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Diary: Mark Oakley

26 May 2023


Perils and dangers

I ALWAYS enjoy visiting the United States; so I was happy to arrive in Tennessee. As I drove down the freeway, I was captivated by the enormous billboards. One depicted a smiling woman with immaculate teeth telling us that “With Jesus and my gun I am safe.” Sadly, the six children and adults who were shot dead in Nashville the day after I arrived were not so safe (News, 21 April).

In 2021, in the US, more than 48,000 people died from gun-related crime. I just don’t get the possession obsession of the gun lobby. Nor do I get Tennessee’s recent law that bans drag performances in public spaces. I’ve never yet seen a mass killing by America’s answer to Lily Savage. It seems you can arm yourself with a gun, but not with a lipstick.

As I was thinking about all this, lying on my hotel bed with jetlag at 1.30 a.m., there was a banging on my door and a loud voice shouting “Tornado alert! Leave your room and go to the shelter.” In the corridor, I encountered hordes of wild-eyed and semi-naked zombies, like a scene from Thriller, and followed them to the windowless container.

After 40 minutes, we were given the all-clear — but were told to watch out for rattlesnakes if we stepped off the path. Dear God, I thought, this is a long way from Cambridge.


Music and movement

I COULD not have received a more hospitable welcome from the seminarians of the School of Theology in the University of the South (known as “Sewanee”). I preached, led seminars, and then led a retreat for some alumni clergy. One highlight was a glass or two of the local bourbon at an event called a “hootenanny”.

Originally, I think this word was used like our word “thingummyjig”, when we can’t remember the name of something, but it has come to refer now to a fun party with folk music, dancing, and piles of delicious food.

I’ve always liked Mikhail Baryshnikov’s comment that “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” It does feel that some better part of us is released from its prison when we get going on the dance floor to a bluegrass band. There is something even liturgical about the movement and the freshness that it invokes.

Later in the evening, I tried to explain to a group of puzzled Americans how you dance the “Hokey-Cokey”, needing to be careful not to be disqualified for putting it in when you should be shaking it all about.


Seize the day

BACK in the UK, I made my way to Gloucester Cathedral to preach during Holy Week. I was moved to discover the stained-glass windows dedicated to the poet and composer Ivor Gurney, who was a chorister at the cathedral; they prompted me to visit his grave in Twigworth near by.

Gurney’s life was full of creativity and tragedy until his death in the City of London Mental Hospital, at the age of 47. Gurney was a lifelong friend of Herbert Howells, and it was touching to discover that he now lies in a grave next to Howells’s wife, Dorothy, and their nine-year-old son, Michael.

“Oh! Death would take so much from us, how should we not fear?” Gurney wrote. As I get older, I become more aware of what death takes away from me: people I love who helped to shape, and sometimes to amend, the person that I am. I try to remind myself that, if Christianity is an art of attention, then I ought to begin by attending more gracefully to those whose lives will always be entwined with mine, and start voicing my gratitude this side of the grave.


O rest in the Lord

ELY CATHEDRAL was full for dear Anna Matthews’s funeral (News, 10 March, Obituary, 24 March). We knew only too well what death had taken from us. The Vicar of St Bene’t’s, Cambridge, she was loved and admired for a remarkably wise and pastoral ministry.

She was a formidable person, but (as I said in a sermon to her bereaved congregation) any conversation that I had with Anna always left me wanting to renew my ordination vows, because she had the knack of putting me in touch with my first love of God.

As is often the way, Anna’s inner narrative was not the same as our narrative about her. To find herself loved came always as a surprise to her — and not necessarily a welcome one. If there was any limelight to be had, she quickly redirected it away from herself.

I will remember many things about her funeral, but the lasting image will be that of her coffin surrounded by more than 100 clergy friends singing the Salve Regina, before she was gently carried out of the cathedral. As I made my way home, a brisk, cool breeze made me stop and think of that line of John Donne’s which Anna and I came back to many times together: “In heaven it is always Autumn, His mercies are ever in their maturity.” May she rest peacefully there.


Doing time

ANNA’s Twitter profile used to say “Views are my own but often I wish they were the Church’s”. Most of us secretly think this, but it took Anna to say it. The wonderful thing about working in a university, though, is how many times your views get challenged, distilled, or enriched by others. It keeps one’s believing nimble, as Emily Dickinson said.

High Table at college has its moments. The other evening, the conversation turned to purgatory. “Well, will I go to purgatory?” one rather irascible and grumpy old don asked. “Oh, John,” his neighbour replied, “it just wouldn’t be purgatory without you.”


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

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