Volume 42 - Issue 1
‘Just Mike’: A Tribute to Mike Ovey (1958–2017)By Daniel Strange
Editor’s Note: The Rev Dr Mike Ovey was principal of Oak Hill College in London and served as consulting editor of Themelios from 2012 until his sudden death 7 January, 2017 at the age of 58. Ovey trained for ministry at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, was ordained in the Church of England, and earned a PhD at King’s College, London. He was author or co-author of several important books, including Pierced for Our Transgressions (Crossway, 2017), Confident (Christian Focus, 2015), and Your Will Be Done (Latimer Trust, 2016). This final installment of the ‘Off the Record’ column is Dan Strange’s tribute to his friend and Oak Hill colleague, first delivered at Ovey’s London funeral.
We loved him because he was just Mike. A wonderful and weird best possible gift to Christ’s church. A true steward of the mysteries of God.
Exciting, excitable, enigmatic, exasperating. Our leader and inspiration. My partner-in-crime. My mate. An utterly unique complex combination of juxtapositions and contradictions that explain the extraordinary outpouring of grief and gratitude.
He was just Mike, both scarily organized and disorganized.
We sat in awe at his ordered and forensic mind, the way he could break down an argument into tiny pieces, summarise the essence of a long conversation.
Distinguish, distinguish, distinguish.
He was the best kind of systematic theologian, seeing implications and applications of biblical truth that no one else seemed to be able to see. In his own words, he made doctrine ‘sexy’. His verve and joy were totally infectious. Towering brilliance. A theological savant.
But just Mike. One of my students prayed last week ‘Oh Lord, we thank you that we know where Mike is now’ and I thought ‘that’s more than I ever did.’ Well that’s not true. I did know. For as countless people have testified in the last few weeks, he was with them, listening to them, advising them, being an advocate for them, being lavishingly kind to them. Mike was time rich, time extravagant, time ludicrous.
He never quite got the idea that the purpose of an ‘action point’ was actually to do something. And yet he was so often the quickest off the mark in a pastoral crisis, doing all he could above and beyond. Just Mike.
He was just Mike, both totally predictable and unpredictable.
Coffee with everything. Chips with everything. Gin-and-tonic and chips in Southgate after meetings at Ministry Division. The bets I won by accurately predicting that the closing song on a Mike-led chapel would be the Jewish styled, ‘You shall go out with joy’. Predictable that Mike probably never got through a lecture handout.
The way his guffawing laughter would end up in him having a coughing fit bent over double. My last memory of him the day before he died: he gave me an awkward, seated high-five because of some plot that we’d hatched.
Every day he asked us to shoot him down in flames but we never did or wanted to because he was just Mike.
But with Mike you never quite knew what was going to happen. He would try anything in his teaching to get his point across as exhibits found in his office show. The sooty and sweep puppets to teach on the Trinity. The butcher’s meat cleaver that for months was sitting on a chair and that we eventually asked him to cover up because visiting church leaders were getting nervous.
His awful accents and impressions, terrible puns, his cringe-worthy and totally inappropriate off-the-cuff remarks. Just Mike who because reading excerpts from Beowolf at the faculty Christmas social had not gone down so well the previous year, decided the ‘entertainment’ for the subsequent festivity would be him reading the introduction of Adrian Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives.
And of course his ‘Woodhousesque’, ‘Pythonesque’ doctrinal problems surrounding that much-loved if incomparably feckless curate Reginald Twittering. I present for you the opening line of his posthumous doctrine exam: ‘Burly Celia Maltravers, head of philosophy and unarmed combat at Iscariot College, cracked her industrial-scale knuckles in an ostensibly amiable way.’ Just Mike.
He was just Mike, so clear in his teaching. Those numbered handouts that betrayed his legal background but which were just so beautiful to look at and needed no commentary. But just Mike, so oblique that sometimes (well quite a lot of the time) you had no idea what he was talking about and nervous laughter was the only response. Obscure literary references and philosophers that even seasoned academics had never heard of but which Mike assumed everyone would have. ‘Come on people!’ he’d bellow because our holiday reading had not been the French sociologist Michel Crozier on the theory of bureaucracies. You could learn his language in time. There were cricketing codes for interviewing potential faculty:
‘Military medium’ – candidate is solid but not spectacular
‘Spraying it down the leg side’ – candidate is dodgy doctrinally.
‘Moved it in the air and off the seam’ – candidate has exciting potential.
Mike was on a different planet, a planet that was inhabited by just Mike.
Just Mike, both inflexible and flexible, so steely and yet so fragile, so wise but with a childlike innocence. His physicality betrayed his state of mind. At times his tread was light, his gait jaunty, even sprightly. As times his tread was heavy, his gait burdened as if a great weight was on him.
Just Mike, in some ways so naturally a leader, in other ways so ill-equipped and needing to be led. Politically successful because he was so apolitical. So humble and with so little ego having no interest in personal self-aggrandizement.
Just Mike. Totally immovable on healthy historical Christian orthodoxy: biblical inerrancy, penal substitution, justification by faith alone. From the stands we’d cheer him on as time after time he’d deliver the killer blows against gangrenous false teaching and futile non-Christian worldviews. Boom! He was our theological heavyweight champion.
Just Mike. Unapologetically intransigent on the need for rigorous theological education against the constant pressure and temptation to dumb down and hollow out. Mike would not let us partake in the race to the bottom. He could be steely. He could be stubborn. He could get cross. When lecturing he always stared into some strange middle distance, and yet when he eye-balled you, birthmark pulsating, it was terrifying.
Just Mike. He’d do things way out of his introverted comfort zone, put up with people whom he didn’t particularly like. He absorbed blows like the punch bag he worked out on, taking hits for us, for the college, for the gospel of ‘repentance and the forgiveness of sins’ that was so precious to him.
And then Jesus just took him. I can’t fathom why our Lord has taken our best player off the pitch at the beginning of the second half and just when we’d worked out a playing system that would enable him to shine all the more. But he is good and wise and sovereign. There is a Creator-creature distinction: His ways are not our ways. And I know that in some incredible way, we will be made more like Jesus and his kingdom will be extended.
We laughed when Mike started saying we needed to be better than him, but he meant it. And we do. Mike was one of our best, but under God the college he shaped at Oak Hill is ours and we now must work in partnership to produce more and more, better and better gifts to the church. Our devastation must quickly turn to determination to build on Mike’s legacy and carry on the mission he gave his life to.
See you soon mate … and save us some chips.
Jerry Hwang has served as the Old Testament Book Review Editor for Themelios since 2013. Owing to other opportunities and challenges, this is his last issue as an editor. Succeeding him in this role is Peter Lau. He teaches Old Testament at Seminari Theoloji Malaysia. Peter completed his PhD at the University of Sydney and is the author of Identity and Ethics in the Book of Ruth: A Social Identity Approach and coauthor of Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth. He can be contacted at [email protected].
Stephen Eccher began serving as the History and Historical Theology Book Review Editor in 2015 and is now transitioning to focus on other pressing responsibilities. Jonathan Arnold succeeds Stephen in this editorial role. Jonathan completed his DPhil at Oxford University and teaches Christian theology and church history at Boyce College. He is the author of The Reformed Theology of Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) and contributes regularly to Themelios and other journals. He can be contacted at [email protected]. We will miss Jerry Hwang and Stephen Eccher and are grateful for their years of faithful, effective service. We warmly welcome Peter Lau and Jonathan Arnold to the editorial team.
Daniel Strange is director of Crosslands Forum, a centre for cultural engagement and missional innovation, and contributing editor of Themelios.