Bishop Boat Pilgrimage

Warm thanks to everyone who shared in my Berkshire Pilgrimage in some way. It was a very good six days.

Together we visited 38 churches and the chaplaincy of Reading University. I travelled 17 miles by boat on 1 September across Maidenhead and Windsor Deaneries. We walked around 50 miles from Monday to Thursday across the Deaneries of Bracknell, Sonning, Reading and Bradfield. On Sunday 8th, the team cycled 16 miles or so across the Newbury Deanery from Hungerford to Thatcham and completed the final couple of visits by car.

Font PosterWe prayed in every place for our government and parliament, for the communities and churches and for Olivia as she prepares for her consecration as Bishop of Reading. I took a picture of the font in every church, and we prayed for the renewal of all the ministry which flows into and out of the font:

  • Our welcome to the youngest members of the community whose parents have just enough faith to bring them to baptism
  • Our nurture and care for children and young people in parishes and schools
  • Walking with adult enquirers as they come to faith as disciples of Jesus and come to baptism and confirmation
  • The ongoing formation of every Christian as we live out our baptism every day of our lives and seek to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world.

I was moved by the welcome and those who came to pray in every place. Sometimes there were a handful of people, often a group of 20 or more. I met hundreds of people across the week and heard some wonderful stories of hope and grace in the life of the local church as well as stories of difficulty. It was very good to spend time in our churches: these beautiful places of prayer and stillness often hallowed by hundreds of years of prayer.

The journey transformed my view of Berkshire. I normally travel across Berkshire in the car keeping to the motorway and the major roads. Often my journey is to the large, urban centres and back again. I was able to see the beauty of the county in new ways by boat and on foot and cycling and to build a clearer picture of ordinary church life.

It was so good to meet so many people: thanks to all who came and prayed and served tea (and cake!). Thanks especially to Captain Ainsley Swift for the boat ride, to the walk leaders each day and particular to Paul Cowan, my chaplain who organised the whole thing.

I ended the week with sore feet, aching legs, hardly able to sit down from the bike ride but with a very full and glad heart.

Thanks be to God.

I’m beginning my fourth year as Bishop of Oxford by walking and praying across Berkshire. Please do join me if you can, in spirit or in person. The pilgrimage sets off on Sunday 1st September in Old Windsor in and ends on Sunday 8th September in Thatcham.

I’m spending a day in each deanery praying in each of the 38 churches I visit with those who can gather and mostly walking between them (with a bit of travel by boat and by bike). I will be praying in every church we visit for the renewal of our life and ministry and especially for the renewal of the ministry of teaching the faith to new Christians. I will be praying for the renewal of the life of our nation in these turbulent times. I will be listening to God as I walk and to ordinary (but extraordinary) church life across the six deaneries of Berkshire. I will be praying as we prepare to welcome Olivia as Bishop of Reading in November.

This time last year, I made a similar pilgrimage across the city of Oxford and it was immensely helpful to me in getting to know the place and its people. The most memorable part of the week was the sense of welcome and hope.

Full details of the trip and a chance to say if you’ll be joining me for part of the walk are online here, and the schedule of deaneries is below:

Sunday 1 September – Maidenhead & Windsor

Monday 2 September – Bracknell

Tuesday 3 September – Sonning

Wednesday 4 September – Reading

6 & 7 September – rest days

Sunday 8 September – Newbury

An invitation to dwell in the Word

Paul writes in Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3.16). One of the habits we are learning to share across the Diocese is dwelling in the word together: reflecting in all of our leadership gatherings and in many parishes and deaneries on the same biblical passages across a whole year. As we do this, we learn to listen to God and to one another for the kind of Church we are called to be: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous.

Two years ago, we took the beatitudes as our passage: Matthew 5.1-12. For the last year, we have been dwelling in two passages from Colossians: 1.15-20 and 3.12-17.

Our passage for this year will be Acts 20.17-38: Paul’s speech to the presbyters at Miletus. It is one of the key passages in Acts as Paul roots his ministry in the call to be like Christ and gives to the whole church timeless principles for Christian mission.

I’ve spoken twice on the passage recently: once as part of the series on Principles of Deep Water Fishing at our recent common vision conference and once as the basis of my charge to those being ordained deacon and priest. Principles of Deep Water Fishing is the fourth in our series of study guides and is available to order for delivery in early September.

The passage and the simple instructions for Dwelling in the Word are available to download and copy. Please do pick up this lifegiving practice in your churches if you haven’t already.

Common Vision

We continue this year our call to be a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world. That will mean different things in different parishes, chaplaincies and schools. This term we have launched the Development Fund, and we are launching our new Parish Planning Tool on 14 September. We’ll be introducing the Fund and the Parish Planning Tool at each of the four Area Days, full details here.

And finally…

A key part of the ordinary common life of our churches is to pray for Her Majesty the Queen, for our government and parliament. That call is honoured in many places, neglected in some.

May I ask that during the coming months, we all remember to pray daily and whenever the Church gathers for the life of our nation: for wise decisions and good government; for care for the poor and for the earth; for all those entrusted with the burdens of leadership; for fresh vision and the return of kindness to our politics. This regular intercession is a key part of our discipleship.

May God bless you and your family, your parish, chaplaincy, school and deanery in the coming months.

+Steven Oxford
August 2019

 

 

The ethical questions surrounding the use of AI and data are manifold and large. Sooner or later they all lead back to the question “what does it mean to be a fully human person in a flourishing society in the 21st Century…”

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.