Michael John Ovey (1958 – 2017)

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It has taken a little while to write this thanksgiving to God for the life of my dear friend Mike Ovey. I have indeed written tributes for other publications, news items, editorials, etc. But this is the one I knew I wanted to write and it has taken longer. This one is much more personal.

The reason for the delay is deep grief and a profound sense of loss. Another friend used the word ‘ambush’ to describe how grief can burst upon you unexpectedly and without notice. You can never be sure what little detail, what brief memory, which conversation, will trigger an outburst of emotion. That has certainly been my experience over the past few weeks — so many wonderful memories, so many shared concerns and interests, so many plans for what we would do together. I have lost the closest of friends, an entirely trustworthy confidante and a partner in gospel ministry. In a little over a month’s time I was to pick him up at Sydney airport, he would spend three months across the green from my home and the long joyful cups of coffee would begin.

The truth of it, though, is that Mike is far from lost and is now rejoicing in the presence of the Lord he served with such gentle, humble distinction all his life. As yet another friend put it, he is with Jesus, more himself than he ever was, knowing as he has been known, rejoicing in the salvation he had tasted in prospect and now enjoys in full. In that light, a post like this one is more than a little self-indulgent. Not entirely, of course. It is important to grieve alongside and to support those closest to Mike and who were cherished most by him — Heather, Charlie, Harry and Ana. Yet the only person it is hard to feel sorry for in all of this is Mike himself. As the apostle Paul wrote, ‘My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better’ (Phil. 1.23).

The outpouring of grief by so many at the death of Mike is testimony to how much he gave himself to the support and encouragement of others. I have been struck by how consistently the word ‘kind’ has been used of him. He was kind even to those with whom he disagreed, even to those who had opposed him and hurt him. He was particularly kind to children. I’ve seen him with his own children, passionately interested in all each of them was doing. I have seen him with other children — gentle, focussed, interested, just plain kind. I remember him with my children. Each one of them has lovely memories of ‘Uncle Mike’ – the way he laughed with them, the way he talked about the Lord with them, the way he offered to help them with the homework tasks they were facing during his last visit.

How many student and faculty families at Oak Hill College could testify to the way Mike put other things aside to help them when they needed help? He was like that. Former students would return to the College to talk through with Mike difficulties they were having in ministry or in their personal life. He would listen, really listen. He walked through each situation with them. And when he offered advice, it was on the back of the most astute analysis of what the real issues were. He could cut through the fog and point a clear way ahead.

Mike’s kindness was shown in the way he valued everyone. He didn’t look down on anyone. He always treated people as if they were smarter than he was (which was hardly likely ever to be true) and as if their ideas and concerns really mattered. I don’t think this was just a kind disposition inherited, particularly, from his mother (though from what I have heard there is something in that). It arose from his understanding of the gospel and the level playing field created by the doctrine of justification by faith. There is no ground for boasting, no preferential treatment, no merit, only a common need to be forgiven and renewed and redeemed. He was the smartest man in the room just about every time, but he never used that to feed his own ego or put down others. It was almost as if he didn’t know it was true, or at least it didn’t matter. Justification by faith again.

It was a doctrine Mike kept returning to, especially over the last ten years. Understanding justification by faith and its implications, and helping others to understand these things — especially in light of so much confusion and misinformation associated with the New Perspective on Paul, Federal Vision and other distortions as well — was a particular preoccupation. We had planned that this year, at last, we would write something together on the subject and had planned a joint conference to ensure we got it written. Yet this was not part of the Lord’s plan for our lives. Nevertheless, the very fact that this project meant so much to Mike, and that he had designed courses and given lectures on the topic over the past few years was reflective of both its prominence in the New Testament and the dire consequences of the ignorance of this doctrine so evident in the British churches (and not only British churches it should be said).

Mike was genuinely intellectually curious. He wanted to know what others were thinking. He read widely and listened intently. He was interested in philosophy, in history, in literature, in politics, and, of course, in theology. He regularly introduced me to theologians I had barely known about – but he had been reading them and always had gems to share with the excitement of a young boy in toy store. I didn’t know who Benedict Pictet was, but Mike spoke of him with delight and so I got to know him. Edward Leigh was another. I did know about Calvin’s Antidote to the Council of Trent but that had fired him up a couple of years ago, and more recently the work of Martin Chemnitz. Again and again he returned to Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers and along with many others I learnt much about these theological giants from Mike. His scholarship was impressive. If only he had had more time to write.

Yet Mike’s reading in theology was always disciplined by the one source he cherished above all others: the Bible (with a particular interest in John’s Gospel!). Mike Ovey was a Bible man because he was Christ’s man. He read the Bible. He encouraged others to read the Bible. He tested the ideas of theologians through the ages (from whatever tradition they may have come) against the teaching of the Bible. He gladly affirmed the creeds and the Reformation confessions, but principally because, and to the extent that, they faithfully reflected the teaching of the Bible. Mike was a systematic theologian and a historical theologian but first and foremost he was a biblical theologian. It was a kind providence that ensured one book he did get to write was written with his comrade-in-arms at Oak Hill, Dan Strange: Confident: Why We Can Trust the Bible (Christian Focus, 2015).

Since Mike’s death, a lot has been written and said about his vision for theological education. Mike gave himself passionately to this ministry, convinced that without the best possible theological education, with the Scriptures determining both its content and its method, evangelicalism could well descend again into the anti-intellectual paralysis which devastated churches in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many in Mike’s generation (and the one before) were and are disillusioned with theological education. They were so badly served by what they experienced that they could see no value in it. They have survived, and in some cases thrived in ministry, in spite of it. Mike too had experienced this disaster first-hand. The theological college where he studied prior to ordination undermined faith, ridiculed evangelical convictions, and presented the most insipid (and quite frankly pagan) alternative as if it were an enlightened way forward. Mike’s contemporaries shut down and endured it and just got on with student ministry instead. Mike couldn’t do that. He railed against it, took on the liberal theological establishment at Cambridge, and dreamed of what it might have been. Surely one’s theological education should be a period when men and women were rigorously prepared for a lifetime of faithful ministry, equipped to face the challenges, built up in a confident biblical faith and stirred up to go out and reach the world for Christ. Why wasn’t this the case? He was told by his tutor that his evangelical convictions would count against him when the examination results were published. But Mike was resolute in maintaining them throughout. In later years he could never understand why churches would send their best men and women to be taught by unbelievers who would pursue a thinly veiled agenda of turning them away from the evangelical faith (even if there was plenty of ministry to do in the university while this was happening). It was like sending the choicest lambs straight into the mouths of wolves.

Others clearly saw this passion in Mike and his extraordinary potential. After a curacy at All Saints, Crowborough, Mike was invited to lecture Christian doctrine at Moore College. (I had just left for doctoral studies in the UK and first met Mike at a wedding in Cambridge a few months prior to him leaving for Australia in early 1995.) The three years in Sydney gave Mike an entirely new and exhilarating experience. Here was a theological college where faith was nourished, the Bible was taken seriously, the cross was central, the Christian fellowship was real and lively and richly encouraging. Mike’s vision of what theological education could be in the UK began to take on new hues. He learnt how to teach doctrine alongside Peter Jensen. He saw how the curriculum had been developed, how pastoral care was conducted, how theology and practice were integrated. (I will remain forever grateful to God that I finished in the UK when I did and overlapped for a year with Mike at Moore in 1997/8.) Then, at the end of the three years Mike was invited to return to the UK by the new principal of Oak Hill College, David Peterson, in order to join the faculty there. This began a 19 year association with the college which only ended with Mike’s sudden, unexpected death on 7 January 2017. He taught doctrine at Oak Hill and in 2007 was appointed Principal.

Mike set out, not to duplicate Moore in the UK, but to build on the work of his predecessor in realising a theological education that energised, enthused and properly prepared men and women for ministry in the UK. Built on solid biblical teaching, an enthusiastic and joyful teaching of Christian doctrine, serious attention to the practicalities of ministry, apologetics, ethics, mission and much more, Oak Hill under Mike was established without doubt as the leading theological college in Britain. Quite frankly it was the only place one could confidently recommend a British person to train if they wanted to be well grounded in Scripture, evangelical reformed doctrine, and astute ministry practice. The graduates of Oak Hill over the last ten years have commended the work that Mike and others have done there. While standards in other institutions have continued to fall, and a clear grasp of the gospel of grace with its summons to faith and repentance seems to have been lost in one place after another, Oak Hill has remained clear and committed to preparing men and women to be ‘the best possible gift’ to the churches (Mike made much use of this image from Ephesians 4).

Mike succeeded, building on the work of others but certainly taking it further and giving it a clear British character, in realising the robust evangelical theological education that he had dreamed about years before. He certainly never thought he or Oak Hill had arrived. He was always thinking of how it could be better. Never a brilliant administrator (or correspondent, it should be said), he built a team of people who worked together with him to move the college forward in uncertain times. One friend who knew him well spoke of him warmly as ‘a team player’ rather than a prima donna. New initiatives were explored, new partnerships forged, but the steady flow of graduates confident in the Scriptures, passionate about re-evangelising Britain and bringing a new reformation to the Church of England remained the core of the work. In more recent years there has been an influx of students from the evangelical free churches, welcomed and encouraged by Mike and the faculty. Yet, despite the difficulties with many diocesan directors of ordinands, and the continuing skepticism about theological education by some in evangelical congregations within the Church of England, a steady number of ordination candidates have been determined to study at Oak Hill, knowing that this was the place where they would gain the best theological education available in Britain. As Mike told one faculty member ‘We’re bringing about reformation in the UK. And we’re nearly there.’

Mike was convinced that evangelicals had to be active in their denominations and in the culture more generally, bringing their theological convictions to bear on both teaching and practice and seeking the good of all in obedience to the love command of Jesus. He was himself active in public debates on the authority of Scripture, the meaning of the cross of Christ (from which came the book he jointly authored, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, IVP, 2007), men and women in ministry, human sexuality and much more. He served on a number of committees for the Church of England, always with something profoundly theological to contribute. He helped to advise the British government (making good use of his background as a lawyer and parliamentary draftsman). He was also, from its very beginnings, a member of the GAFCON Theological Resource Group. (Our partnership in its first meeting, in Lagos in January 2008, continues to bring a smile to my face – so many funny memories.) He spoke at both GAFCON I (Jerusalem, 2008) and GAFCON II (Nairobi, 2013). In Nairobi he delivered one of his most influential contributions to the GAFCON/FCA movement, his talk The Grace of God or the World of the West. In that talk, Mike spoke of the ‘cheap grace’ embraced by the Western churches, a grace we bestow upon ourselves and where repentance is redundant, and so which feeds narcissism and a sense of entitlement. He saw this as a capitulation to worldliness by attempting to join Jesus with the world. Mike’s paper remains a devastating critique and warning to the churches of the global south not to go down that path, despite pressure from the West to do so under the misleading label of ‘modernization’.

In recent years Mike had been a contributor to the journal Themelios. His regular column was entitled ‘Off the record’ and it gave Mike an opportunity to bring together his theological acuity, his wide and deep reading in a range of disciplines, and his astute cultural analysis, as exemplified by the GAFCON address. Each one of his contributions is worth reading (they are all available online).

  • ‘The Goldilocks Zone’, Themelios 37.1 (2012): 4–6.
  • ‘The Right to Ridicule’, Themelios 37.2 (2012): 182–84.
  • ‘Sorrow at Another’s Good?’, Themelios 37.3 (2012): 442–44.
  • ‘Colonial Atheism: A Very British Vice’, Themelios 38.1 (2013): 4–5.
  • ‘From Moral Majority to Evil Disbelievers: Coming Clean about Christian Atheism’, Themelios 38.2 (2013): 202–204.
  • ‘Liberty, What Crimes are Committed in Thy Name’, Themelios 38.3 (2013): 357–59.
  • ‘The Covert Thrill of Violence? Reading the Bible in Disbelief’, Themelios 39.1 (2014): 5–7.
  • ‘Projection Atheism: Why Reductionist Accounts of Humanity Can Lead to Reductionist Accounts of God’, Themelios 39.2 (2014): 220–22.
  • ‘Is it a Mistake to Stay at the Crossroads?’, Themelios 39.3 (2014): 411–14.
  • ‘Courtier Politicians and Courtier Preachers’, Themelios 40.1 (2015): 10–12.
  • ‘Can Antigone Work in a Secularist Society?’, Themelios 40.2 (2015): 198–200.
  • ‘Is the Wrath of God Extremist?’, Themelios 40.3 (2015): 389–391.
  • ‘The Art of Imperious Ignorance’, Themelios 41.1 (2016): 5–7.
  • ‘The Echo Chamber of Idolatry’, Themelios 41.2 (2016): 214–16.
  • ‘Choose Your Fears Carefully’, Themelios 41.3 (2016): 410–12.

Last year Mike was drawn into a debate in the blogosphere on the eternal relation of the Father and the Son in the Trinity. Early in the year his book on the subject had been published: Your Will be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility (Latimer Trust, 2016). A storm had arisen in the US over the way some had appealed to the Trinity to endorse  an extreme ‘biblical hierarchy’ in the relations between men and women. There was a suggestion that the great doctrine of the Son’s ‘eternal generation’ was being jettisoned in favour of ‘eternal subordination’. One foolish suggestion made was that anyone who held any form of eternal subordination, including functional or voluntary relational subordination, should resign their teaching post. Mike’s careful study of the trinitarian debates (with particular attention to Athanasius and Hilary, of course), and his profound exegetical engagement withe teaching of John’s Gospel, was something far more edifying and far more convincing than much that was written in the drawn-out debate on the issue on blogs around the world. He affirmed the eternal generation of the Son and insisted that the ‘sonship’ of the Son be taken with the utmost seriousness. What does it mean for the Son to be Son and not just another Father? Paternity and filiation are asymmetrical. His deep familiarity with the trinitarian and Christological debates in the early church and his careful submission to the words of Scripture out of reverence for Christ make his contribution one that will undoubtedly bring lasting benefit to God’s people.

I was refreshed every time I spoke with Mike, consistently through our more than 20 year friendship. I could relax with him, laugh with him, talk serious theology with him, rejoice in our families with him. I could pray with him and and seek advice from him and just delight in being with him. I couldn’t always get him on the phone (I often had more contact with his PA, or so it seemed), but when I did it was always worth it. All of that I will greatly miss in the years until we meet again around the throne of grace. My life was immeasurably enriched by God’s wonderful gift in bringing us together as friends. But while I grieve his absence and the plans which will now go unrealised, I have a very great deal for which to thank God in Mike. And so do all who long to see the gospel of Jesus Christ flourish again in Britain and around the world.

God gave us a great gift in Mike Ovey. Everything that Mike was, and everything he did, was a work of God. He would be the first to decry any suggestion of achievement or merit on his part. So this is a moment to thank God for his great kindness in giving Mike to us for these 58 years. What an extraordinary gift he gave us in this little man with all his peculiarities but his single-minded determination to live for Christ and see him honoured in all the world. Like Paul he fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith (2 Tim 4.7). Thank you, Lord, for Mike, for all you did through him and for all you made him to be as a disciple of the Lord Jesus and an encouragement to so many of us.

A couple of weeks ago now I went to one of Mike’s haunts, the Moonlight Cafe in Cockfosters, to have breakfast. The proprietor remembered him: ‘He sat over there, just a couple of weeks ago, drinking coffee and eating a chicken kebab’. When I look back over this post, what God did through this servant of his seems incredible. Yes, he was mightily used by God. Yet in the end it will be the ordinary human warmth, his laughter, his poor jokes, and his kindness — above all his kindness — that I will miss.