Almost exactly nine years ago, when my appointment as Rector here was officially announced, John was one of the very first people to write to me – and I still have his letter. He wrote this:
Dear Dr Alison,
Many congratulations on your appointment to the glorious church of St Bride’s. Your abundance of talents will light up the city of London, and hopefully, the Press. I couldn’t help noting your association with Dance, which brought to mind the wonderful wide nave of St Bride’s, its endless possibilities and opportunities.
I hope that you and your family will find as much happiness as we did in each of our sixteen years there. You will be very busy but if you ever have time for lunch at the Garrick, I would be delighted to entertain you.
Prayers and every good wish, John Oates.
I have always treasured that letter, because it so closely reflects the John that I was privileged to know throughout the final decade of his life. He was always warm, supportive, courteous, charming, generous and kind – and he never lost his eye for the creative ministerial opportunity either – (hence his suggestion about using the nave for dance – which, to my shame, we have yet to explore!).
I am also now aware that his unstinting support was of high currency, because John was not an early convert to the idea of the ordination of women. I was, and I remain, incredibly grateful to him for his warmth and his encouragement.
I was privileged to know John for a mere nine years – most of you here today will have known him far better, and for far longer, than I did – above all, of course, members of his family, who were always at the very centre of his life, and of whom he was so immensely proud.
I did indeed go on to enjoy a number of lunches at the Garrick with John, and in our conversations he would often reflect on his own time here at St Bride’s. There were four aspects of his ministry here that came across as having been of particular significance for him.
First, he was a massive enthusiast for our incredible musical tradition, and did much to support it and enhance it: our choir mattered to him enormously. Second, he was very proud of having opened the membership of the Guild of St Bride to women. Third, his deep involvement with the life of the St Bride Foundation, the Institute, to which he dedicated so much time and energy. And, above all, his work with the press – particularly the extraordinary ministry that he exercised during the heady days of the Wapping dispute. St Bride’s was absolutely at the heart of that turbulent turning point in the history of the newspaper industry, and few clergy would have had the courage, the energy, and the insight to combine and to sustain that level of involvement and impartiality.
And it is largely thanks to John’s energy and determination at that critical time that our links with the newspapers that then dispersed across London, continued unbroken, whilst at the same time he was busy forging new relationships with the legal and financial businesses that moved into Fleet Street in their place.
I’m sure it would have gladdened John’s heart to know that we are in the process of planning a complete redesign of our crypt museum, which will enable us for the first time to tell in full the story of St Bride’s involvement in the printing and newspaper industries – including the Wapping dispute – using the wealth of digital and archive materials that we have.
I would also like to see on display (at last) this framed cartoon from the Observer, dated 6th March 1988 (four years into John’s time here), which depicts St Bride’s situated amidst all the pubs, wine bars, and hostelries of Fleet Street. A clergyman in a black cassock is shown at the door of one of them addressing the publican, who is shrugging his shoulders. The caption reads: ‘The Rector of St Bride’s searches for his lost flock.’
In very many ways, St Bride’s was the perfect job for John, combining as it did his early interest in journalism with his personal dynamism, creativity, and vision. His commitment to his work was always 100%. When the former Lord Rothermere, Vere Harmsworth, died suddenly, John was on holiday in northern Australia. He did not hesitate for a moment: he was insistent that he would return to take his funeral. Having failed to get a passenger seat for the flight back, he managed to persuade a pilot to allow him to use the Jump seat for the first leg of the journey, before picking up a regular flight from Sydney. John was nothing if not dedicated and determined!
John was also responsible for establishing our Journalists’ altar to my right here, at which we commemorate those in the industry who have died or have been killed, and those who are in prison or held hostage. The idea emerged out of the events of 1987, when John held vigils here for John McCarthy and the other hostages held in Beirut, ensuring that they were held in prayer week by week. Following his release, John McCarthy attended a service of celebration here, together with the then Prime Minister, John Major, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. And I was delighted when, two years ago, John McCarthy returned here to make a radio programme marking the thirtieth anniversary of his release. John Oates really did touch the lives of many, many people, and he did so in very significant ways.
And John was always both imaginative and witty in generating support for the causes that he embraced. We have already heard testimony from the Zongoro Old School Association expressing their warmth and profound appreciation of all that he did for them – but as a concrete illustration of that, I am hugely grateful to Jonny for sharing the following story, which I now read on his behalf:
In 1989 my mum and dad were going to visit St James’ Secondary School, Zongoro – the school I had previously taught at in rural Zimbabwe. My dad decided he would take some football kit out with him and asked me to get it designed to link St James and St Bride’s.
To raise money to pay for the kit he insisted that myself, John the verger, and the then organ scholar at St Bride’s, Adrian, would have to model the football kit for the St Bride’s congregation at a drinks reception after one of the services. He told us that we would have to remain concealed until he gave the signal in his speech to the congregants at which point we would run out in the football kit.
We very grumpily agreed but what he didn’t tell us was that he intended to play the part of a model himself. We duly ran out at the agreed signal and stood next to him as he urged the congregation to donate. As he came toward the end of his oration, I noticed he was subtly unbuttoning his cassock. As he finished the speech with his final appeal, he let his cassock drop and stood before his congregants in the goalkeeper’s kit.
He raised far more money that evening than the football kit cost – and this was the beginning of a long relationship between St Bride’s and St James School, during which my dad raised significant sums of money, allowing new classrooms and a science block to be built, books to be bought, the school to be electrified, school fees to be paid for some who couldn’t afford them and additional support provided for the teachers and for pupils who went on to University.
What an achievement!
I am also indebted to Vyvyan Harmsworth for some wonderful stories about John’s time here, including his first meeting with him, here in church. One of our ‘Gentlemen of the Road’ came in and started chatting to John, at the end of which John decided to give the man a tenner to buy some food. He got out his wallet, only to find it bare of cash – so John then turned to Vyvyan to provide it instead! As Vyvyan tells me, for years afterwards he would tease John about when he was going to be repaid, ‘only to be met by a charming Oates smile.’
And also the occasion at the Bridewell theatre, at the end of a profoundly moving play, when Vyvyan noticed John leaning forward, deep in prayer. It was only when the theatre had completely emptied, and John still hadn’t moved, that Vyvyan realised that he wasn’t in prayer at all – he had in fact passed out.
The vision and exuberant energy that John brought to his ministry here, and the wealth of extraordinary connections he made with people, had already been apparent in his previous posts. While he was Vicar of Richmond, John became interested promoting the work of MIND, the (then) newly formed organisation, which was pioneering fresh approaches to supporting those suffering from mental illness.
At the launch of national MIND week, it became glaringly obvious to John that what was needed was a live elephant, which could be paraded through the centre of Richmond, bearing the slogan ‘Elephants never forget – mind you remember MIND week.’
As chance would have it, John had become friends with Ronny Smart – the son of the legendary circus impresario, Billy Smart. So he rang Ronny to ask if he could possibly provide him with an elephant (as one does) – and Ronny agreed – on condition that John rode the elephant himself. Naturally, John was completely up for it.
Unfortunately, he omitted to inform the relevant authorities of his plans. When the day came, there were some decidedly dicey moments with the local Police Superintendent, who wanted to know what the heck was going on. Fortunately this ‘engagement’ was filmed by a TV camera crew that had turned up to record the event – which doubtless helped persuade the police to give permission for the event to proceed – and ride the elephant John did.
Indeed, John’s remarkable talent to think outside the box with extraordinary results, was evident from his first curacy at St Mary’s, Hackney Wick, in east London, where his ministry amongst young people became the stuff of legend. He gathered a group of teenagers together and formed what became known as the ’59 Club, which grew to be the largest youth group in the country.
Deciding that it needed a significant launch, in true John Oates style, he (of course) managed to get none other than Cliff Richard – mega pop star of the day – to open it. 450 members turned up, and it grew to a membership of 900 (with a waiting list), by the end of the first month. And the success of that project not only benefited the young people involved – it also drew attention to the area and its needs. Various other pop stars attended, which earned John the titles ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Reverend’ and ‘The Swingin’ Vicar of Hackney Wick’. Jonny has sent me some truly remarkable newspaper cuttings from that time. The only unfortunate call was that it is said that John turned down a booking for the Beatles because they demanded a fee. (Now, that really would have made history!)
John was a man of immense energy and focus, who achieved extraordinary and remarkable things, and touched the lives of very many people, throughout his ministry. His achievements were the more remarkable, given his background. Born in West Yorkshire, the son of a miner, he left school at 16. Although baptised Roman Catholic, his family worshipped at the Anglican church in their village. He became very involved in the life of the church until deeply upsetting events relating to his mother’s funeral led him to turn his back on religion altogether.
He left for Australia as a young man, where he reconnected with the Christian faith, and ended up returning to the UK to train for the ministry at Kelham. He retained a profound, heartfelt and intelligent faith in God, which we have already heard him describe in his own words. Bishop Christopher, who was subsequently John’s curate, has spoken to me of what a very good training incumbent John was for him: patient, kind – but always expecting the best – because, after all, only the best is good enough for God.
John was a man of ambition; he was a man of forthright views, who could express them forcefully; and I’m told that, on occasions, he could have a very short fuse. He also gave our musicians and singers palpitations on occasions – as he would take executive decisions to change the musical content of a service when the service was already underway – communicating this in notes to choir members. And yet, for all he could undoubtedly be challenging at times, such characteristics were, I am sure, simply part and parcel of his outstanding positive qualities – they just came with the territory.
Many of you, like me, will have received a beautiful card from John last Christmas, with a photograph on the front of him and his beloved wife Sylvia, who so sadly pre-deceased him, surrounded by all the members of his large and wonderful family. Family was incredibly important to John, and his love of family was a deep and generous love – a truth that is encapsulated by that photograph more effectively than any number of words.
So our prayers today are, above all, with all of you, his family, at this time of loss – a loss which we share with you. But we also have so much for which we can be truly thankful – as we remember John today not only as an outstanding priest of the church of England and faithful servant of Christ; but as a loving and much loved husband to Sylvia; a proud father; a devoted grandfather; and he was also, of course, delighted to become a great grandfather. May God bring you all his comfort and his peace.
John is now reunited with Sylvia, and with all those who were close to his heart in times past who have entered that gate before him, who are now enfolded in the boundless love of God, and basking together in the light of his eternal glory.
Because, as the poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote: Death is not turning out the light; it is turning down the lamp, because the dawn has come.
John, Beloved Child of God, may you rest in peace and rise in glory.