"Your theological knowledge isn't like Gollum with the ring." That was one of Mike Ovey's warnings to me and my cohort as we started our time at Oak Hill College. He went on to explain: "Theological knowledge isn't 'My precious', as if it's something you've got that no-one else can have. You are stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God, like Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:1 - and your job is to pass on what's been entrusted to you."
Mike had been Principal of Oak Hill for ten years, and died suddenly on 7th January, aged 58. All three of our current pastors at Christ Church Mayfair were taught by him, and four of our congregation are currently training there. We all considered Mike a mentor, an advisor and a friend. On 13th March we gathered with hundreds of other Oak Hill alumni at All Souls Church near Oxford Circus to give thanks to God for his life.
Many moving tributes have been shared, including Vice-Principal Dan Strange's Just Mike, and it's not our intention to add another personal tribute here. Rather, we wanted to take this opportunity to highlight why we believe in rigorous theological education for pastors, and why we invest a lot of time, prayer and money in sending people to train at Oak Hill.
The Best Possible Gift
At every Oak Hill open morning for prospective students Mike would tell them: "We want you to be God's gift to the Church."
That sounds like it was designed to puff potential pastors up with pride, but Mike would proceed to pop our bubble by pointing out that it was thoroughly biblical: in Ephesians 4:11-13 we're told Christ gave pastors and those with teaching gifts to the Church in order to build them up. "And I want you to be the best possible gift to Christ's Church", he would say. In terms of his Gollum analogy: it's not your knowledge. It's for you to pass on!
Shepherds Feed and Defend the Sheep
For Mike, passing it on meant pastors who were utterly faithful to the Scriptures. The word 'pastor' comes from 'shepherd', and this analogy is developed often in the Bible (e.g. John 21:15-17, Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-2). And a shepherds' job is to feed and defend the sheep.
Mike taught us to gently and consistently feed our 'flock' with the mysteries of God: all the broken-hearted, scattered, hopeful people of God, wherever we might find them, who needed to know God through the Bible. In his doctrine lectures he would often pause and enjoy something about God, and encourage us to pray and thank Him for it ourselves. Our habit of savouring the Bible and adoring God at Christ Church Mayfair was strengthened by Mike Ovey's example here.
But Mike also put steel in our spines and taught us to defend the flock against error. He knew that theological error isn't always flagrant and obvious, but often insidious and hard to distinguish. It never trots into church and announces itself as error, because it would never win a hearing that way (Acts 20:30). Defending against it therefore requires a deep knowledge of the whole Bible, an ability to think theologically and an understanding of church history.
Lay people simply don't have time to do that deep thinking and fighting, so it should fall to the pastors to take a lead on it. And Mike had a vision of churches across the UK and the world led by shepherd-pastors who could do that. He knew we wouldn't suddenly wake up one day with an ability to defend against savage wolves (Acts 20:29), so he trained us in it. He wanted us to be good at it, for the sake of the flock. He wanted all of his students, including Matt Fuller, Phil Allcock and Pete Snow, to be the best possible gift to Christ's Church.
We Grieve... but Not Without Hope
We were all shocked when Mike's death was announced, and the news has left us reeling and wondering about God's plan in it all. While we can't claim to fathom the riches of the wisdom of God, it occurs to us that Mike must be pleased with his legacy. In seventeen years at Oak Hill, ten of which were as Principal, he trained hundreds of students to be good shepherds. Last year 43 students graduated from Oak Hill in the class of 2016: that's 43 pastors or church workers last year alone sent out to minister to people. And Mike was at Oak Hill for seventeen years! Moreover, the College is in good health going forwards and looking to build on Mike's vision.
So we grieve for Mike Ovey, but not without hope. We'll see him again one day, resurrected and enjoying the God he taught us about, and we'll continue the work he trained us in: feeding and defending Christ's flock with the Word of God.