They say you only get one chance to make a first impression, and I think with Mike Ovey I blew it.
The first time I met Mike was when Zoe & I came for my student interview at Oak Hill in Spring 2012. I remember this one particular moment towards the end of the day when Mike asked the group whether there were any remaining questions. I don’t know what he expected, but Zoe took the bull by the horns and raised her hand. I held my breath.
“So if we’ve done a church apprenticeship, do we really need to spend three years at theological college? Can you just persuade me…?”
There we were, face-to-face with this apparent theological giant. I have to confess, I think I squirmed a little inside. The interview seemed to have gone ok earlier, but now my wife had guaranteed I would be on the Principal’s blacklist from the off!
However Mike wasn’t at all fazed. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that sort of question and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Actually Mike’s first response that afternoon was to wryly ask Zoe if there was “a touch of Alex Salmond in her accent.” Undoubtedly a strong comeback, to which she could only reply, “Who?!”
He couldn’t help but laugh – as he so often did, that quiet chuckle-bordering-on-snigger of his, head nodding away – before then proceeding with characteristic seriousness to set out a vision for why theological education was so important.
Quite a first impression for us too: this man was passionate about what this college was here to do, but he certainly wasn’t letting his own ego get in the way. As one might imagine, Mike’s argument for a strong theological education was pretty convincing back then, but it’s testimony to the tirelessness & giftedness of Mike & his Oak Hill Faculty that we’re all the more convinced of its worth now that we’ve had our three years in N14. In fact, a further eighteen months into ministry post-college and we find ourselves even more thankful for our time at Oak Hill than when we left.
And so, like so many, we were absolutely gutted to hear that Mike had died suddenly, aged 58, last Saturday.
A few days earlier I’d been looking back on 2016 and reflecting on the importance of approaching the new year with Ecclesiastes’ message of hebel ringing in my heart. Life is fleeting and hard to grasp. If that hadn’t been made clear enough to me then, it sure feels clear now.
Eternal joy is now Mike’s, but the loss for us feels weighty.
Of course, I can only begin to imagine the loss and sadness that Mike’s precious family will be facing, and then also for his friends and those who worked alongside him day-in, day-out over his eighteen years at Oak Hill.
But for those of us who had the joy of knowing him a little, of learning deeply from him, and of being blessed by a thousand kindnesses, there is that surreal kind of shock. That sense of slowly grasping that this person – this man whom we grew to have so much affection for – is no longer with us.
There are many tributes popping up online: you can read those of Duncan Forbes (Founder of Urban Ministries); Lee Gatiss (Director of Church Society); The Co-Mission Leadership Team; Dave Williams (Bearwood Chapel); Daf Meiron-Jones (The King’s Centre); Peter Jensen (Gafcon General Secretary); Bishop Rod Thomas (Bishop of Maidstone); Steve Clifford (Evangelical Alliance); Glenn Davies (Archbishop of Sydney); Mark Thompson (Moore College); Mark Tanner (Bishop of Berwick); Aled Seago (Ordinand at Oak Hill); Parenthetical Pilgrim; Chris Green (Mike’s former Vice-Principal at Oak Hill), as well as moving words from Mike’s Academic Vice-Principal at Oak Hill and close friend, Dan Strange.
Matthew Barrett of Credo Magazine, and now also on the faculty at Oak Hill, has put together this fantastic resource page, linking to various talks and articles that Mike gave and wrote (a quick glance and one cannot help be struck by the remarkable breadth of topics that Mike would address).
But it’s Matthew’s own fitting tribute at The Gospel Coalition that I think captures well something that so many Oak Hill alumni will undoubtedly testify to. If you search Amazon for Mike Ovey books, it’s fair to say that you’ll not find many entries (although it must be said that those books he did write, like Pierced For Our Transgressions, are hugely significant, as PFOT‘s endless opening commendations indicate). And of course, there are a whole lot more shorter academic pieces and articles tucked away in edited books and journals (two hidden gems that I became particularly indebted to are Mike’s chapter on the Incarnation in The Word Became Flesh (ed. Peterson, 2003) and another on the cross in Where Wrath & Mercy Meet (ed. Peterson, 2001)).
But why didn’t he write more? Because, as Matthew observes, Mike’s students were his books. And that’s the way he led Oak Hill. Mike gave himself to us.
And that’s where my mind has gone to again and again this past week. Yes, he gave himself to us with his academic preparation and lecturing, but also – and perhaps most memorably – in his endless one-to-one time outside of the classroom. A thousand kindnesses…
… I can remember right back in our first year, when Zoe & I got some sad and difficult news. It came out in some passing conversation with Mike, and immediately he sat me down, asked more about it, and then over the next few weeks offered very practical support…
… I can remember the moment Mike arrived at my brother’s hospital bedside, just an hour or so after Alec had been sedated and rushed onto a ventilator in ICU with a suspected Guillain–Barré syndrome diagnosis. Seeing Mike’s face come through that hospital door was such a surprise and yet also such a relief…
…And I can remember a ‘ten-minute’ diary slot in my final year that generously spilt over as Mike gave counsel and encouragement whilst Zoe & I weighed up options for life after college. He had a habit of being able to breathe gospel confidence into your bones, even when everything about you felt weak. I don’t think we’d necessarily be where we are now without that conversation…
And the remarkable thing is that so many former students seem to be recalling similarly meaningful memories, each one deeply significant for that person at that time. Just talking with some of my generation of Old Oaks these past few days, it’s incredible how many of us have been touched by these little acts of sacrifice and service. Wisdom. Care. Time. Concern. Support.
A thousand kindnesses.
And so this week my thoughts have often drifted to that example Mike put before us. This isn’t about idolising Mike, and he’d never want that anyway. But rather I want to turn those blessings into thanksgiving and to learn from his example. Anyway, Mike would always be the first to acknowledge his own faults. Compulsory college reading from Mike was Homily 1 & 2 from Cranmer’s First Book of Homilies, a stark reminder that even as Christians, our best works and intentions will still be tainted by sin. That was what Mike believed about himself, and it worked itself out in the life we witnessed. That unassuming manner and striking humility, evidently formed through the daily grind of walking by faith and repentance – that and copious readings of P. G. Wodehouse, of course.
You saw it again in the fact that he always seemed to be present at the weekly college prayer meeting, despite presumably having one of the biggest workloads at college. But ask him about it and he’d simply say something like, “well, I need to learn to pray”.
And if he ever did need any help on the humility front, well, he got it in spades from the college’s weekly student-produced model of journalistic excellence, The Friday Flyer. To be fair, it’s more Buzzfeed than broadsheet. Mike would often get us to part company with our pride, acting out little vignettes to illustrate his lectures (see the photos alongside this piece). But it was Mike who always modelled for us not taking himself too seriously – and thus he managed to make himself a sitting duck for the mysterious editors’ weekly joshings. Whether it was some outrageous quotation from class (“Slapping the archbishop is not a valid form of argument, Gabrielle”) or just taking him to task for the same old jokes, he was a regular Flyer ‘feature’. Indeed, sometimes you were pretty sure he was acting up with one eye on next Friday’s headlines…
But even this flowed from his theology. One of the books that Mike described as profoundly impacting him was Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. There’s a powerful line within it where Thielicke gives this warning:
“Anyone who deals with truth – as we theologians certainly do – succumbs all too easily to the psychology of the possessor. But love is the opposite of the will to possess. It is self-giving. It boasteth not itself, but humbleth itself.”
That was Mike’s ministerial heartbeat. And it leaves one feeling that there was something so right, something so good, something deeply human about the way that Mike ministered to us, as he went about embodying the humility and grace of God. As well as holding onto all we’ve been taught, and turning what we’ve received into thanksgiving to God, our response must also be to let ourselves be shaped by this model of ministry we’ve witnessed.
Sometimes the line is trotted out that residential theological training just isn’t the ‘real world’. And so, the argument goes, ‘real ministry’ apparently can only be learnt outside of theological colleges. Well, I’m still not quite sure where this ‘real world’ place is, but if it’s the world of suffering and sin and sadness, then my experience of theological college means it’s as much ‘real life’ as anywhere else. Sadly the gut-wrenching events of the past week are a case in point. And yet all the time, as Mike ministered to us, he was showing us what such ‘real life’ ministry could look like…
Seeking to be a steward of all that his great God had given him.
Seeking to declare the wonders of the gospel, the word of the cross, that turns the world the right way up.
Seeking to be a giver, not a possessor.
With a thousand kindnesses.
You might also like to read this piece, ‘Will You Let God Disagree With You?’, written by a friend and fellow-student, musing on one of Mike’s most repeated phrases and finding hope in the face of tragedy.
For an example of Mike’s teaching, I commend his already legendary address from the 2013 GAFCON conference in Nairobi, ‘The Grace of God or the World of the West’. The video is available here, and you can also download a pdf of the text here.