Tending Creation

A Presidential Address to the Oxford Diocesan Synod

“The world has woken up to the dangers of single-use plastic” said Sir David Attenborough interviewed by the Daily Mirror a few weeks ago1. He was speaking of course about the public response to Blue Planet 2, the remarkable study of the oceans broadcast here in the autumn and then across the world. Viewers were shocked by footage of albatross parents unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic and a sea turtle caught up in a plastic sack, among other gripping images.

The BBC itself has now banned single-use plastic across the corporation. Plastic-free aisles are appearing in supermarkets. Care for the environment and tending creation is back, it seems, on the national and popular agenda.

The first step in the responsible stewardship of creation in the 21st Century is to accept that the activity of humankind is shaping and changing the very ecosystem of the planet. The volume of discarded plastic in the oceans is choking marine life. The volume of greenhouse gas emissions is leading to a critical rise in global temperatures which leads in turn to dramatic shifts in climate and rising sea levels. Deforestation on a massive scale, caused by humankind, leads to soil erosion which leads to changed weather patterns, which leads to mass migration which is felt across Europe and shapes our political life. Christian Aid has reminded us this Lent that there are 40 million refugees in the world displaced within their own countries.

Humankind is no longer simply one of a number of species on the planet, our fragile and beautiful home. We are the dominant species. The global population stands at 7.6 billion and rising. Our collective need for water, energy, food and our waste are reshaping the planet we inhabit.

In the 21st Century, the Church of Jesus Christ should be at the forefront of tending creation and care for the beauty and life entrusted to us, ensuring that the world can sustain life for future generations. Such is the crisis facing our world, that in the 21st Century, the tending of creation should be at the forefront of the witness and mission of the Church.

In the story of Genesis, God places the man and the woman in the garden to till it and keep it, for the blessing of the earth, not its exploitation. Paul makes clear in Romans 8 that the mission of Christ is to the whole of creation, which groans in labour waiting for the freedom of the children of God. The best-known verse in Scripture, John 3.16 reminds us that God so loved the world, the cosmos, whole of creation that he sent his Son to save it.. The fifth mark of mission of the Anglican Communion goes beyond conservation to restoration and undoing the damage we have inflicted on God’s world. We are called “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

Rubbish accumulates, seas rise and people are displaced and global temperatures rise further year by year. Yet still, there is a lack of energy across the Church and society around this agenda. In 2016 Pope Francis published his great encyclical, Laudato Si’, a letter to every person on the earth pleading for a greater urgency in tending creation.

Pope Francis appeals to his namesake, Francis of Assisi. St. Francis reminds that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. He writes:

“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth itself, burdened and laid waste is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor. She “groans in travail” (Romans 8.22).

Francis quotes his predecessor, Pope Benedict: ““The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts are so vast”(LS217). Francis sets tending the earth at the front and centre of our discipleship and calls for an ecological conversion of individuals and of communities (LS216-221). It is this call to ecological conversion which I want to us to reflect on in this Synod and across our Diocese today. What would it mean?

We are exploring as a Church our call to be a more Christ-like Church: contemplative, compassionate, courageous. A sense of creation runs through the Sermon on the Mount. The meek will inherit the earth. We read of salt and light; of the earth as God’s very footstool; of sun rising and rain falling. We are asked to pray each day not for abundance but for just enough, for daily bread. Jesus calls us to open our eyes and look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He draws lessons from pigs and pearls and wolves, from grapes and thistles, from sand and storms and wind and rocks.

Tending the earth is rooted in contemplation of Scripture and of creation. In Psalm 8 we read: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them”. Creation stirs us to awe and wonder and mystery and wise stewardship of the earth.

How are we to care for the earth unless we have taken time to contemplate its beauty and reflect the beauty and order of creation in our worship?

As we look and listen and ponder, we are drawn then to compassion, to mourning and lament for the wounds of God’s creation. Our looking needs to go beyond gazing at the night sky to the science of our climate. Our gaze needs to pass beyond what can be filmed and shown on our screens to the invisible gases which are causing the rise in global temperature. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases cannot be seen but we can measure and see their effect. Climate change caused by human intervention is a present reality. We feel it least in this temperate climate. For our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world, the effects of climate change are a daily reality. In South Africa, there is severe drought in the east of the country and extreme weather in the west. In Polynesia the oceans are rising. If the world does not take action the human suffering and environmental costs will be incalculable.

In 2015, the nations of the world made an historic agreement in Paris to work together to seek to limit the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees from pre-industrial levels. The Churches and other faith communities have been at the centre of raising awareness of these issues. Our influence across the world is hugely significant, much greater than we think it is. The Church is a global community of people facing common issue of climate change from the perspective of justice and compassion.

Ten years ago, long before the historic Paris agreement, the UK’s environment agency asked 25 leading environmentalists what most needed to happen to limit climate change.

There were 50 suggestions. Second on the list, behind improving energy efficiency was that religious leaders should make the environment a priority for their followers because of the enormous potential influence for change. Imagine the impact if we were truly to do that in this diocese.

Out of a global population of 7.6 billion just 1.1 billion people are secular, non-religious, agnostic or atheist. The remainder belong in some way to one of the great world faiths. 31% of the global population is Christian. 22% belong to Islam. It is our responsibility to give a lead. Together we exert enormous influence as consumers, as shapers of opinion, in our lobbying and voting, in our investments. This is not an issue which will go away or which we can afford to leave to others.

For those reasons we need to move from the call to be contemplative and compassionate to be courageous. We need to deepen the action we are already taking to tend creation for the sake of the whole earth. The ecological conversion needs to be expressed as ecological discipleship.

What are we doing already and how might we deepen and our engagement with this dimension of God’s mission.

Roger Martin and Sally Osberg offer three ways churches, charities, businesses seek to change behaviour and culture: social service provision, social activism and social entrepreneurship. We need to be active in each of these three areas.

Social service provision is part of the life of every parish church. There are people who care passionately about the environment who are already part of our parishes and deaneries and who give freely of their expertise. Martin and Margot Hodson, who work in this area, argue that the parish church itself is an inherently green concept. The more people engage and do things in their own communities, the less energy they use, the more they encourage local skills and businesses. Our Department of Mission is working to connect those who are keen to be a resource in this area through the Earthing the Faith network and make them known to local churches.

As a Diocese together we consist of more than a thousand churches, schools and chaplaincies across our three counties. We are a major consumer of energy and a major source of influence in every community.

I am delighted that the Archdeacons are inviting every Church to switch or consider switching to green energy, to consider an energy audit and to register for the Eco-Church programme. We are putting in place a support programme to help parishes with all of this which will be made known in the next couple of months. This programme is being done in conjunction with the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment – though it will apply to the whole diocese – and through them we have already secured over £17,000, including funding from the Beatrice Laing Foundation, to subsidise these energy audits and to help churches implement their recommendations.

There are already several Eco-Church award winners in the diocese (including in Holy Trinity Headington Quarry, St John’s and St Stephen’s in Reading and St Andrew’s, Chinnor and some fantastic environmental projects in schools. St. George’s Washcommon is one of the first carbon neutral churches in the country.

Cafeplus in Haddenham is a fresh expression of Church with an environmental focus and holds clothing, book and plant swaps, bike services and MOT’s and apple pressing in the autumn. In Wargrave, the church has formed Friends of Mill Green to manage a community space in an environmentally sustainable and friendly way. In Owlswick close to Monks Risborough, the church gained grants to install a composting loo together with disabled access to the toilet and the chapel. St. James Finchampstead won a Church Times green award in 2017 for their biodiversity project. The churchyard project at St Mary and St John Cowley has had a positive impact on the local community. There are too many good stories to tell and to celebrate in one morning. Each is making a contribution. But we can do more.

Social advocacy is vital. I am the patron of a small charity, Hope for the Future, which trains and helps local people lobby their Member of Parliament and local councillors on climate change and environmental issues. We held a training day on advocacy with Hope in the diocese last year and more are planned for 2018. Christian Aid are asking people to ask their banks to disinvest in fossil fuels. We have a motion before us again this morning asking the Church Commissioners to set an example through their investment policy to phase out fossil fuels, to adopt renewable energy in line with the timetable set by the Paris climate change agreement. I’ve spoken to several people across the Diocese who have been inspired by Ruth Valerio’s campaign to give up single-use plastic for Lent. Already this is changing the way people shop and creating conversation both within and outside the church.

We are all aware of the number of new homes which will be built across the Diocese in the next decade. What are we doing to engage with the developers to ensure that they are built to the highest environmental standards for the sake of those who will live in them and for the sake of the earth?

Finally, we need in this area as in others to go beyond social service and social advocacy to social entrepreneurship: to encourage good sensible green businesses which keep jobs on the land locally and for the benefit of the local community. There are many green businesses in the Diocese also which develop green technology which is used very widely.

I shared in my first Plough Wednesday in January organised by our rural team. First stop was the Mapledurham Estate, just north of Reading: managed for a generation to create and keep jobs on the land and in the local economy.  Land which cannot be used for farming has been developed in other ways as a golf course, a centre for paintballing and other outdoor pursuits.  The impact has been significant.

We were introduced for the first time to an anaerobic digester.  Slurry from the cattle goes in, along with maize grown on the estate.  Electricity comes out along with dried residue which is ploughed back into the ground as fertiliser.  Back down the hill then to the working water mill using the energy of the Thames to generate clean electricity.  An essential part of the shift to renewable energy the world over is the move from a few large power plants to many different smaller sources.

As we will hear later in this Synod, there are many different ways in which we are called to work out what it means to be Christ-like: contemplative, compassionate and courageous. One which has emerged consistently in our listening across the Diocese is the urgency of environmental care, the call to tend creation. An essential mark of God’s mission is to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. May Almighty God give us grace and strength to give this mark of mission the priority it deserves and needs and a sense of urgency in our task as we live as disciples of Jesus Christ in this earth, our beautiful and fragile common home.

+Steven Oxford

17th March, 2018.

Abundant Life: discovering together a Common Vision

Address from the Common Vision Area Day at Green Park Conference Centre in Reading, 3 March 2018

Getting ready for Lent

Copyright © 2018 Tom Bower, www.tombower.co.uk

Lent begins this year on Ash Wednesday, 14th February, and lasts for 40 days until Easter.

Lent began in the early church as 40 days of preparation time for new Christians to prepare for baptism at Easter.  Read more

Plough Wednesday: a rural adventure

A couple of weeks ago I had my first experience of “Plough Wednesday”: an annual opportunity to explore rural life and ministry across the Diocese of Oxford with about 40 others.  “Bring wellies and warm clothing” were the instructions.

First stop was the Mapledurham Estate, just north of Reading: an inspiring address from the team whose goal has been for a generation to create and keep jobs on the land and in the local economy.  Land which cannot be used for farming has been developed in other ways as a golf course, a centre for paintballing and other outdoor pursuits.  The impact has been significant.

We drove via the dairy herd up the hill to encounter the anaerobic digester (my first such meeting).  Slurry from the cattle goes in, along with maize grown on the estate.  Electricity comes out along with dried residue which is ploughed back into the ground as fertiliser.  Back down the hill then to the working water mill using the energy of the Thames to generate clean electricity.  An essential part of the shift to renewable energy the world over is the move from a few large power plants to many different smaller sources.  I was struck by the number of obstacles the estate has had to overcome in innovation – particularly from the planners and those who want the countryside to remain unchanged.

We travelled from a large estate to a smaller farm.  The farmer was the fourth generation of his family to work the land here.  He described the key shift he has led from dairy to arable and beef production.  The economy is continually changing with more unpredictable change on the way because of Brexit.  He and his colleagues are passionate about the core purpose of farming: to produce food.  He is eloquent on the fragility of the farming economy and the care with which risks are balanced and decisions are taken.  We see some of the ways his farm has diversified through solar energy, letting sheds and offering storage solutions.

Even a hardy Yorkshireman was feeling cold by this stage.  Lunch was at Bix Manor – very good local soup and Oxfordshire cheeses, paving the way for the afternoon session.  Then onto the Nettlebed estates.  We heard a little bit about bovine tuberculosis and cattle at Shiplake but at Nettlebed there was a chance to hear more about the devastating effects of a positive TB indication on a dairy herd.  Again, we were moved at the resilience needed by the farming community as well as the isolation and loneliness experienced by many farmers.  One of the excellent agencies involved in the day is the Farming Community Network which offers much needed pastoral and practical support.

The other story at Nettlebed was of pioneering cheesemaking.  The estate has begun a new dairy to make local cheeses to great acclaim already.  There are two varieties so far: Bix and St Bartholomew (named for the local church).  A third is in development.  I learned that there is as much care needed in making a good local cheese as a good local wine.  The business is making headway but again needed to overcome significant hurdles.  The farm has installed a scrap wood burning heating system which also heats St. Bartholomew’s Church: another example of energy conservation and good ecology going hand in hand with good business.

A short service of Evening Prayer in the Church drew the day to a close.  I gained new insights into the work of farmers and those involved in the rural community in this part of Oxfordshire and Berkshire.  I came away with the deeper appreciation for our Rural Officer, Glyn Evans and our rural ministry team.  I was given a fresh understanding of the courage, skill, wisdom and determination needed to farm and to manage estates in an uncertain climate.  I give thanks to God for the ingenuity, care for creation and determination we witnessed and all those we met.

Called to be Christ-like

An update on our common vision process

Over a hundred people from across the diocese came together on Saturday 20th January to reflect on progress so far in our common vision process. We gathered as lay chairs, area deans, members of Bishop’s Council and others who had shared in our Common Vision conference in May.

We began our day on Saturday with prayer and worship and dwelling in the Word, looking once again at the Beatitudes and going deeper. We heard “mid-term” reports from the groups looking at the six areas of focus and had the opportunity to test out their thinking in detail. And I launched two new publications from the diocese, published in time for Lent…

What kind of Church are we called to be?

We are exploring together a call to be a more Christ-like Church: contemplative, compassionate and courageous. In September I invited every church, chaplaincy and school in the diocese to explore these themes in many different ways.

We are using two bible passages to resource our thinking. The first is the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Almost 4,000 copies of our short course, Exploring the Beatitudes, have gone out. Many churches have used it already. There has been lots of encouraging feedback about the 3C’s in particular.

My email of the week last week was from the PCC of Upton-cum-Chalvey in Slough. They have decided to add a final point to the agenda of each meeting:

“Have we been courageous, contemplative and compassionate in our discussions and decisions tonight?”

Many churches have set time aside in Lent to look at the Beatitudes material. I was in St. Andrew’s Sonning yesterday, baking bread at an all age Eucharist and talking about Jesus’ picture of yeast and the kingdom: we need to work these passages of Scripture through the whole life of the diocese and that takes time

Abundant Life: Lazarus

This week we are publishing two new resources to help churches and schools to explore what it means to be contemplative, compassionate and courageous and to live an abundant life.

These two resources explore a different Bible passage: the wonderful story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11 and 12.

Yvonne Morris has written a book for children and families co-published with GodVenture. It’s a 32 page full colour family activity sticker book with over 200 stickers.

I have written a series of 21 reflections on the story of Lazarus in the style of Reflections for Daily Prayer.

I wanted to offer something this time for the many people across the diocese who are not part of small groups but want to engage with exploring what it means to be more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous. Hence Abundant Life is suitable for individual and small group study. With this in mind, three outline group discussion sessions will be published online towards the end of the month.

Both books are available to order now and there is a discount for the next couple of weeks. Click one of the pictures below to find out more – for those reading this outside the Diocese of Oxford both resources are relevant in any Church of any denomination as you explore abundant life.



What are we called to do together?

Many deaneries and parishes have their own Mission Action Plans and many are already thinking through what the call to be contemplative, compassionate and courageous mean for their own planning.

There are some things we are called to do together as a diocese as we work with what God is already doing across Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes.

In September we established six working groups to explore the six areas of focus which had emerged from all the listening in the previous year.

On Saturday we had the opportunity to hear the “mid-term” reports from each of the six groups and test out their thinking in detail. My own summary of what the six groups have said so far is below, together with a link to the audio recorded on Saturday for each of the six groups.  

I also gave notice that we need to establish a seventh group to look at re-envisioning church-based work with children and young people across the diocese.

  1. Making a bigger difference in the world and serving the poor
    This group is looking carefully at three common areas of concern: at access to housing across the diocese; at tackling climate change and at putting fresh energy into community engagement.
  2. Sharing our faith with adults, children and young people and growing the local church in every place (rural, urban and suburban)
    This group is exploring contact, conversation and dynamic catechesis as three key ways forward in intentional evangelism and sharing our faith. There is more on catechesis in my December blog post.
  3. Planting new churches and congregations everywhere we can
    A population the size of Edinburgh is due to arrive in the diocese by 2030 (almost half a million people). Engagement with existing churches is falling in some areas. We need a vigorous new strategy for planting new churches and to become a more mixed economy church. This group is proposing a clear goal by 2025 to see 750 new congregations of 15 or more; 50 new churches with over a 100 members and 4 new churches with over 250 members. They also want to see a more permission giving culture and more than 18,000 people in new worshipping communities.
  4. Serving every school in our community
    This group has done a lot of listening to the need to support engagement with every school in the diocese and is beginning now to develop good ways of doing this for the future.
  5. Putting the discipleship of all at the heart of our common life and setting God’s people free.
    This group recognises that it is working on deep cultural issues in our common life and that there are no easy answers. They are exploring how faith is re-ignited, how confidence to live out our faith is increased and how people can be equipped and energised to live as disciples.
  6. Celebrating and blessing our largest, fastest growing city, Milton Keynes
    A new prayer initiative has begun in Milton Keynes. There has been a lot of deep listening. There is a desire to appreciate all that is good but also to think boldly and creatively about ways forward. This group wants to emphasise that it is “not about the money”. They will not be seeking a disproportionate allocation of diocesan resources to Milton Keynes. They have identified six critical ways forward for mission in the city.

You can find more detail of the six groups and who is involved on the Common Vision page of our website.


The gathering spent most of the time on Saturday reflecting in detail on the group’s plans and then reflecting on the deeper cultural issues we face.

There was broad support for the direction of travel which was good to see.

There were also some hard and good questions asked both on detail and the broader picture and process.

I flagged up early in the meeting that we will need to pay attention to how we implement the plans and strategies which emerge from this process.

Drawing it all together

As we move ahead into the second half of the year, I hope the whole diocese will continue to reflect on what it will mean to be a more Christ-like Church: contemplative, compassionate and courageous and the ways in which these work through into the life of every parish and school and chaplaincy and our common life.

The working groups will continue to develop clear, courageous goals grounded in careful listening to God and to the wider church and community. We will be seeking to draw those goals together into a common vision and strategy for the diocese in July for adoption by the Diocesan Synod in the autumn.

Please continue to pray and engage with the process. Details of the ways you can do that are set out below.


+Steven Oxford

Events and communications

We held a Common Vision Development day for the Dorchester Area in the autumn. This term we have three major events, these days are for anyone who would like to come. Click each link to find out more and to book a space.

You can also sign up for our regular eNews, which includes regular updates about the Common Vision process.

A very short history of catechesis

Over thirty years ago, I became Vicar of Ovenden in Halifax.  For all of that thirty years, I have been exploring the ancient-future discipline of helping to form adult Christians in the faith.  The Christian tradition has a name for this discipline: catechesis.

It has long been my conviction that the renewal and reform most needed in the life of the Church of England and the Church in the United Kingdom is the renewal of catechesis: laying the good foundations of faith in the lives of enquirers and new Christians.

Today sees the publication of a new catechism, The Pilgrim Way, as part of the Pilgrim course.  This short article gives the deeper biblical and historical background to catechesis and to the new catechism.

The New Testament

The term catechesis is used from the New Testament onwards as a term for Christian formation and preparation for baptism and lifelong discipleship.  The term is used for the period of formation beginning from first enquiry through to and beyond baptism and being established in the faith.

The gospels were written as tools for catechesis.  Luke is explicitly written to Theophilus “so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been catechized”.

John’s gospel begins with the journey of enquirers to Jesus and ends with an appeal to faith.  The very heart of catechesis is introducing people to Jesus.

Catechesis is concerned with the whole of Christian formation not simply the learning of facts or doctrine.

One way of reading the story of the Emmaus road is as a paradigm story of catechesis: Jesus walks with those who are going in the wrong direction away from Jerusalem.  The four means Jesus deploys in Christian formation are the building of community through listening; attending to the scriptures; prayer and the sacraments; and engaging in witness and mission.  These are four means the Church has used in every age to grow disciples.  Together they form the ways in which we discern the risen Christ.

There are four great metaphors for this process in Scripture.  The first is the journey seen in Exodus and Exile; in the story of the two sons; in the Emmaus and Damascus Road and the earliest description of the Christian faith as the Way.

The other three metaphors are all found in 1 Corinthians 3: Christian formation is a labour of love, like parenting, giving a special diet to those not yet mature; it is a work of partnership with God and with others, like farming, sowing, watering and waiting; it is a work of development, like building, first laying a foundation and then teaching the new disciples how to build well in their own lives.

The word catechesis has at its centre the term “echo”.  Good Christian formation is founded on repetition of certain texts and phrases which become embedded in the heart and a means of transformation (Carol Harrison, Listening in the Early Church, Oxford, 2013). The aim of Christian formation is to create a resounding inner echo of God’s living Word, an image of Christ at the centre of each disciple’s life through learning very simple core texts by heart.

The Early Church

Catechesis in the early centuries of the church was the work of several years of formation and instruction.  To be baptised into a Christian minority was a serious decision.

Catechesis was important and continuous.  It shaped much of the ordinary life of the Church, including its worship.  The early Church deployed an annual cycle of formation leading up to baptism at Easter.  Those who were catechumens and receiving instruction would enrol for baptism in January or February often in response to preaching on particular Sundays.

They would then receive further instruction during the forty days before Easter: the origin of Lent.  The rest of the Church would keep Lent with them as a reminder of their own baptism (see William Harmless, Augustine and the Catechemenate, Pueblo, 1995)

Formation would include community, listening to the scriptures, prayer leading to the sacrament of baptism and the eucharist at Easter and sharing in God’s mission.

The core texts for instruction were the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer although a wide variety of scriptures were used.  There is some evidence that the commandments and the beatitudes were also used in this way.

This pattern of formation was normally led by the bishop and was given priority in his ministry.  He was assisted in this by the presbyters and deacons.

The pattern of formation was remarkably effective and led to the sustained growth of the Church, by the grace of God, as a minority community across the Roman empire.

Augustine has left us a small but powerful essay on catechesis: On instructing beginners in the faith.  Augustine stresses above all the importance of joy in Christian formation:

“Our greatest concern is much more about how to make it possible for those who offer instruction in the faith to do so with joy.  For the more they succeed in this, the more appealing they will be”

The Monastic Movements and the Mediaeval Church

From the conversion of Constantine onwards, the Church grew rapidly and became the majority religion of the Empire.  Baptism as an infant became the norm, decreasing the focus on adult catechesis as the means of entering the Church.

Much of the wisdom on Christian formation was nurtured and developed by the monastic movements.  The monastery was the place to be supported in living a countercultural Christian life in a rhythm of prayer, rest and work.  Benedict seeks to establish in his rule “a school for the Lord’s service in which there is nothing sharp and nothing heavy” – an excellent guide in Christian formation.

The deep Christian formation found in the monastery then inspires the work of preaching, teaching and catechesis in parish churches.  Europe was evangelised by religious communities establishing deep places of formation and prayer from which women and men were sent to love and teach the faith.

This pattern is evident in the evangelisation of Britain from Ireland from the north and by Augustine of Canterbury from the south.  It is evident in the sending of missionaries from Britain into Scandinavia and Germany and in the revival of the great monasteries of France which led eventually to the founding of the great universities.

England from 1287-1530

In 1281 the Archbishop of Canterbury and the English bishops agreed a Lambeth declaration.  The clergy were to expound the Christian faith no less than four times each year.  The content of the faith they were to expound was as follows:

  • The Apostles’ Creed
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • The Commandments
  • The 7 works of mercy (based on Matthew 25)
  • The 7 vices
  • The 7 virtues
  • The 7 sacraments

These elements formed the basis for the teaching of Christian faith in a largely non-literate and non-book culture before the Reformation (see Eamonn Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, Yale, 1992, Chapter 1, How Piers the Plowman learned his Paternoster).

England from 1530-1740

The English Reformers faced a new challenge: the teaching of the recast and reshaped Anglican faith and identity to a population learning to read in the midst of a technological and political revolution.

The key was the development of a simple catechism issued with the Book of Common Prayer in 1548 and revised in 1604 and again in 1662.

The catechism is based on Martin Luther’s shorter catechism.  It is in a simple question and answer format making it easy to learn and remember.  It is based around:

  • The Apostles’ Creed
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • The Ten Commandments

The familiar sentences about the sacraments were added at the 1604 revision.

The catechism was printed as a primer to help people learn to read.  People would learn their letters first and then the be introduced to their first text: the catechism.  This primer became the bestselling book of the 16th Century in Britain (by far).

The same texts were used in Morning and Evening Prayer and the service of Holy Communion.  They were often written on large boards at the front of Churches.

All clergy were expected to give instruction in the catechism every Sunday by law.  The pattern after ordination was first to pay attention to writing and giving your catechetical sermons which were continually revised and renewed.

This investment in catechesis was pursued with great energy.  Between 1530 and 1740 there is evidence of over 1,000 different printed catechisms in English.  All or part of over 600 still survive (see Ian Green, The Christians ABC, Catechisms and Catechizing in England, 1530-1740).

This focus on catechetical work also results in the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1646  and the powerful series of addresses on catechesis by Richard Baxter, Vicar of Kidderminster, The Reformed Pastor, published in 1657 and hugely influential.

Catechisms become in this period a way of more closely defining doctrine as this became contested rather than simply means of teaching and communicating faith.  For this reason they became longer and, paradoxically, less useful for teaching enquirers.

From 1740 to the present day

John and Charles Wesley and the Methodist movement make a very substantial contribution to the English tradition of catechesis through the creation of special provision for adults who are seeking to learn the faith through bands and classes.  They return to the principles of the early Church in setting catechesis at the heart of the life of the local church with remarkable effect.

There is some evidence that these were imitated in home meetings in Anglican churches through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which also saw the rise of the Sunday School movement and an immense investment in the teaching of the faith to children and young people.

Through the twentieth century, the disciplined practice of catechesis was in decline and neglected for much of the century.  There are many reasons for the decline of the Church of England in the twentieth century but one of the most significant is the neglect of the regular, systematic teaching of the Christian faith to enquirers and new Christians.

The Roman Catholic Church invested significantly in catechesis in the period following the Second Vatican Council, publishing the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults in 1974 and the Catechism in 1994.

In the late 1980’s and through the 1990’s the discipline saw something of a revival of catechesis in the Church of England through the development of nurture groups and process evangelism courses (Alpha, Emmaus and Christianity Explored).  This revival of catechesis remains the principal factor behind the growth in some parts of the Church of England over the last 30 years.

This rediscovery of catechesis was practice led: parishes discovered through trial and error what was effective in nurturing new Christians and then spread that good practice.  This was supported by research (particularly by John Finney and Robert Warren).  Theological connections began to be made with the catechetical practice of the early Church and with the Roman Catholic renewal of catechesis.

The Church of England sought to draw its parishes back to the principles of catechesis in the 1995 report, On the Way and to draw together liturgical practice and Christian formation.  On The Way argues for a return to the four texts of the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Commandments and the Beatitudes.  The report was not widely taken up but remains a key text for the study of the discipline.  On the Way had significant influence on the development of the Common Worship initiation services.

In 2012, the House of Bishops of the Church of England commissioned further work on catechesis in what became the Pilgrim course.  The four Pilgrim authors (Robert Atwell, Stephen Cottrell, Paula Gooder and myself) sought to work within this long tradition of catechesis in developing the Pilgrim materials in focussing on the four texts and also returning to the Emmaus road disciplines of listening to create community, attending to scripture, prayer and the sacraments and engaging in mission.  Many other bishops and teachers contributed to the development of Pilgrim.

Pilgrim has been widely used across the Church since publication. Over 150,000 books and other resources have been sold.

The Pilgrim Way – a new catechism

The Pilgrim authors printed the (largely forgotten) Revised Catechism of the Church of England as part of the Pilgrim Leader’s Guide, partly to show we were working in this ancient and modern tradition of catechesis (http://www.pilgrimcourse.org).

A couple of years ago we began work on a new catechism for Pilgrim, to support new Christians in their journey of faith.  The Pilgrim Way was published as part of the faith section of the new Church of England website a couple of weeks ago.  It is published this week as a short booklet, The Pilgrim Way, a guide to the Christian faith.  We have consciously worked in the great tradition of Christian formation to develop a simple, accessible tool for a deeply spiritual and vital task of ministry.

A further renewal and revival of catechesis is needed in the contemporary Church of England, working within this great tradition but taking advantage of new digital technology to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation.

+Steven Oxford

Order The Pilgrim Way from Church House Publishing

Seven reasons to say the Lord’s Prayer each day

Most of us learn the Lord’s Prayer as children. But then we forget what it means. Over the last few weeks I have found myself teaching the Lord’s Prayer to several different congregations – over 2000 people in all, including many young people.

We live in a world and a country with poor mental health.  Yesterday the government announced £300 million new funding for children with mental health measures. It’s welcome but already people are saying it won’t be enough.

There is increasing evidence that our consumer culture actually undermines mental health, especially in the young, and creates a deeply demoralised society prone to depression and other mental health conditions[1].

Jesus gives his disciples a prayer not to teach them to be pious but to help people everywhere to live well and flourish.

Here are seven reasons why the Lord’s Prayer is good for mental health – seven reasons to say the Lord’s Prayer, as Jesus intends, every day.

  1. To remember who you are

Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name

To say the first line of the Lord’s Prayer is to answer the deep question of identity at the heart of our culture. We no longer know who we are.

The first line of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we are not random specks of matter floating through an infinite universe: we are created and called into relationship with our creator who loves us as a parent loves their child.  We are called into relationship with our fellow men and women as sisters and brothers.  You are loved and your life has meaning.

  1. To find courage to live well in an imperfect world

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven

The world is not yet as it was intended to be.  God is at work within it, bringing justice and peace.  That work was begun in Jesus Christ but is not yet complete.

We are aware of the suffering in the world like no other generation before us because of 24-hour news and instant reporting from anywhere in the world.  We need a framework to understand that immense suffering and the evil in the world in order to know how to live.

  1. To find the only way to be content

 Give us this day our daily bread

All year we are bombarded by advertising: every time we look at a screen or listen to the radio or open a magazine.  The single aim of advertising is to steal our joy and create discontent and longing for more stuff or different experiences.

Jesus teaches his followers to pray each day not for more but for just enough.  This is the open secret of what it means to be content and find joy in this life: to realise and appreciate what we have.  This line alone is the antidote to the misery created by consumer culture (especially at this time of year).

  1. To learn to live with our imperfections

Forgive us our sins….

Sins are the ways in which we fall short of the ideal.  All of us do that.  But our culture creates expectations of perfection.  We think we are supposed to look good, perform well, make a great impression in every moment of our lives.

Jesus gives us a prayer to say every day which simply acknowledges that we fall short – we are not perfect people. Each day we can come to God and ask forgiveness and seek help and strength for the day.

  1. To learn to live with the imperfections of others

….as we forgive those who sin against us

The Lord’s Prayer reminds me that other people are imperfect as well.  I need a way to deal with my own rubbish and with theirs. Otherwise all my relationships will be spoiled and clogged up and I will increasingly be alone (which is actually what happens to people who are unable to forgive).  Somewhere near the root of many mental health conditions is isolation.

Jesus offers us this prayer to say each day in which I let go of and forgive the things others have done to me: the small slights, the neglect, the careless words, and begin again.

  1. To be resilient in a challenging world

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

Consumer culture eats away at our resilience by persuading us that life should really be comfortable and easy all the time. That is one of the deepest lies ever told.

Human life is difficult. Over the course of your life you will face many challenges: illness, adversity, relationships which go wrong, failure and, in the end, mortality.

To live well is to have an understanding that life is challenging and hard, because of the imperfections in the world, in yourself and in others.  But strength and help are available in God in all circumstances.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer each day is to prepare yourself for whatever difficulties lie ahead.

  1. To understand the end of the story

For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.

This part of the prayer was added by the Church.  It’s not there in the two places in the Bible where Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer (in Matthew 6 and Luke 11).  It takes us back to the beginning.  It reminds us that a life lived well is a life lived with purpose to the glory of God.

It reminds us that in the end, God holds the end of the story.  God will bring all things to completion.  God will watch over us through this life and welcome us, beyond death, into the life to come.  That God is over all and in everything and all manner of things shall be well.

Most of us learn the Lord’s Prayer as children but never fully understand what it means.  It’s impossible to exhaust all the meaning in the prayer.

But say it, if you can, every day of your life to remember your identity, to find courage, to learn contentment, to live with your imperfections and those of other people, to build resilience and to understand the end of the story.

+Steven Oxford

[1] See John F Schumaker, The Demoralised Mind, New Internationalist, April, 2016 https://newint.org/columns/essays/2016/04/01/psycho-spiritual-crisis

A Beatitudes Hymn

All six regular readers of this blog will know that I attempt at least one new hymn every year as the verse for my Christmas card.

I’m under no illusions that they will endure.  I love words and enjoy crafting them in different ways.  The satisfaction is as much in the writing as in the singing.

The text I have spent the most time with this year is Matthew 5.1-10: the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.  I’ve recently asked every community in the Diocese of Oxford to spend some time dwelling in this text and exploring what it means as we seek to be a more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous church.

A hymn is one way of dwelling in the text.  Each half verse takes one beatitude as its theme.  It’s not a translation of the words but a reflection on them and especially on the idea that the beatitudes offer us a self-portrait of Christ.

I’m not a musician so always write to a particular and well known tune.  The tune this year is Blaenwern, best known as the setting for Charles Wesley’s magnificent hymn, Love Divine.  Hum it to yourself as you read the words.

You’re welcome to reproduce the hymn and use it if it’s helpful.  Let me know how it goes.

Our new three session course for small groups on the beatitudes can be ordered here.

Gracious Lord, our hands are empty

Beggars seeking life and grace

Graft our lives into your own life

Gift your Spirit in this place

Hearts of stone we lift for blessing

Hearts of flesh we seek anew

Help our eyes see with compassion

Comforter, our joy renew


Servant Lord, you came in meekness

Stooping low to show our worth

Banish pride, restore love’s sweetness

Help us heal your wounded earth

Give us hunger for your kingdom

Thirst to see your ways prevail

Satisfy our hope for justice

Make us lights which will not fail


Living Lord, your name is mercy,

Love made flesh in life and word

Kindness shown to the unworthy

Grace which can be touched and heard

Pure in heart, you offer wholeness

Open eyes that cannot see

Win for all complete forgiveness

Come to set your people free


Son of God we seek your healing

Over this fragmented globe

Mend our lives, our homes, our nations

Making peace, one seamless robe

Help your church to be courageous

Joined in your eternal search

For the lost, the least, the helpless

Make us more a Christ like Church

The Mission Community of St Frideswide

On Wednesday of last week, I was able to license the Revd. Kate Seagrave as Mission Priest to St Fridewide’s church and parish in Oxford and to a new community in Oxford, the Mission Community of St Frideswide.

For some years the Osney benefice has been thinking and praying about the future of St. Frideswide’s Church on Osney Island, near to the centre of Oxford.  The idea was born of a new centre for prayer and spirituality spanning the traditions.  St. Mary Magdalene and St. Aldate’s are both involved in the partnership.

As I thought and prayed last year about the city of Oxford as the incoming bishop, I came with two initiatives in mind specifically for the city.  The first was to establish a new monastic community which would draw some of the young adults in the city together in prayer and community life and service of the poor.  The second was around teaching the faith and more on that story later.

As I talked with those who had been praying about St. Frideswide’s Church, we found that there was real overlap and synergy between our different visions.

There are several traditional religious communities in the Diocese of Oxford.  All of them have been praying for some years for the renewal and rebirth of the call to religious life and community.

We found in the Community of St. Mary the Virgin a religious community which is willing to be a partner in this new venture: to pray for the fledgling new monastic community; to share its own wisdom about life in community and to offer financial support through its trustees.  We hope to be in conversation in the coming months with the other religious communities in the diocese seeking their support.

Thousands of young Christians come to the city of Oxford each year.  Many are preparing for a lifetime of service in a whole range of different professions in the United Kingdom and across the world.  Many would value time in the period between their studies and the beginning of their working lives to offer to God and to learn the deeper skills of community, prayer, and mission.

Planning for the new mission community is at an early stage.  We hope that by this time next year we will have two or three small households of young people who agree to live together for a year at a time, keeping a common rule of life, engaging in mission of various kinds, preparing for all kinds of service in the future.  We hope that we will also find a way to unite people across the city in a common rule of life to form a broader community of prayer and in mission.

As we plan we are trying to be sensitive to the Spirit and open to the wisdom of a great many people.  Kate’s task in this first few months will be to be to have open ears and lead that process of discernment and planning.

There has been a sense through the project so far of God’s call, of many different strands coming together and of a sense of God’s life and blessing.

St. Frideswide is the patron saint of Oxford.   We mark her festival this week.  As a young woman, Frideswide dedicated her life to God and to others.  She founded a religious community for men and women in which they could dedicate their lives to prayer, to a common life and to service of the poor.  She was a leader in mission across the city and the surrounding area.

The city and university and diocese grew up around a community of welcome and gentleness and kindness and hospitality.

As a Diocese, we are taking a year to return to the source of our vision and life: to Jesus Christ.  We are exploring what it means to be a Christ-like Church.

We are taking as our text the Beatitudes from Matthew 5.  That text will also be the centre of the life of our new monastic community.

The community will seek to live out what it means to be a Christ-like Church.  First in contemplation: rooted in prayer and seeking to dwell in the presence of the Lord and encouraging the wider Church to explore and enrich our life of prayer.

Second in compassion: ministering to those most in need in our city, not out of our own capacity but in the power of the Spirit; serving in partnership; seeking to serve those who are at the margins and most vulnerable.

And third in courage: this will be a community that seeks to be courageous in all they are and do: courageous in discipleship and listening; in confession; in repentance; in forgiveness and in welcome; courageous in proclaiming the Gospel through the life of the community.

Please pray for this new venture in both this parish and in the new community.  Share your wisdom and encouragement with us as we move forward.  Pray for Kate Seagrave as she leads us, especially in these early months.  If God calls you, become involved.

Let us see together what God will do as we seek to become a more Christ-like Church

A Kimberley and Kuruman diary

I’ve just come back from my first visit to South Africa.  The Diocese of Oxford has been linked for many years with the Diocese of Kimberley and Kuruman.  K and K covers a vast area (someone said the size of Germany): mining towns and sparsely populated rural communities. I spent four days in Kimberley with over fifty people involved in links and partnerships across our two diocese.  Here’s a snapshot. 

Thursday 14th September

I arrive at Kimberley Airport after an 18 hour journey from Oxford.  The welcome is amazing.  I’m met by a Marimba band from the cathedral school, Bishop Ossie, Archdeacon Olivia, a crowd waving flags, singing and dancing and some (bemused) officials from the airport.  The party goes on for some time.

Bishop Ossie and I preside together at the opening Eucharist at the conference venue then introduce our respective dioceses.  The planning team introduce the conference.  We dwell in the Word and begin to get to know each other.  I sleep well on my first night in South Africa.

Friday 15th September

Study together around three of our four themes.  First discipleship with Bishop Martin Breytanbach, who leads on this for the Province of South Africa.  It’s a good presentation but I’m distracted by glad tidings of great joy (see below).

Second Care for Creation.  The highlight of the day.  The Revd. Dr. Rachel Mash leads on environmental issues for the Anglican Church in the Southern Africa and for the Anglican Communion.  She gives a passionate and rich and hopeful presentation.  I take pages of notes.  Fact of the day: an average rise in global temperatures of 1.5% (what the world is aiming for) means a 3% rise in South Africa.  One half of the country is already living with water shortages and the other with rising sea levels and extreme weather events.  This is a present reality not a future threat.

The whole conference is inspired.  I invite Rachel to come to our clergy conference next year.

Our third issue is Advocacy on Inequality with input from Canon Professor Graham Ward of Christ Church (linked with St Cyprian’s Cathedral) and the Revd. Dr Janet Trisk.  Again, expert presentations and deeply challenging.

Just before we break, the two bishops announce that Catharine Morris, from Oxford, became engaged that morning to Father Vusi, from Kimberley and Kuruman.  Joy and song break out across the gathering.  A gala dinner that evening, courtesy of our hosts.  The visiting team scrub up well.  I discover that both bishops are expected to dance.  Bishop Ossie is rather good….

Saturday 16th September

A visit to the Macgregor Museum in Kimberley to learn the history of the region and, of course, the long struggle against apartheid and the part Britain played as the colonial power.  I know the story but see it afresh and painfully through African eyes.

Then we are joined by (I guess) around a hundred young people from churches across the Diocese: more Marimba; more singing and dance; more conversation about including young people fully in the life and decision making of the Church (our fourth theme).  We have several youth leaders in our team.  The South African young people are a delight.  I meet a group of teenagers wanting to know how to be priests and a young ordinand in her early twenties.  The Link is helping to support her training.

Sunday 17th September

The group from Oxford visits several parishes in the area. Our group drive out to one of the poorest areas, St. Paul’s Parish.  The houses we pass gradually become smaller until they are, mainly, simple shacks in great numbers.  Hundreds gather for the main Sunday service including many children and young people.  I am invited to preside as well as preach.  It is an extraordinary honour.

The service is full of joy and singing and dance.  There is no band: all the instruments are within the congregation: a drum, a whistle, bells,  Christ is present.  The Churchwardens and the Priest explain to me that they would love a link with an Oxford parish.  The Vicarage has been condemned as unsafe so the priest has to drive in from a rented house 10 km away each time someone is sick or dies.  The parish has just begun a major fundraising effort to replace the house.

Father Tire, our guide, tells me his memories of a priest in St Paul’s during the apartheid years.  The police would come to wherever he was Sunday by Sunday and after the service they would arrest him and beat him and hold him prisoner for several days. Still the next week he would return.

In the afternoon the whole group gather again at St. Cyprian’s Cathedral.  We do further work on our four themes and how we will walk together in the future.  The day finishes with choral evensong.  I present Bishop Ossie with a framed graphic to remind them of Oxford’s journey with the beatitudes this coming year and ask Kimberley and Kuruman to pray for us.

Monday 18th September

We gather and say thank you and depart.  It has been a profound and good learning experience for all of us, I think.  I leave strongly committed to the link, to Kimberley and Kuruman, thankful for new companions on the journey not blind to the challenges but also full of hope.

Thanks be to God and to all who led us in our days together.  More stories and pictures from the visit are here.

+Steven Oxford