Call to continue Gospel vision at thanksgiving service
by Andrew Symes, Church of England Newspaper.
All Souls, Langham Place was packed on Monday 13th March as hundreds of men and women, young and old, gathered to worship God and give thanks for the life and ministry of Mike Ovey, the dearly loved former Principal of Oak Hill College, who died on 7th January aged 58. Hugh Palmer led the service, featuring hymns with All Souls’ trademark uplifting music. Current students at Oak Hill read the opening biblical sentences; there were four outstanding tributes to Mike and a sermon based on Philippians 1:21, “for me, to live is Christ, to die is gain”.
All the speakers emphasized how Mike Ovey combined robust love for truth with compassion for people. For Efrem Buckle, former student at Oak Hill and now pastor at Ecclesia Church, Lewisham, Mike used his “awesome intellectual processing power” to explain the wonders of God’s love expressed, for example, in the doctrine of election, and yet he will also be remembered for being kind, patient, keen to listen and learn from those he ministered to.
“Mike prepared me theologically so I was able to cope with the news of his death”, said Nick Tucker, another former student, now a Church of England vicar. Mike had a brilliant mind, yet was always working hard to explain biblical truth as simply and clearly as possible. A humble man dedicated to the learning and growth of the next generation of Gospel ministers, he wasn’t interested in the status he could have gained in academic circles had he published more. Despite the massive workload of teaching and administration, he always found time for pastoral care of students.
Before his theological study and ordination, Mike was a highly regarded lawyer. He continued to offer support and advice to Andrea Williams and the Christian Legal Centre up to the time of his death, especially in the area of lobbying around government legislation on issues such as fertilization and embryology and same sex marriage. Andrea spoke of how Mike predicted that secularism would gradually force biblical Christianity out of the public space, and was deeply concerned about working to preserve the freedoms for sharing the Gospel that we have taken for granted for so long, but are now under threat.
Dan Strange, Mike’s colleague at Oak Hill and now acting Principal, spoke about the vision for theological education that is Mike’s main legacy. This is to steer a course between the ‘whirlpool’ of theology as an academic exercise detached from apostolic truth and the Gospel of Jesus on one hand, and the ‘monster’ of anti-intellectual pragmatism on the other. According to Ephesians 4:11-13, Jesus gives gifts to his church in the form of leaders, who need to be formed intellectually and spiritually around the Word of God for Christ-like character and with the ability to teach and shape Christian communities. Such training is costly and needs support, but the alternative, said Strange, is a church that is “unsafe”.
“Mike Ovey would have said, with Paul, that to live is Christ, to die is gain”, said Former Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen as he preached on the text in Philippians 1, and continued to emphasise the importance of excellent theological education, showing the link between this text and the vital role of the Church.
For many people, death is the end, “to die is oblivion”, so striving to please self in this life is all there is. Or perhaps they think they merit life after death by their goodness. By contrast, said the Archbishop, the apostle Paul saw himself as previously spiritually dead in his sins, and now alive in Christ forever having been redeemed and forgiven. While he loves the people he is with, and longs to serve them and see them grow in faith, he knows that life is often a struggle (he is writing from prison). He sees that his citizenship is in heaven, and his hope is in a Person whom he will see face to face in glory.
This is the same attitude that Mike Ovey had, said Jensen. Although he was gifted, hard working and much loved, he knew that he was a forgiven sinner, and was motivated by God’s amazing grace. It is vital that this message is proclaimed through healthy bible-based churches in a society where most people think that death is the end. Hence the importance of training church leaders in rigorous programmes that enable them to discern truth and refute error. The aim is pastors who know God and be equipped to make him known; who experience and replicate loving Christian community. This vision is not just for Oak Hill College, but for England and beyond. “Our thanksgiving for Mike’s life must include the resolve to extend his legacy”, concluded Archbishop Jensen.
Special thanks to Mike’s bereaved family, and to All Souls for making this event possible.