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Diary: Mark Oakley

22 December 2023


Moving on

IT WAS a strange feeling finally to close the door of my college room, hand in the keys to the porters, and take a last walk through the grounds, before getting the train from Cambridge to London Bridge.

Many memories are connected to that room: the student who turned up, on my third day, with his arm bleeding while still holding the knife; the tutees who cried about exams, or suffered their first bereavement, or who later came with a present to say goodbye before happily graduating. St John’s has been a happy place to be, and I have learned a lot — not least how true is the pastoral advice that we should never add insight to injury. Sometimes, just being alongside is enough.

As I left, I passed under the gate that has the college’s medieval French motto inscribed above it: Souvent me souvient. What does it mean? “I often remember”? “Think of me often”? That day, it didn’t matter. Both were right.

Vox pops

“BETTER is wisdom than weapons of war.” Perhaps Girton College’s motto is the one that we should be focusing on at the moment. This month, the song of the angels seems distant but as urgent as ever, while Christmas music has been playing full-belt on radio stations, in shops and cafes, since about mid-June.

I was on a train recently with a group of women who had obviously been enjoying a good night out. They started animatedly to tell the other passengers how they all adored Michael Bublé, which triggered their rendition of “Feliz Navidad” — changed to “Police, where’s my Dad?” This was followed by a very jolly rendering of “Deck the halls with bras of holly”, accompanied by imaginative visual aids.

Personally, I would like to hear more Advent music before Christmas. I love “Hills of the North, rejoice!”, which was written by a Fr Oakley who, in 1863, was made Rector of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, at exactly the same age as I was made Rector there, many years later. His incumbency lasted for only two years, owing to his drowning in the sea at Rhyl. “I’d stay away from north Wales, if I were you,” the Bishop said at my installation.

Pomp and circumstance

ON THE subject of installations, I was bowled over by the welcome that I received at Southwark Cathedral on Advent Sunday, as I became the new Dean. We had decided that beginning the service with “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” might over-inflate expectations; so Fr Oakley’s hymn started us off well.

The cathedral choir joined with the back row of St John’s College Choir and, accompanied by timps and trumpets, made quite a sound — especially in Parry’s “I was glad”. One senior cleric who wrote to me the following morning said that the only things missing were leopards, elephants, and peacocks.

It was moving to see in the congregation people from all parts of my life, who had struggled through train strikes and weather to be present; and to be surrounded with the smiles of new friends and colleagues. My grandmother, aged 101, watched the livestream from home. She stepped in to care for me as a baby, and has never stopped.

At the end of the day, we are fortunate if we have one person in life who knows how to bless us, despite our evident shortcomings. For me, hers was the final blessing of the day.

Piggy pudding

ONE of the more unusual gifts given to me after the installation was a marzipan pig — a present from the priest of the Norwegian church in London. At Christmas, in Norway, it is a tradition to share a rice porridge with an almond hidden in it. Whoever finds the nut receives a marzipan pig as a prize. Every year, Norwegians eat 45 million of them.

Mine looks like Miss Piggy on a bad day. It is sitting in my kitchen, staring at me. Churchill’s observation comes to mind: “Dogs look up to us, cats look down on us, but pigs look us in the eye.”

I think I’ll stick with Christmas pudding — although, along with many other things at the moment, it is apparently under threat of extinction, as shoppers in Britain increasingly shun the pudding in favour of panettone. Unbelievable, but true.

As a student, I once came home from a tediously formal dinner with a couple of friends who decided that they were still hungry. Finding a Christmas pudding at the back of the cupboard, they put it in the microwave for far too long. It exploded with NASA ferocity. Quick as a flash, they struck up the old Fred Astaire number, “Pudding on my top hat, pudding on my white tie, pudding on my tails”.


ONE of the first Christmas services that I attended at the cathedral after my arrival was Sankta Lucia, with the choir of London’s Swedish community. It is magical to see the dark church lit up by St Lucy, with a wreath of candles on her head, led in by her white-robed companions.

Lucy, the young Sicilian girl martyred for her faith, is remembered as the light-bearer in a darkened world. There were many children in the congregation, and it struck me how children are the lights that we keep extinguishing through our wars, massacres, and abuses. The murder of children reveals just what we adults have become, and how indifferent we can be to the potential that each child holds within them.

Although it is easy, at the moment, to despair at what is happening in the land that we know as “holy”, many bearers of light are still there, helping the traumatised, injured, and bereaved. My prayers are for them, this Christmas; so many of them are unknown and unseen by the world, and yet they are lovingly holding the hands of the frightened and lost, often at great risk to themselves.

I’m not sure how Christ’s birth can, or will, be celebrated by our Christian brothers and sisters in Israel-Palestine with such pain in their hearts. What I do know is that those who are bringing some hope and warmth are the ones who bear the image of the true light that shines in the darkness. They are the authentic celebration of the incarnation.

Seasoned greetings

AS THE new year approaches, I am conscious of some remarkable writers we have lost this year. Each of them, in their own way, did what Tennyson asked of us: ring out the false, and ring in the true. A. S. Byatt, Milan Kundera, and Cormac McCarthy come to mind immediately, as does the poet Benjamin Zephaniah. I intend to read Zephaniah’s poem “Talking Turkeys” at lunch on Christmas Day, as a tribute to him. It begins:

Be nice to yu turkeys dis Christmas
Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.

I shall miss him.

At the end of each year, as I think of those I admire, I spend time trying to decide how to change myself. Next year, though, I think I shall just try to be myself, instead; and not let fears get in the way. If I manage that, it will be a revolution, not a resolution. Wish me luck — and in return I wish you, and those you hold close, a peaceful and purposeful 2024.

The Very Revd Dr Mark Oakley is the Dean of Southwark.

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