Graduation day at Oak Hill

A full lecture theatre witnessed last year’s student cohort receiving their hard-earned awards

Our graduation day is always one of the most important events in our college calender, and certainly our most public. Saturday was no different as a full lecture theatre witnessed last year’s student cohort receiving their hard-earned awards. Our graduation ceremony is always a little different from graduation ceremonies you may have attended before. There is fair amount of formality, local dignitaries are in attendance, and there are some fabulous gowns on show. But the singing is loud and heartfelt, and the gospel is always proclaimed in bold and challenging ways.

It’s probably breaking etiquette, but this year there were handshakes, hugs and kisses as the graduands received their awards. Given the year we’ve had as a college, it was an especially poignant time, and I thought it appropriate to share what I said in my Acting Principal’s Report:

Let me add my welcome to that of our College Council Chair to the Deputy Mayor of the London Borough of Barnet, and the Deputy Mayor’s Escort of the London Borough of Barnet, to Professor Kevin McDonald representing Middlesex University, to Bambos Charalambous, one of our local MPs, to John Samuel from Duke Street Church Richmond who will be speaking to us later, to members of the College Council, trustees, to you ladies and gentlemen and of course to you, our graduands. It’s so great to see you here today as we celebrate the achievements of all of you as you have prepared for a life of ministry in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I wish to begin by adapting words of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: ‘2017 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure… it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.’

In the sudden death of our beloved Principal Mike Ovey on 7 January, we lost a great mind, a great man and a great inspiration. Nine months on, we all miss Mike terribly. We continue to hold in love and much prayer Mike’s wife Heather and their children Charlie, Harry and Ana, who miss him more.

It’s therefore been a difficult year, a sad year, a horrible year, but for us at Oak Hill and many in this room today, a year still refracted through the lenses of a Christian worldview. And from both a global and historical perspective, we are not alone in having these glasses on. In 1667, the poet John Dryden published ‘Annus Mirabilis: Year of Wonders 1666’ – an historical poem dedicated ‘To the Metropolis of Great Britain: The most renowned and late flourishing City of London, in its Representatives the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen, the Sheriffs and Common Council of it.’

In light of the Great Plague and the Fire of London, Dryden was able to look to God’s gracious providence, to recognise that there was so much to thank God for, and to look forward with resolve and fortitude to strengthening and growth. He famously (and somewhat grandiosely) captured this in his preface: ‘You [London] are now a phoenix in her ashes, and, as far as humanity can approach, a great emblem of the suffering deity.’

Such a framing is not perverse, masochistic or wishful thinking, but a deep seated theological conviction that our world is not governed by blind fate, random chance, an impersonal force, a tyrannical despot or an impotent local deity, but by a personal, all good, all wise sovereign God who has sent his Son Jesus Christ, who is the clue to all creation, for in him and through him and to him are all things. Therefore, in all our grief, we are not as those without hope. And so we give thanks. We thank God for Mike’s life, for the time we had him for, and that he is now with his Lord and Saviour.

We thank God that we’ve survived the increasing regulatory burden that I affectionately call, ‘asphyxiation by acronym’. Our wonderful staff have ticked every box, jumped through every process hoop, entered every piece of data, and sent back every return in timely fashion. We’ve safeguarded until we are silly, and vetted every external speaker for radicalisation.

More than that, we’ve thrived and have the evidence to prove it. Our Quality Assurance Agency annual monitoring visit this June concluded that the college ‘had made commendable progress with implementing the action plan from our 2016 review. Good practice had been sustained and further enhanced and other actions met or on target. Noteworthy was that student data indicates exceptionally high levels of retention and achievement on all courses, with most courses achieving retention and achievement levels of 100 per cent.’

Middlesex University’s response to our last annual monitoring report refers to our ’high standards of academic provision and rigour in the management of the college’ and added that Oak Hill is an institution ‘where staff and students… work in harmony for the successful outcome of the curriculum and extra-curricular activities taking place there.’

Our external examiners noted that our programme ‘contains a healthy mix of academic, applied and practical modules’ and that ‘Oak Hill distinguishes itself in offering students the possibility of taking both languages for the full duration of the course’.

And last, but not least, our Periodic External Review by the Church of England once again recognised us being ‘fully fit for purpose in the training of ordinands’. It notes among other things that ‘the standard of teaching in Biblical Studies and Biblical languages is exemplary, probably even world class.’

We thank God for our faculty for their teaching, pastoring and leading through their own grief. In all my time here I’ve not known the faculty to be so strong, so determined and so united in who we are, what we are about and where we need to be heading. A special thanks to our Acting Dean Dr Brad Bitner, who has and continues to quietly raise standards in our learning and teaching, and in the care of our faculty. He has exemplified the old adage that it’s good to surround yourself with people who are better than you. Similarly, we thank God for a great support staff team totally committed to the cause and frequently going the extra mile under increasing pressure. It’s a huge privilege to live and work with you all.

We thank God for our governance, with people who have been so supportive and generous with their time and gifts. In particular, I thank God for our chairman Jeremy Anderson, who has not only been kind and wise, but who has always made himself available to listen and talk despite KPMG seemingly sending him to every country in the known world in the last 10 months. I know he would never use these words, but he’s been ‘utterly brilliant!’ We thank Rachel his wife for giving us her husband for such a time as this.

We thank God for the appointment of our new President, Revd Johnny Juckes, and we are looking forward with excitement and expectation to his arrival with Diana in January. His rich pastoral experience, wisdom and vision will complement our existing gifts and in challenging times make us even more fit for purpose.

We thank God for our college community. If I needed any more convincing, the last year has shown me the value and need of living and learning in Christian community. As the faculty will know, I’ve been doing some thinking about the pervasive and cloying sentimentality, seemingly immune from criticism, which continues to seep into all areas of cultural life in the UK. Ostentatious public expressions of emotion, media interview after interview about how such-and-such an event made the interviewee ‘feel’; simplistic analyses and banal platitudes are slowly suffocating us. It’s all too much because it’s so false, or to be more apposite, fake.

Compare that with our communal grief over Mike’s death, both within the college and outside in the wider Oak Hill family. Those occasions have been the most genuine, authentic and appropriate public expressions of grief I have known. Our songs, psalms, prayers, liturgies and sermons have helped us articulate this grief. While hard and intense, I count it as a privilege to have led and shared with you in those times which, through many, many tears, have strengthened and galvanised us in bonds that will attach us to each other for a lifetime.

Moreover, in our weeping we have been a tangible witness to the truth of the Christian message. When it comes to dealing with death, many in our culture lurch between a sugar-coated denial or a nihilistic despair. Our proclamation of public truth that 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ was crucified but then raised from the dead, means that we can recognise the awful unnatural reality of death, that last enemy, while also recognising and rejoicing in the resurrection hope which shows that death has been defeated.

Finally, we thank God for you, our graduands. We love you. We are so proud of you. We are excited about what God is going to accomplish through you. We want to continue to partner with you. My hope and prayer for you is that in your time here you have learned and will continue to learn how to lead in a way that our church communities can become – and indeed really must become – refuges from the sentimental and oases of the real. It is from this counter-cultural starting point and in the power of the Holy Spirit that lives, families, communities, and yes, cultures can be transformed for Christ.

I do not pretend this is easy. We will need together to be courageous, resilient and to have fortitude. In 2 Corinthians 6, the apostle Paul demonstrates that an authentic minister and an authentic ministry is not about the minister and their personal fame, but rather about care for the other, not in a simplistic quick fix, but in a hard slog:

‘Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).

We learn from Paul, as Paul learns from Christ, our gloriously unsentimental Saviour and Lord, who, as John Calvin expressed it, ‘has put on our flesh, and also its feelings,’ and did so perfectly. As BB Warfield states, ‘We are not to be content to gaze upon him or to admire him: we must become imitators of him, until we are metamorphosed into the same image.’

God be with you.