In the 2017 Donald Barnes Memorial Lecture last month, Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, called for a renewal of our language and thinking as we try to articulate a vision of God for the world.
Canon Oakley seeks:
'A poetic theology of experience - theology of this sort won’t be neat or comfortable but neither is the life with or under God of which it attempts to speak. We are not to possess the truth but to serve it. We are not here to resolve the mystery of God but to deepen it. We are not to reflect jargon and cliché – the devil is in the drivel when logos has turned to slogan – but to draw from the fountain of poetry and the faith words that feel strange but something like home.'
Canon Oakley would have us attend to our words:
'any language of God that sinks like porridge is a scandal. We must have a realistic self-scrutiny about the language that we fall into, often unconsciously, and about where that language comes from, where it goes, what it does.'
Words become flesh, he argues, so that our language connects to real lives:
'Somehow, and my God it’s hard, we have to be rooted enough in God just enough to be authentic and trustworthy.'
Canon Oakley is also aware of the need for love to underpin both our theology and practice:
'Any engagement of the church in the public square is bound to fail unless it learns from them the truth that sets us free– that every life is worth listening to and that if you listen carefully you will often discover, hopefully with them, the love that lies between the lines.'
As Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Canon Oakley is responsible for the educational and outreach work of the Cathedral. He writes and broadcasts on the areas of poetry, literature, spirituality and human rights. He is a trustee of the Civil Liberties Trust, an Ambassador for Stop Hate UK, Patron of Tell MAMA and a Visiting Lecturer at Kings College, London. He contributed to Modern Church's 2014 conference ‘A Liberating Spirit? Exploring Spirituality for the 21st Century’ and his talk on that occasion is available as an audio download and in the July 2015 issue of Modern Church’s quarterly journal, Modern Believing.
Donald Barnes was a vibrant and much-loved priest who gave nearly 60 years of service across north-west London. As the Sixties counter-cultures fed into the Church of England in the 1970s, Barnes became an active member of the Modern Churchmen’s Union (now Modern Church) and was involved in Modern Church until his death in 2011. and was also prophetic in other progressive campaigns, especially the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW) which challenged and revitalised Anglicanism. Barnes was outspoken in this campaign at a time when it was still a very brave stance to take. The Donald Barnes Memorial Lecture has become an event organised annually by the Hampstead Christian Study Centre since his death in 2011.
After MOW ended in 1993, Donald and his wife Sally were early members of Women and the Church (WATCH), founded in 1994, and continued throughout the following years supporting WATCH's work for women bishops and the full inclusion of women in all aspects of church life. In the late 1970’s Donald, with others, founded the Hampstead Christian Study Centre, an ecumenical organisation, the aim of which was to offer courses and lectures on different aspects of the Christian faith. Sally Barnes explained:
'The Centre is still going strong, with regular meetings, at which a variety of theological books are discussed and contemporary themes explored which Donald, had he still been alive, would have loved and taken an active part in. It was the Hampstead Centre committee who instigated the lectures in Donald’s memory inviting a theologian and/ or academic of note each year to lecture on a subject of their choice. Mark Oakley’s lecture was highly appreciated, relevant to this time and much enjoyed by all those who attended. Many requests for his script have subsequently been received and sent out far and wide.'
General Secretary of Modern Church, Jonathan Draper, added:
'Everyone who cares about theology, the nature of our engagement with the world and God's mission in the world, should read Canon Oakley's lecture. It is a very fine expression of thoughtful, open and deeply spiritual theology and makes a significant contribution to both the form and content of how we disagree in the church.'