, an urban oasis in east London which unapologetically provides a fountain of stillness, right in the middle of all the traffic of a busy city.

I was leading a study day on George Herbert, who felt as fresh as ever, as he sees “how wide is all this long pretence” that makes him “unkind, ungrateful”, bustling his way through existence. We need places like St Katharine’s, as we do all places of prayer, to at last make “something understood”.


Missing person

THERE have been times in my life when staying in the Church hasn’t been easy. I’m guessing that I’m not alone in that. At such times, remembering some special people who are there — as gifts, and part of the Church — is enough to make me feel that perhaps I still have a place and purpose in it. They make it a community that I still want to be part of.

For me, one of those people was Bishop Frank Griswold, and I was sad to hear of his death at the age of 85 (News, 10 March). His dry humour, wisdom, courage, and resilient gentleness were always inspiring, and a real source of encouragement to me. We spent some wonderful times together, including exploring the art galleries of Philadelphia. We laughed a lot — especially, once, at the over-use of the phrase “wounded healer” when the Church often seems to contain quite a few unhealed wounders.

Frank’s daughter has written about the short folk-poems of Afghanistan, known as landays. I opened a collection, when I heard of his death, and a short line hit my heart hard: “One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.” Rest in peaceful love, Frank.


Noises off

THE average student apparently now phones home eight times a day. I find this hard to believe. Just what are they talking about? I suspect that it is little daily troubles: Morrisons has run out of lemons, my sister is being difficult, exams are looming, and so on.

When I was at university, I would queue for half an hour to make my weekly call home from the payphone in the shared corridor. I remember, one evening, talking to my grandmother while there was some ”noisy exercising” going on in the room next to the phone. It got so embarrassing that I had to claim that there was interference on the line, make beeping noises, and pretend that I’d run out of coins. I vowed not to make my call late in the evening ever again.


Called to account

IT WAS great to be back at the Festival of Faith and Literature, this time in Winchester. I had forgotten how beautiful the cathedral is and, also, just how great it is to be with people who share your passion for the ways in which Christian belief and writers’ imagination can both converse and converge.

My own talk looked at John Donne’s line “What if this present were the world’s last night? I imagined that Last Day — a day of clarity and judgement — and what we as a Christian community would want to be able to say about ourselves. When the last Synod microphone is switched off, the last church procession has conked out, when the purple has faded from the shirts, and all the lights go on, we are faced with Donne’s next piercing question: “What is marked in your heart, where does your soul dwell?

Knowing that, at the evening of life, we will be judged on our love means that we would do pretty well to take Lancelot Andrewes’s advice and preach to people “not what for the present they would hear but what in another day they would wish they had heard”.

As always, however, we must begin by preaching to ourselves.


Slippery slope

IT WAS good to go and watch the half marathon being run in Cambridge. All ages and conditions were there, from those who looked as if their treadmill had clocked up more miles than their car to those who, frankly, looked as if they’d never run in their lives before, and were rather surprised that they now felt near death. The general public were wonderful, urging all the runners on with signs, one of which read “Would you like me to call you an Uber?”

My doctor once warned me that jogging can put years on your life. I tried it. He turned out to be right. I instantly felt ten years older, and walked like a chicken for a week afterwards. My favourite T-shirt this year, worn by one heroic runner, simply read: “It’s a hill. Get over it.”


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

Listen to his Lent poetry podcasts here

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