Fifteen years ago, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube didn’t exist. Today, 67% of people in the UK are active users of at least one of them, and we now spend almost two hours each day on social media. Yet society is increasingly fearful of the risks of fake news and harmful content and distrustful of the very platforms that consume so much of our time.

Our lives are irreversibly online, lived with ever decreasing levels of privacy and hyperstimulated to a relentless place. Few of us have stopped to properly consider what it means to live well in this age, but as Christians, we have an essential part to play in the shape of online society.

This week the national Church launched a Digital Charter, which includes guidelines and a pledge that anyone can add their name to as part of a personal commitment to making social media a more positive place. I’ve signed up to the Charter, and I hope you will too.

As a Diocese, we’ve been spending time exploring what it means to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world. It’s a journey that started three years ago as we studied the Beatitudes together. Recently I’ve begun to ponder what those eight beautiful qualities might mean for social media and our online lives.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I will remember that my identity comes from being made and loved by God, not from my online profile.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted This world is full of grief and suffering.
I will tread softly and post with gentleness and compassion.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
I will not boast or brag online, nor will I pull others down.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
There are many wrongs to be righted. I will not be afraid to name them and look for justice in the world.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
I will not judge others but be generous online. I will be conscious of my own failings.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
I will be truthful and honest, and I will not pretend to be what I am not.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God
I will seek to reconcile those of different views with imagination and good humour.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I will not add to the store of hate in the world, but I will try to be courageous in standing up for what is right and true.

You can download a card (colour version | black and white version) to keep near your phone and tablet and share this social media graphic online.

Advances in technology have brought sharp ethical dilemmas and deeper questions of human identity. There are important debates to be had about the exploitation of our personal data, along with the threats (and benefits) of AI. These will take time and will require legislation, but we can also do something right now: let us each play our part in making social media kinder.

 

+Steven
June 2019

Further reading:

#CofECharter

Protestors with banners at a Youth strike for climate march in central London

I was in Westminster on 26 June with over 16,000 people. Thousands more were with us in spirit. We were meeting and marching and lobbying because the time is now to arrest the emission of greenhouse gases which are causing such lasting damage to the Earth.

“When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have ordained…”

From earliest times, people of faith have looked to the heavens and creation. The view of the night sky even seen with the naked eye evokes awe and wonder and a sense of God’s majesty. We are drawn to worship and also to the psalmist’s ancient question. Beneath the great canopy of the heavens and the vastness and beauty of the skies, what are human beings? Who are we, and where do we find our place?

Telescopes and space exploration and the sciences only add to that sense of mystery. We are in a vast universe. As far as we know, this is the only planet able to support the evolution of life in the form we know it here.

Christians see God’s hand in this as creator and see humanity as the pinnacle of creation, able to appreciate the glory and splendour of the galaxies. Christians and atheists alike acknowledge the slender balance by which life has been able to evolve on planet earth and the delicate forces which enable life to flourish over tens of millions of years.

But in the last century and a half, this balance has tipped. There is now a different answer to the question: “What are human beings?” We have entered the Anthropocene era. The world’s population and our technology is altering the delicate balance of life on Earth.

As we look to the other planets in the solar system and beyond it is terrible but not difficult to imagine what could happen to us. We are complicit in the creation of an environmental catastrophe which is already changing the climate. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Global heating continues and is likely to accelerate as a variety of feedback loops are engaged. Life on Earth is about to change in apocalyptic ways during the remainder of this century if we continue to do next to nothing.

The Bible is rich in images of hell. One such image is that of the flood waters rising bringing chaos, which will be the reality for coastal towns and cities across the world. One is a place too hot to live. This week much of Europe is preparing for a heat wave and temperatures high enough to endanger life on a massive scale. Another is of a rubbish dump. As I write this, the Guardian reports the news that the UN Special Rapporteur says our world is increasingly at risk of “climate apartheid”, where the rich pay to escape heat and hunger caused by the escalating climate crisis while the rest of the world suffers. These are the futures we are bequeathing to our children.

I have been gripped over recent weeks by the BBC drama, Years and Years. I cannot say I enjoyed watching it. Russell Davies attempts to chart the future across the next decade. In the final episode, Muriel (played by Anne Reid) looks back across 10,000 days and declares to her whole family (and to us):

“It’s our fault. This is the world we built.”


What kind of world is each of us helping to build? That is the question today for politicians, for churches, for citizens, for discipleship. Setting the care for the earth again at the front and centre of our politics and our lives must be the priority if there is a fair and rich future for life on earth.

 

+Steven Oxford

#TheTimeisNow

We stand at a key moment in the life of our Diocese. For two years, we have been exploring God’s call to us and our common vision. What kind of Church are we called to be? A more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous. We want to set that vision of Christ at the heart of who we are. This remains our central vision.

(If you would prefer to watch +Steven deliver this address, scroll to the bottom of this page for the video.)

What are we therefore called to do together next? We have listened with God to the big questions facing our world: the environment; questions of poverty and equality; mental health; the challenges and opportunities we have as a Diocese. We have begun to respond to those questions in seven different areas of focus.

The first two parts of our common vision process continue. But a third question has come into focus over the last few months and will be our focus for the remainder of this year. How do we all share in this common vision? How do we enable every local church, every deanery, every benefice, every parish, every Christian to share in this process and find our place?

That question was our focus as the Bishop’s Council gathered at High Leigh a few weeks ago with over a hundred representatives nominated by each Deanery. It is my focus this morning. It will be our focus at four Area Days in the autumn. We hope every parish will share in those.

The challenge is significant and vital. How do we help one another move forward together in good and appropriate ways? We are, as we know, a living growing network of more than a thousand churches, chaplaincies and schools across three counties, serving vastly different communities. Each local place has its own texture and story, and so does each church. We are large churches and small churches. We are churches of every different tradition. We are chaplaincies and schools as well as parishes. How do we all find our place and discern what we are called to do as we work together?

There is a powerful moment in the story of the call of the first disciples told in Luke 5. Jesus is teaching by the lakeside. He gets into the boat of Simon Peter. After he has finished teaching, he says to Simon: “Put into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch”.

Simon answered, “Master we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets”.

They put into deep water. They find a miraculous catch. Simon falls to his knees, saying: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. Jesus says to him: “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching people”.

I hope that this is the moment when we want to say to each other as parishes and benefices and deaneries:

“Put into deep water and let down your nets for a catch”.

I expect that some people at least will respond in a similar way to the disciples: “Look, we have worked all night and caught nothing”. Ministry has not been too fruitful of late. The things we have done are not really making a difference.

But I hope they will go on to say: “Because that is the call of Jesus we will let down the nets”.

And I hope that in many different places, there will be the equivalent of a miraculous catch of fish: new disciples; renewed vocations in the workplace; a fresh relationship with schools; new congregations planted; childrens and youth work renewed; good news for the poor; the captives set free; signs of the Kingdom in ways we do not expect.

And I hope that in many different places we will fall down on our knees to God in wonder and amazement: “Depart from me O Lord for I am a sinful person” as we see the great harvest of the Kingdom beyond our expectations.

Two important principles

How do we help every parish and benefice and deanery engage with this big vision for mission as a more Christ-like Church? Before I talk about some very practical tools, let me first establish two important principles.

The first turns around that moment in the gospel story where Simon Peter responds to Jesus:

“If you say so I will let down the nets”.

If our common vision process is only about doing what the Bishop says or what the Diocese says then we will not bear fruit. The Church of Jesus is simply not that kind of organisation. I do not have the power or the authority to enable this vision to happen or to persuade PCC’s in distant corners of the Diocese to do any part of it. Nor do I want such authority.

The only person in the life of the Church who is able to call the Church to mission is Christ. It is when the local church hears the call of Christ that we will let down the nets: because you say so. That is why the process of renewal begins and continues and ends in encountering God in Jesus Christ and setting Christ again at the centre of our common life. As we focus on Christ then we begin to hear in different ways that call to be good news to the poor and set the captives free. We hear again the command to put out into deep water and let down the nets. We engage in mission in ways which are life-giving to the church do not drain away our energy.

Because you say so. Because Christ says so: Jesus who is fully God and fully human. Christ who shows us what God is like and Christ who shows us what it is to live an abundant life.

Many a parish vision statement flounders because God’s people do not first catch a fresh vision of Christ and all they hear is because the Vicar says, so I will let down the nets. Even more diocesan visions fail because God’s people do not first catch a fresh vision of Christ. All they hear is because the Bishop says so I will complete my mission action plan. But when we hear the call of Christ in the Scriptures and in the beauty and need of the world, then we are ready for the deep.

That is why it is vital to keep our call to be Christ-like right at the centre of everything we do in common vision. That’s why it is vital for local churches to engage with this process at the right pace. That is why tools and resources need to be full of hope and life and full of Christ’s call, not ours.

My second principle is that this common vision and call will unfold in very different ways in our very different deaneries and parishes.

We are not all the same. We are not all in the same place in our growth and development.

God’s Spirit is a Spirit of infinite variety and creativity. Right from the beginning, let’s give one another the opportunity to do things differently. That is essential because of our different contexts, but also it’s something to delight in for its own sake.

Another danger of parish and diocesan visions is that they value too much the virtues of standardisation, efficiency and control: a tendency that John Drane and others have called the McDonaldisation of the Church.

But those virtues are the opposite of the gifts the Spirit brings of creativity, diversity, new gifts and life. It is those gifts we need to cherish in our common vision process. Church is often renewed through what happens at the margins and on the edge. Church is rarely renewed from the centre and by the plans of bishops.

Our goal is not to encourage as many churches as possible to do the same thing in the same way. Our goal should be to encourage churches to engage in common vision in a thousand different ways according to local discernment and to learn from one another as we go.

New tools and resources

So what are the tools we are developing to help local churches and deaneries engage with the process? They are summarised in this leaflet.

Development fund documentationThe first is our development fund, which is formally launched today. All the documents about the fund are live on the website now. Applications are open for the first round of funding. We are making £1 million per year available for three years to support local mission. Not every response to common vision will need funding. Many will be resourced locally. But making funds available in these ways we hope will help and encourage local creativity and diversity and lead to the renewal of good local mission.

PIcture of some of the cards from the Parish Planning Tool

The second is our Parish Planning Tool, building on all we have learned through Mission Action Planning and appreciative enquiry tools and Partnership for Missional Church. We hope that parishes and deaneries will pick up and begin to engage with the tool as we move into the autumn as the time is right for you to renew your present plan.

The Parish Planning Tool is not something you have to use. It is a resource to help. It’s a tool which is designed to build hope and confidence and put the value of being a more Christ-like Church right at the heart of our planning for mission. The Parish Planning Tool is in its final stage of development. It will be published in August for use in September and can be pre-ordered here.

Cover image, principles for Deep Water FishingThe third is a new series of Bible Studies, Principles of Deep Water Fishing (available to pre-order), which I hope will resource this particular part of our common vision process. They are based on the talks I was able to give at the High Leigh conference on Acts 16-20, and I hope will help local churches catch the vision for what it means to put out into Deep Water.

The fourth is a series of four Area Days in the autumn. Invitations will go out to every parish in the next week or so and we will invite every place to send some people to catch the next stage of the vision and to work with the new planning tool.

Common vision in the life of the Diocese

Finally and briefly, what is happening to common vision in the life of the Diocese? There are new developments in each of the seven focus areas. These were reported at High Leigh, and the short films of those reports are on the diocesan website.

Our plans for chaplaincy in schools are moving forward well. Personal Discipleship Plans have gone well in the pilot stages and are beginning to be rolled out across the Diocese. We are preparing two major bids to the national Strategic Development Fund to support the development of new congregations, the first for the whole Diocese and the second focusing on Milton Keynes; environmental audits are being slowly taken up by parishes; our working group on children and young people is due to report in the autumn.

The Bishop’s Staff and Bishop’s Council have given very careful thought to the proposal to increase our capacity in the three large Episcopal Areas. As you know, three of our archdeaconries are twice the average size, and the archdeacons’ workload is increasing. We agreed in May to a proposal to appoint three full-time assistant archdeacons, one in each area, to build on the excellent work being done by our current assistant archdeacons. We propose funding that for the initial year from our common vision funds and then blended funding thereafter hopefully thereafter as part of our normal running budget with the proportion increasing by 20% per annum. However, we recognise that this decision needs to be fully owned and understood by this Synod and so we will bring this one back in November with a paper to give Synod a full opportunity to comment before we move ahead.

There is much more going on in the life of the Diocese than can be embraced by common vision. The 2018 Synod Reports give a fuller picture. I also want to draw Synod’s attention to the development of our voluntary chaplaincy to LGBTI people and their families that fulfils one of our commitments in the Pastoral Letter, Clothed with Love which we issued in November.

We are called together to put into deep water and let down the nets. We are called to do this not because of any human imperative or scheme. We are called to do this because of the call of Christ. May Christ continue to be at the centre of all we seek to be and do together.

Bishop of Oxford
Presidential address to Diocesan Synod
15 June 2019

Watch Bishop Steven deliver this address

Click the speaker icon in the bottom right of the video frame to switch on audio.

The Time is Now: The past, present and future of climate change

 

I’m taking time out on Wednesday 26th June to be in Westminster. On that day the Climate Coalition will draw together thousands of people from every corner of Britain. We will be there to tell our politicians that the time is now to end our contribution to climate change and protect our natural environment. There will be a march and a mass lobby of MP’s. Please come and join us. Full details are here theclimatecoalition.org/thetimeisnow

I’ll be there with many of our senior team and, I hope, hundreds of people from the Diocese of Oxford. It’s good that each of us takes responsibility for our own waste and energy. It’s great our churches are having energy audits and thinking about their investments. But to deal with the greatest crisis of the age: the growing climate catastrophe we also need to make our voice heard with many, many others.

Why now?

This summer, the Government will decide whether or not it will plan to end the UK’s contribution to climate change by committing to a net zero emissions target. The recent report of the UK Committee for Climate Change believes it is possible and necessary to do that by 2050. Earlier would be better.

This summer Government will also have the opportunity to agree to a new, strong Environment Bill. We are in the midst of political turmoil as a nation. All of our national attention is consumed by Brexit and a change of Prime Minister.

This is the moment to put climate change back on the political agenda. That can only happen as people show we care enough to be there.

The bishops of the Anglican Communion will come to Lambeth in 2020, many from areas of the world already scarred by drought and storms and deserts and rising sea levels. They are our sisters and brothers. What will we say to them? The United Kingdom is bidding to host the vital United Nations Climate Change Conference, also in 2020. These are the critical make or break years for the future of the Earth. Can we make our voice heard?

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. John 3.16 reminds us that God so loved the world, the cosmos, whole of creation that he sent his Son to save it. But faced with a growing climate crisis, there has been insufficient energy or interest across the Church in recent years.

There are some hopeful signs and prophetic voices. David Attenborough continues to speak powerfully for the Earth through books and documentaries. Greta Thunberg has mobilised a generation to seek to lift climate change up the political agenda. We must not leave them to carry this issue alone, or to the more strident and militant voices that will grow unless governments respond with action and commitment.

Three new books are unflinching in the lessons they have to share with us. They spell out the urgent need for a global, political and economic way forward:

Learning from the past: Losing Earth

Nathaniel Rich has recently published Losing Earth: the decade we could have stopped climate change. Rich tells the story of the attempt to limit global warming in from 1979 to 1989 by restricting greenhouse gas emissions. For a short time there was a window, following the discovery of the “hole” in the ozone layer. Action was taken globally to restrict the use of gases which caused this.

But our politicians failed us when it came to global warming. More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since 1989 than in the entire history of civilisation preceding the first global climate change conference. Why have our politicians failed us? Partially, it’s because you and I, the voters in the democracies, looked away. We simply could not face the reality of what was coming towards us. We still can’t.

The New York Times recently published an interactive presentation by Nathanial Rich. It’s well worth a look. 

Learning from the future: The Uninhabitable Earth

A second journalist looks to the future. David Wallace Wells published The Uninhabitable Earth: A story of the Future earlier this year. The opening line of the book is all you need to know:

“It is worse, much worse than you think”.

The book explores the catastrophic effects of present and future climate change (future means within my lifetime and the lifetime of my children). The chapter headings are sobering enough: heat death (as temperatures rise), hunger (as we cannot grow food), drowning (as sea levels rise), wildfire (as nature burns) and unbreathable air.

Today, 5 June, is World Environment Day, and the theme is growing air pollution. A report published yesterday by the European Academies Science Advisory Council concludes that almost 30,000 early deaths a year in the UK could be prevented by ending the burning of fossil fuels.

The substance of every single chapter of Wells’ book was worse than I expected it to be. The science is irrefutable. We are on a path to three or four or more degrees of global warming. Radical change is needed now to limit that warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees. We are currently failing. Even if we are “successful”, we are still talking about damage limitation.

Half of all British Co2 emissions come from 4 sources; inefficient construction, food waste, electronics and clothing. In the US, the same 4 categories account for 66 per cent of wasted energy.

Eliminating Co2 increase now is much easier than (theoretically) trying to remove it later. Wallace Wells makes this point forcefully and highlights the gap between theoretical, technological promise and current reality.

At the present rate of change, a MIT 2018 study shows that we will take 400 to years to get to fully clean energy. And while the cost of solar energy has fallen 80% since 2009, current technology proof-of-concept plants show we would need a billion Carbon Capture and Storage plants to reduce the carbon count by just 20ppm.

The second part of the book explores the central paradox of climate change: at one level we know that change is happening, yet we do nothing year after year – in fact, together we are creating an abyss of human suffering. I will explore this further in a future article, but the question we face is stark: ‘Will we simply burn ourselves up and destroy the environment we need to survive? Will the Earth we love become as barren as Mars and Venus?’

Lessons for the present: There is No Planet B: a handbook for the Make or Break Years

Mike Berners Lee is a professor in the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University. He’s written one of the best practical handbooks on how to live in the present and on what needs to change.

There are no single, simple solutions. We all have our responsibilities. Flying less or changing our energy supplier or eating less beef are all good things to do. But to avert this catastrophe we also need to look at the larger picture…

 

The time is now

We need a global, political and economic way forward. An essential building block is a national, political and economic way forward. The only way to do that is for as many people as possible to find their voice, to contact their Member of Parliament.

You can do that at any time, but it is simply more powerful when we do it together. Come and join us on 26th June.

If you are coming from the Diocese, please let me know too. I’ll see you there.

 

+Steven
5 June 2019

An (unauthorised) background paper for the General Synod. Read more

Happy New Year!

There are eight Sundays this year between Epiphany and Lent. As we continue our journey of renewing catechesis across the Diocese, may I offer you some suggestions for your preaching and notices and pastoral conversations?

It was good to share five study days in November with over 450 clergy and LLM’s across the Diocese on renewing catechesis. My opening address from those five days will be published on this blog next week. One of my tasks for January is to edit the five excellent guest lectures (and one other) into a new book to be published in September with the title Rooted and Grounded: Faith formation and the Christian tradition. More details later.

As a Diocese, we are trying to recover a simple and life giving way of using the Christian year to help form new Christians in the faith.

The overall scheme looks like this:

Autumn: sow the good seed of the gospel
Epiphany: invite people to baptism
Lent: prepare people for baptism
Easter season: Baptism and confirmation services and ongoing formation

Through harvest and remembrance, Advent and Christmas, there has been a lot of sowing. As I wrote in December, more than 260,000 people attended services in Advent alone: around five times our normal worshipping community.

Many, many people will have begun to sense God at work in their lives in new ways, and some are ready to take the next step on the journey. Epiphany is a season to dare to invite some of those people who have heard the good news to consider baptism or confirmation or a public renewal of their baptismal promises. There are many different ways to do that through preaching or notices or pastoral conversations.

Offering an invitation to baptism in this season is a very ancient tradition in the church attested in both the Church of the East in the Cappadocian Fathers and the Church in the West through Ambrose and Augustine .

On some Sundays, special sermons were preached directed at those who were enquirers warmly inviting people to consider baptism. On other Sundays the preacher would turn aside and take time to address enquirers as part of the main sermon.

You may find that certain things need to be put in place as you begin to make these invitations over the next few weeks. You may want to identify a Sunday for adult baptisms in the Easter season and for renewal of baptismal promises. You may want to identify a suitable confirmation service in the deanery for the candidates who come forward. It’s not too late to arrange either of these things.

And, of course, as you plan Lent you will need to plan ways of helping enquirers explore and learn about the very beginnings of faith. There is lots of good material available for small groups (including Pilgrim and the Alpha course).

In Lent last year I gathered 120 people across the Oxford Area to explore renewing catechesis at the very beginning of the project. One of the things we realised through those conversations was that clergy and LLMs are doing more work with people one to one and rather less in groups. For various reasons, people are less willing to sign up for longer “courses” but still want to explore faith.

Partly in response to those insights, I’ve been involved in creating a new resource for Lent and Easter this year. I’ve written 40 days of very short reflections on the Beatitudes for Lent and 40 days of Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer for Easter. Both will be published as short booklets by the end of January. They will also be available through the Church of England’s App, currently carrying the “Follow the Star” material (iOS | Google Play), and delivered through smart speakers and in a range of other ways.

Both booklets are for anyone who wants to go deeper. Their main aim is to introduce Jesus and what it means to follow Jesus through these two profound texts to an interested enquirer through short, simple daily readings and prayers. My hope is that many churches will use them to support candidates for baptism and confirmation and as a foundation for one to one conversations and small group work.

I hope this new season of invitation will be part of what it means for us to be a more Christ-like Church. It arises directly from contemplation: trying to catch a fresh vision of Christ and of what it means to be human. It is motivated by compassion: love for people and a longing for them to know the riches of God’s love and purpose for their lives. It will also take courage to offer a new invitation in preaching and notices and pastoral conversations – especially if you’ve not done it for a while.

Pray with me that this year and every year God will be drawing people to Christian faith ones and twos and small groups all across the Diocese.

God of our pilgrimage
Renew your church in this place
In the ministries of befriending and listening;
teaching and learning faith.
Help us to welcome new believers to baptism and confirmation
And restore in your love those who are lost
May Christ be formed afresh in us
As we help to form new disciples in your mission to the world
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
In the power of the Holy Spirit
And to the glory of the Father
Amen.

Let’s raise a glass this week to the people who…

…are making holes in oranges and assembling Christingles; to the wardens who open and close the church; to the volunteer cleaners who scrub candlewax out of the carpet and polish the brass; to the flower arrangers and ringers; to the choir soloists and their proud parents; to the organists playing Hark the Herald for the fifteenth time; to the thurifer caught up in the mystery of her first midnight mass; for the second violin in the church orchestra who only plays at Christmas; to all the volunteers who pushed cards through letterboxes in the first week of December;

…to the treasurers staying late in the vestry counting and bagging; to the PCC secretary who learned how to update the website; to the army of volunteer cooks turning out thousands of mince pies; to those who will read the Christmas story; to the new curate preparing his first Christmas sermon and the retired priest preparing her thirtieth and still finding new things in the story; to the sacristans ironing the linen and setting up the altar; to the young mums finding time to help in the toddler group nativity; to the lay minister taking home communion to the housebound and nursing homes; to the greeters at the church doors and the person on the sound desk who doesn’t forget to charge the batteries; to the clergy summoning their last bit of energy; to the lift givers and intercessors; to the ones who know where we stored the shepherds last year; to the pastors who listen and know just what to say.

Something extraordinary happens across the diocese in December. More than 260,000 people attend church, school and civic carol services in Advent. That’s around five times our normal worshipping community. Over 160,000 people attend services on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Every single one will find a smile and a welcome and hear something of the Christmas story as they come.

That takes an army of volunteers. Thank you. It’s worth it.

It’s worth it not because so many of our churches will be full (though that is lovely). It’s worth it because those who come will find in the beautiful, profound Christmas story new hope and strength for their lives. In the midst of the carols and Christingles, marriages will be renewed; families will find grace to forgive; generosity will be rekindled; strength will be sought and given; tears will be shed; silence will be rediscovered; the embers of faith will be rekindled somehow; seeds will be sown and begin to take root.

For some, this will be life saving. For some, it will be life shaping. For others another gentle step on a road back to God. For others a profound moment of rediscovery and hope and salvation.

Many will come confused and distressed at all that is happening in the world. The story returns us to the centre, to the meaning. We will be reminded together that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it. We will carry that light together into homes and workplaces and centres of influence: a Christ-like church for the sake of God’s world.

And at the centre of it all the one whose name means saviour and king: Jesus the Christ, coming as a child, changing everything.

Whatever part you play as part of this wonderful team, thank you. May God bless you and your families this Christmas.

 

 

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that each year Bishop Steven writes a new hymn. The verses of this year’s hymn are based on Colossians 1.15-20: praising Christ first for creation and then for salvation. The chorus sets this praise of Christ in a simple song of praise to the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Dear Members of Parliament and Peers,

You will be held in prayer by the Diocese of Oxford this week as you continue to debate Britain’s exit from the European Union.

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke in the House of Lords debate last week about the vital importance of reconciliation in these debates and the protection of the poorest in society The Archbishop of York has written of the care needed preserve trust and confidence in our democratic institutions through a time of significant national jeopardy.

I support fully what both the Archbishops have said. Like them, I voted to remain in the EU in 2016. However, I believe we now need to honour the outcome of the referendum and reunite the country around a fresh vision of our relationship to the European Union.

The United Kingdom, Europe and the world will have their eyes on Westminster as the House of Commons and the House of Lords debate the future direction of our nation and our key relationships in the world.

At this moment I want to urge you, if I may, to beware of four particular temptations and dangers in this debate which have been apparent in recent months for politicians on all sides of the argument.

I spent some time in Canterbury Cathedral a few days ago, the place where Thomas Becket was murdered. We were reminded of T. S. Elliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral. In his moment of great peril, Becket is visited by four tempters who will later become his four assassins.

There is an exhibition of modern glass in the Cathedral at the moment on the site of the murder which recalls this part of the play. These it seems to me are your four temptations as you approach the debates and votes in the coming weeks.

The first is to allow your course to be shaped by self-interest and personal ambition. The Brexit debate has been marred from the beginning, it seems, by the narrow calculation of those hoping to gain or retain high office. Nothing has undermined trust in our politics more than the unsavoury smell of this ambition which is apparent to all.

The second is to allow yourself to be swayed by narrow party interest and the pursuit (or retention) of power in the short term. The issues at stake are much greater than the rise and fall of particular parties and factions. We need our MP’s and peers to act now in the greater national interest and for national unity.

The third temptation is to nostalgia, a romantic attachment to the past: to imagine that we can reverse one referendum by another; or go back to a time before the Brexit debates when all was well; or go back still further to a different age of independence and imagined glory. We cannot. We must deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be and steer our course accordingly.

The fourth temptation is to idealism: in a world of difficult choices and necessary compromise to hold onto an ideal which is no longer tenable (whether of a particular kind of leaving or remaining).

There are huge issues facing our world and our country: climate change; care for the poorest; increasing equality and opportunity for all; our changing relationship with technology; the challenge of social care and health funding. We cannot allow our national attention to be diverted from these issues by prolonging still further a series of adjustments to our relationships with Europe. The nation is looking to its political leaders for a strong and compelling vision of the future which enables us to see beyond these debates in a way which brings unity and common purpose.

At this time of year, Christians tell the world with great joy the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, who came to act not in the interests of one nation or party but to all the people of the earth; who came to face the difficult realities of an imperfect world and to offer his life for the salvation of the world.

I hope and pray that you will be able in the midst of these difficult debates to turn aside from these four temptations, to seek meaningful compromise and to act for the common good.

With kind regards and continued prayers,

 

 

 

 

10 December 2018

 

Four glass sentinels stand guard close to the site of Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170

I’ve invited the Diocese of Oxford to dwell in the Word this year in two passages from Colossians (1.15-20 and 3.12-17). We are exploring what it means to be a more Christ-like Church, contemplative, compassionate and courageous for the sake of God’s world. I’m really appreciating reading these texts with a variety of groups as the weeks go by.

One of the verses in the second part of the passage says this: “Sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God”.  The early Church catches the joy of the resurrection and creates new songs of praise. Some of these songs find their way into the New Testament.

Our first Colossians passage, 1.15-20 is one of those hymns or spiritual songs. It’s a profound and wonderful hymn to Christ.

I’ve tried to turn it into something that groups and congregations can sing together. Regular readers of this blog will know that each year I try and write a new hymn as the verse for our Christmas card.

The verses of the hymn are based on Colossians 1.15-20: praising Christ first for creation and then for salvation. The chorus sets this praise of Christ in a simple song of praise to the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The tune I have in mind is the Skye Boat Song. The chorus is meant to be sung to “Speed bonny boat like a bird on the wing”. The verses are sung to the slightly different tune of “Many’s the lad…”

I think it works best if you sing it fairly slowly. You are welcome to reproduce the words and have a go.

I have an idea it might work well as a piece sung in harmony by choirs as an anthem at Communion or at a quiet moment in the service. Let me know how you get on.

 

Praise to the Father, praise to the Son, Jesus our Lord and King
Praise to the Spirit, Holy and strong, lift up your hearts and sing.

Heaven and earth, land, sea and sky
Planets and stars and light
All things were made through Jesus Christ
Icon of love infinite

Praise to the Father…

All things exist in Christ the Lord
Christ was before all things
All things are held in Christ the Word
From Christ all new life springs

Praise to the Father…

Christ is the source, Christ is the head
The church is his body on earth
Christ above all raised from the dead
Calling us into new birth

Praise to the Father…

In him God’s life loves to abide
Calling the earth into one
Christ through the cross offered his life
Peace for creation is won

Praise to the Father, praise to the Son, Jesus our Lord and King
Praise to the Spirit, Holy and strong, lift up your hearts and sing.

Steven Croft, 2018
After Colossians 1.15-20
Suggested tune: The Skye Boat Song; repeat the chorus after each verse.

A set of three Bible studies for Lent is in preparation based on Bishop Steven’s addresses to the clergy conference earlier this year. We expect these to be available to order from store.oxford.anglican.org in January.

In the midst of continuing debate within the Church of England about human sexuality +Steven, +Andrew, +Alan and +Colin have written a joint letter to all clergy and licensed lay ministers in the diocese setting out their expectations of inclusion and respect towards LGBTI+ people. The four bishops are encouraging parishioners across the diocese to read the letter too. Is there anything else you could be doing in your own setting? 

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3.14)

As a Bishop’s staff we spent some time recently reflecting on the Letter to the Colossians and our call to be a more Christ-like Church: contemplative, compassionate and courageous for the sake of God’s world.

In the light of our time together, we want to offer some reflections on current debates and developments in the Church of England in the area of human sexuality. We do so with humility and some hesitation. It is not easy to make a meaningful contribution to the present debate for a number of reasons. But we have received many requests for guidance and we are convinced that remaining silent on these issues is not serving the Church well.

What is the national process?

You will remember that the Pilling Report in 2013 was followed by a listening process with a series of regional conversations. The House of Bishops then brought to the General Synod in February 2017, a report with proposals on how to move forward from the Shared Conversations. Very unusually, the General Synod voted not to take note of the document.

In a pastoral letter issued after this debate, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York announced the formation of a Pastoral Advisory Group chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle and the development of a comprehensive document on human sexuality to be led by the Bishop of Coventry.

The Archbishops also called in their letter for “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it”. They emphasise the love of God for all people:

“We want to make clear some underlying principles. In these discussions, no person is a problem or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’. There are simply people called to redeemed humanity in Christ”.

The College of Bishops met in early September this year and engaged with the work of the Pastoral Advisory Group and the emerging project to develop learning and teaching resources, now called Living in Love and Faith.

The Pastoral Advisory Group is seeking to issue new pastoral guidance within the Church of England’s current legal, doctrinal and liturgical frameworks accompanied by some new resources. The groups working on Living in Love and Faith are hoping to publish their work in a variety of resources in early 2020.

The wider debate

Whilst this work is going on, attitudes to LGBTI+ people in Church and society continue to change and evolve and other churches in the United Kingdom and the Anglican Communion engage in similar conversations.

LGBTI+ Christians have always been, and remain, actively involved as clergy and laity in all areas of church life, and at all levels. How open and authentically themselves they may be in this is the issue at stake. We are conscious as bishops of the pain felt by many LGBTI+ people and their families in the midst of these continuing debates. As a Church we have continually failed our sisters and brothers in Christ.

We are also aware of the strongly held views of many in these debates, grounded in deep convictions. We are aware that the exchanges themselves can be hurtful and damaging especially when conducted through social media or rapid email exchanges, and particularly for those whose very identity is problematised. Bullying and harassment are damaging and not acceptable as part of the reasoned and loving debate the Church needs to have.

We are mindful of the fact that a number of individuals within this Diocese holding different views are currently playing a role in national and international debates. We hope that each will be supported and respected by their home diocese in the ministry to which they have been called.

Inclusion and respect

It is clear that it will be some time before the process of discernment in the Church of England reaches a conclusion. During that period we want to encourage, above all, an attitude of inclusion and respect for LGBTI+ people across the Diocese of Oxford.

Talking about sexuality and gender identity in the Church may be, and often is, difficult. It involves our deeply personal loves and the attachments that shape them; our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God and others, and our approach to Scripture and the core convictions of our faith. To talk about these things is to make ourselves vulnerable. Moreover, in the Church of England conversations about these matters often bear a weight of pain and distrust caused by the past and present experiences of hurt, exclusion and misunderstanding. However, many speak of such conversations as being ultimately liberating and positive.

Debates about human sexuality and gender identity in the Church seem likely to continue, and perhaps to grow in intensity, over the coming years. It is important that these debates should be grounded in Scripture, reason and tradition as well as in deep prayer and our common life of worship. They must also be conducted with attention to people’s experiences and in a spirit of love, mutual care and respect.

We want to commend to the Diocese of Oxford the five principles recently commended to the Diocese of Lichfield by Bishop Michael Ipgrave and his colleagues. These are founded on the basic principle that all people are welcomed in God’s Church: everyone has a place at the table. Such radical Christian inclusion brings practical consequences for our local churches and for our Diocese as a whole:

  1. It is the responsibility of all Christians, but especially those who hold the Bishop’s Licence as clergy or lay ministers, to ensure that all people know that there is a place at the table for them. Preaching, teaching and pastoral responsibilities need to be exercised sensitively, and with this core principle in mind.
  2. Intrusive questioning about someone’s sexual practices or desires, or their experience of gender, is inappropriate. It is also unacceptable to tell or insinuate to people that sexual orientation or gender identity will be changed by faith, or that homosexuality or gender difference is a sign of immaturity or a lack of faith.
  3. We want to make clear that nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the Sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  4. We wish to affirm that LGBTI+ people are called to roles of leadership and service in the local church. Nobody should be told that their sexual orientation or gender identity in itself makes them an unsuitable candidate for leadership in the Church.
  5. Finally, we wish both to acknowledge the great contribution that LGBTI+ Christians are making, and have made, to the Church in this diocese, and to highlight the need for mission within the LGBTI+ community more broadly.

Liturgy and prayers

The House of Bishops Guidelines on Same Sex Marriage acknowledge that “same sex couples will continue to seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship” (19).

As Bishops we are receiving an increasing number of enquiries seeking guidance in this area. There is no authorised public liturgy for such prayers. The Guidelines are clear that “Services of blessing should not be provided” (21). However, there is positive encouragement for clergy to respond pastorally and sensitively.

We warmly welcome dialogue and conversation with clergy across the Diocese who are looking for further guidance. This is, of course, one of the key areas under review in the Pastoral Advisory Group. Depending on the timetable of the national group’s work, we may look to draw the fruits of our own conversations and reflections together in the short term for the benefit of this Diocese.

A new chaplaincy team for the LGBTI+ people and their families

We are also actively exploring setting up a new chaplaincy team for the LGBTI+ people and their families and loved ones, across the Diocese. Over the summer we have been seeking to learn from other dioceses in this area, including in the Church in Wales. The team will probably take the form of a volunteer chaplain or chaplains in each episcopal area giving time to this ministry alongside their other work. The role of the chaplains will be to listen, to offer support and to advise local clergy and congregations and ourselves in our welcome and support of LGBTI+ people and their families, and to learn from the insights of LGBTI+ people about being church together.

In all of this we ourselves and the chaplaincy team will continue to work within existing Bishop’s Guidelines on human sexuality in this next stage of the national process.

Continued listening

As bishops we will continue to listen to different streams in the debate. We will seek to be honest about our own views and also listen with respect to the views of others.

We will be setting aside additional time in the coming year to listen in particular to the experiences of LGBTI+ people. Bishop Steven has drawn together a small informal group of LGBTI+ people as advisors in this process.

We are concerned to listen well to LGBTI+ people from a variety of perspectives including both those seeking change in the Church of England’s polity and those seeking to to live faithfully within it.

Compassion, gentleness and respect

Finally we return to our beginning. All things and all people hold together in Christ. The way we engage in debate in areas of difference is part of our witness to the world. We are to clothe ourselves in this as in everything else with love.

Therefore “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”. These are the qualities we need as the church as we continue to build a common life together.

We commend these qualities and our ongoing process to the prayers of the Diocese.

+Steven Oxford

+Colin Dorchester

+Alan Buckingham

+Andrew Reading