The Mission Community of St Frideswide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Kimberley and Kuruman diary

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

Thursday 14th September

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

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

Friday 15th September

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 16th September

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

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

Sunday 17th September

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

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

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

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

Monday 18th September

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

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

+Steven Oxford

Thoughts and prayers for the Diocese of Sheffield

My thoughts and prayers are with the Diocese of Sheffield  following publication of Sir Philip Mawer’s report into the recent process of appointment of my successor.

Sheffield is an amazing and wonderful diocese, full of gifted people of great integrity and full of vitality and life.

Sir Philip’s report is accurate and for my part I am grateful for his care and wisdom.

Nevertheless his report will be painful reading for many within the Diocese of Sheffield and beyond it. For over seven years the Diocese of Sheffield was my Christian family. I received in my ministry there far more than I was able to give. I carry the Diocese daily in my prayers and will do for many years (much as I love my new diocese and ministry in Oxford). Reading Sir Philips report is like reading an account of deep division within your own family.

The report highlights the role played in public debate by Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, a close colleague within the Diocese of Oxford. I have deeply appreciated Martyn’s wisdom and welcome in the first year of my ministry here. The Church of England needs courageous and challenging voices in every generation. Martyn has already said he will reflect carefully on the report. He has my full support even (and especially) where we may sometimes see things differently.

My prayers are also with Bishop Philip North whom I have known for many years as highly gifted priest and bishop who makes a very significant contribution to the life of the Church of England.

The House of Bishops will take forward the recommendations in the report including further theological work on the questions raised and educational work on the five guiding principles. I affirm again my own commitment to the mutual flourishing of all parts of the Church of England.

But most of all this week my thoughts and prayers are with Bishop Pete Wilcox, Bishop Peter Burrows and the clergy and people of the Diocese of Sheffield. Bishop Pete is leading a pilgrimage of prayer across his Diocese this week and begins his public ministry in Sheffield Cathedral on Saturday. A new chapter now begins in the life of this remarkable Diocese. The process of reconciliation and healing will continue, helped by Sir Philip’s report. The good people of Sheffield will take care of that.

I hope and pray that the rest of the Church of England will give to Sheffield the gift of our prayers and restraint so that the focus can be on the present and the future, on God’s mission, on the vital task of the building up of the Church in often fragile communities and most of all on God’s Son, Jesus Christ, whose Church we are.

+Steven Oxford
September 2017

(photo courtesy of Keith Farrow)

Faith Communities and Climate Change

Last week I had the immense privilege of speaking with about 50 senior climate change negotiators from all across Europe and the developing world.  I spoke personally to lead negotiators from Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa, Sweden, Bulgaria and Fiji. Everyone I spoke to affirmed the reality of climate change affecting their country through drought or extreme weather events.

The negotiators were in Oxford for three days for an annual conference which gives them the chance to get to know each other outside of the detailed pressure of negotiations.

The occasion was a dinner in Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History.  We dined among the dinosaurs and alongside the dodo.

The Museum hosted a famous debate in 1860 as one of its first events between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and Thomas Henry Huxley, later known as “Darwin’s bulldog”.  The debate centred around faith and science in opposition to each other and in particular Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published a few months earlier.  The debate is commemorated on a large stone at the entrance to the museum.

The dinner last week looked back to this debate and focussed on the climate change and the approach of the faith communities and of scientists.  I was there as the present Bishop of Oxford.  Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, a member of the UK Committee on Climate Change spoke for the scientists.  There were also contributions from Professor Paul Smith, Director of the Museum and Professor Benito Muller, Managing Director of Oxford Climate Policy, for the philosophers.

Unlike 1860, all parties were agreed that we must do all in our power to use our different insights to combat climate change for the sake of present and future generations.

After dinner there was an address to the delegates from Fiji’s Ambassador to the European Union on Fiji’s priorities as it takes on the Presidency of COP23, the UN Climate Change Conference which takes place in Bonn in November.  More on this here : http://newsroom.unfccc.int/cop-23-bonn/

My favourite photo of the evening shows the ambassador speaking under the Tyrannosaurus skeleton: a reminder that life on earth can change radically and of the urgency of climate change action.

The contributions were filmed and will be posted on the conference website in due course.  My own remarks are below.

Here are five compelling reasons why you should engage with faith communities in your role as senior climate change negotiators.

First and foremost because faith communities make up the majority of the global population.  Ten years ago, long before the historic Paris agreement, the UK’s environment agency asked 25 leading environmentalists what needed to happen[1].

There were 50 suggestions.  Second on the list, behind improving energy efficiency was that religious leaders should make the environment a priority for their followers because of the enormous potential influence for change.

Out of a global population of 7.1 billion just 1.1 billion people are secular, non religious, agnostic or atheist. The remainder belong in some way to one of the great world faiths.  31% of the global population is Christian.  22% belong to Islam.

Within Europe Union 72% of the population still claim some sort of adherence to Christianity.  Just 20% would claim to be atheist or secular though there is considerable variation across the continent.  What the churches and faiths teach on this subject matters.

Second faith shapes values and lives in powerful ways.  The Christian faith helps people aspire to virtue, to living as God intends and often against personal self interest and for the sake of others.  That is exactly the attitude the world needs to combat climate change.

The most powerful line in the Lord’s Prayer is “Give us this day our daily bread”.  It is often misunderstood as a hook on which to hang our petitions: the things we ask from God. Actually it is a prayer which points back to the worshipper: help us to be content with exactly what we need this day: “Help us to be thankful just for what we need to stay alive”.  The Lord’s Prayer is the most powerful antidote to greed and consumerism the world has ever known.

Third the faith communities are global communities.  We are conscious in the Christian Church of our sisters and brothers across the world.

I am looking forward to visiting South Africa in September with our link Diocese of Kimberley and Kuruman.  Many local churches and dioceses have these international relationships.  In one of our sessions we will be studying climate change.  When we listen to the news about the disproportionate effect of climate change on the poorest in the world, these are our sisters and brothers.

Fourth, our feet are are dancing to a different song (or they should be).  There is a close connection between the global economic system and climate change.  The planet cannot sustain continuous expansion in energy consumption.

Increasingly the world of politics and economics dances to a single tune: continuous economic growth and expansion.  We need alternative ideologies to support a more sustainable world.  The faith communities have an alternative ideologies – a different authority: in the case of Christians, the Scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ.

That ideology understands the connection between our inner and outer life.  Pope Francis is one of the few contemporary figures able to write a letter to the entire world – his great encyclical Laudato’ Si.  One of the most telling quotations in his letter is from Benedict his predecessor: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts are so vast”.

Our external ecology is connected to our internal ecology.  Faith communities nurture that inner life and offer a different song and strength to resist.

And fifth, faith communities know how to take action for change.  Christians are called to be disciples: always learning.  We understand the world is imperfect.  We are committed to making a difference.  We know or we can learn how to mobilise others to achieve common goals.

I am the patron of a small campaigning organisation, Hope for the Future.  Hope was founded in 2013 by a small group of churches in Yorkshire and specialises in equipping local churches and other faith groups to lobby their MP’s on climate change issues.  Last year Hope for the Future trained over 1,000 people in our lobbying approach.

Through our training and one to one support, we have impacted over 100 climate conversations between MPs and their constituents this year.  We know from feedback from local churches and from MP’s that Hope makes a difference.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead said this.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has”.  I suspect that most of us will know that quotation more from the West Wing that from Mead herself.

Faith communities are places where those small groups of thoughtful and committed citizens are found.  We are not perfect.  We are not uniform.  But we are communities of hope whose values lead us to work for change, not against the findings of science but in tandem to bring about a more sustainable world.

For more on Hope for the Future see http://www.hftf.org.uk

For more on combatting climate change in the Diocese of Oxford see https://www.oxford.anglican.org/mission-ministry/environment/

[1] As reported by Jo Ware in the Church Times, 11th August, 2017.

Artificial Intelligence: A Guide to the Key Issues

The one on the right is Artie.

Artie is a Robothespian.  We met last week at Oxford Brookes University.  Artie showed me some of his moves.  He plays out scenes from Star Wars and Jaws with a range of voices, movements, gestures and special effects (including shark fins swimming across the screens which form his eyes).

Artie can’t yet hold an intelligent conversation but it won’t be long before his cousins and descendants can.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now beginning to affect all of our lives.

Every time you search the internet or interact with your mobile phone or shop on a big store online, you are bumping into artificial intelligence.  AI answers our questions through Siri (on the iPhone) or Alexa (on Amazon).  AI matters in all kinds of ways.

I’ve been exploring Artificial Intelligence for some time now.  In June I was appointed to sit on a new House of Lords Select Committee on AI as part of my work in the House of Lords.  The Committee has a broad focus and is currently seeking evidence from a wide group of people and organisations.  You can read about our brief here.

Here are just some of the reasons why all of this matters

Robot vacuum cleaners and personal privacy

A story in the Times caught my eye in July.  It’s now possible to buy a robot vacuum cleaner to take the strain out of household chores.  Perhaps you have one.  The robot will use AI to navigate the best route round your living room.  To do this it will make a map of your room using its onboard cameras.  The cameras will then transmit the data back to the company who make the robot. They can sell the data on to well known on line retailers who can then email you with specific suggestions of cushion covers or lamps to match your furniture.  All of this will be done with no human input whatsoever.

Personal boundaries and personal privacy matter. They are an essential part of our human identity and knowing who we are – and we are far more than consumers.  This matters for all of us – but especially the young and the vulnerable.  New technology means regulation on data protection needs to keep pace. The government announced its plans in August for a strengthening of UK protection law.

We need a greater level of education about AI and what it can do and is doing at every level in society – including schools. The technology can bring significant benefits but it can also disrupt our lives.

Self driving lorries and the future of work

AI will change the future of work.  Yesterday the government announced the first trials of automatic lorry convoys on Britain’s roads.

Within a decade, the transport industry may have changed completely.  There are great potential benefits.  As a society we need to face the reality that work is changing and evolving.

AI is already beginning to change the medical profession, accountancy, law and banking.  There is now an app which helps motorists challenge parking fines without the help of a lawyer (DoNotPay).  It has been successfully used by 160,000 people and was developed by Joshua Bowder, a 20 year old whose mission in life is to put lawyers out of business through simple technology.  The chat bot based App has already been extended to help the homeless and refugees access good legal advice for free.

Every development in Artificial Intelligence raises new questions about what it means to be human.  According to Kevin Kelly, “We’ll spend the next three decades – indeed, perhaps the next century – in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking what humans are good for”[1].

As a Christian, I want to be part of that conversation.  At the heart of our faith is the good news that God created the universe, that God loves the world and that God became human to restore us and show us what it means to live well and reach our full potential.

Direct messaging and political influence

The outcome of the last two US Presidential Elections has been shaped and influenced by AI: the side with the best social media campaigns won.  Professor of Machine Learning, Pedro Domingos, describes the impact algorithm driven social media had on the Obama-Rooney campaign[2].  In his excellent documentary “Secrets of Silicon Valley” Jamie Bartlett explores the use of the same technology by the Trump Presidential campaign in 2016 which again led to victory in an otherwise close campaign.

There are signs that a similar use of social media with very detailed targeting of voters using AI was also used to good effect by Labour in the 2017 election.

In July six members of the House of Lords led by Lord Puttnam wrote to the Observer raising questions about the proposed takeover of Sky by Rupert Murdoch.  In an open letter they argue, persuasively in my view, that this takeover gives a single company access to the personal data of over 13 million households: data which can then be used for micro ads and political campaigning.

The tools offered by AI are immensely powerful for shaping ideas and debate in our society.  Christians need to be part of that dialogue, aware of what is happening and making a contribution for the sake of the common good.

Swarms and drones and the weaponisation of AI

DroneKiller robots already exist in the form of autonomous sentry guns in South Korea.  Many more are in development.  On Monday 116 founders and leaders of robotics companies led by Elon Musk called on the United Nations to prevent a new arms race.

Technology itself is a neutral thing but carries great power to affect lives for good or for ill.  If there is to be a new arms race then we need a new public debate.  The UK Government will need to take a view on the proliferation and use of weaponry powered by AI.  The 2015 film Eye in the Sky starring Helen Mirren and directed by Gavin Hood is a powerful introduction to the ethical issues involved in remote weapons.  Autonomous weapons raise a new and very present set of questions.  How will the UK Government respond?  Christians need a voice in that debate.

The Superintelligence: creating a new species

It’s a long way from robot vacuum cleaners to a superintelligence.  At the moment, much artificial intelligence is “narrow”: we can create machines which are very good at particular tasks (such as beating a human at “Go”) but not machines which have broad general intelligence and consciousness.  We have not yet created intelligent life.

But scientists think that day is not far away.  Some are hopeful of the benefits of non human superintelligence.  Some, including Stephen Hawking, are extremely cautious.  But there is serious thinking happening already.  Professor Nick Bostron is the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute in the University of Oxford.  In his book, Superintelligence, he analyses the steps needed to develop superintelligence, the ways in which humanity may or may not be able to control what emerges and the kind of ethical thinking which is needed.  “Human civilisation is at stake” according to Clive Cookson, who reviewed the book for the Financial Times[3].

The resources of our faith have much to say in all of this debate around AI: about fair access, privacy and personal identity, about persuasion in the political process, about what it means to be human, about the ethics of weaponisation and about the limits of human endeavour.

In the 19th Century and for much of the 20th Century, science asked hard questions of faith.  Christians did not always respond well to those questions and to the evidence of reason.  But in the 21st Century, faith needs to ask hard questions once again of science.

As Christians we need think seriously about these questions and engage in the debate.  I’ll write more in the coming months as the work of the Select Committee moves forward.

[1] Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future, Penguin, 2016, p. 49

[2] Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm, How the quest for the ultimate learning machine will remake our world, Penguin, 2015, pp.16-19.

[3] Nick Bostron, Superintelligence: paths, dangers, strategies, Oxford, 2014

Contemplative, Compassionate, Courageous: a vision for a Christ-like Church

My aim this year has been to begin to get to know the Diocese and begin to be known.  We’ve also begun discern together a common vision for the future…

A year of listening

For over a year now, I’ve been listening. In the months before I arrived I met with each of my new senior colleagues and have spent time reflecting on the qualities the diocese said they would like their new bishop to have.

I paid particular attention to two Bible passages which had been the focus of reading scriptures together during the two year vacancy: Luke 10.1-17 and Philippians 2.1-11.

Over the summer months I was gathering facts and figure and maps in preparation for an intensive discovery process. Then, in October and November, I visited all the clergy in my own episcopal area, and in December I began a tour of every deanery in the diocese.

As I travelled around the deaneries I asked two questions:  What kind of Church is God calling us to be as we look ahead together?  What are we therefore called to do together?

I’ve now completed 21 out of 29 deanery visits in which I have learnt so much about the challenges and opportunities in the many different places we serve.  Each visit has involved a Eucharist and lunch with the clergy; inspiring visits in the afternoon to meet the people who make a difference in their community; an evening meal with about a dozen lay people – and an evening gathering for PCC members and others to share something of my story and to listen to questions and concerns.

I’ve not kept count but so far, I would guess, over 2000 people have come to those evening gatherings.  I’ve begun each evening by introducing myself and then answering what I think is the first question people should ask me: Steven, what’s your vision for the Church in the Diocese of Oxford?

The talk that I give has changed and evolved a lot as I have gradually tuned in to what is happening in our parishes day to day, and where we are and where we might be going.  I’ve been grateful for people’s honesty and feel privileged that people have shared their experiences with me. There are still many more conversations to be had as together we envision the future for the diocese but my talk has now reached a fairly settled form and we recorded the address to Aylesbury Deanery last week.

Scriptures have been a key part of this process and I’ve returned in a deeper way to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.1-10 as a guide as we look to the future.

As I met with the Bishop’s Staff and Bishop’s Council and in the annual meeting of Lay Chairs and Area Deans in January, I reflected on the Beatitudes and some provisional answers to the questions about what kind of church we are called to be, and what we need to do together, began to emerge.

Now we are moving onto the next stage of this process of discernment. Next week, 120 people from across the diocese will come together for three days at the High Leigh Conference centre.  At this meeting, I’m going to share with them some of what I have heard through all of this listening and seek their wisdom and counsel as we look to the future.

Please pray for us –  for a new Pentecost – as 120 gather all together in one place.  Please contribute to the ongoing conversation through comments on this blog or through the forum we plan to create on the diocesan website.

In the coming months, there will be other ways for you to be involved in envisioning the future for the Church in our diocese.

It’s been a real joy to make this journey and to try and catch the heartbeat of this wonderful diocese.  There are eight deanery visits still to come and they are really important.  But the next part of the journey is also about making sense of all that I have heard and, with others, finding good ways forward for the future.

In Christ

+Steven

A prayer for our meeting next week:

God of gentleness and love
Draw near to us as we draw near to you
Dwell in every heart and conversation
Fashion us in the likeness of your Son Jesus Christ
Help us to discern together all that you are calling us to be
And all that you are calling us to do.
Assist us, by your Spirit, to become a more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous Church
For the building of your kingdom and the glory of your Son.
Amen

Reconciliation : a profound gift

Reconciliation

Many years ago, as a Vicar I met a man who had not spoken to his father for seven years. The quarrel had begun over something small.  But neither would apologise and make the first move.  Both were hurting.  The man’s two young daughters had no contact with their grandparents.

This was my first example of a deep family feud.  Sadly I’ve seen many more since then.  Sometimes they start because of an incident everyone remembers.  More often, people drift into not having any contact with close family.  Indifference leads to neglect which leads to division.  If we do not deliberately tend our relationships, they will fragment.  This is true of marriages and partnerships, of adult children and their parents, of siblings separated by distance, of friendship.

The same truth applies to relationships between communities.  I’ve been part of a group in Parliament looking at how to build a more cohesive society.  We’ve been trying to take the debate about immigration to a much deeper level than the slogans of the referendum campaign a year ago.  One of the most important factors in building a united city or town is having a plan.  Left to themselves, communities grow apart or fragment.  We need to be intentional about building a single society.  The task needs to be owned by central and local government, by civil society and by individuals.  It’s too important for the future to be left to chance.

And what is true between communities is true of nations.  We live in an age where powerful forces seem to be pushing countries further apart. Britain is now redefining its relationship with Europe.  The United Kingdom is under new pressures to fragment.  The global situation is tense.

Today is Good Friday.  This is the day when Christians reflect on reconciliation: working against this power to divide by drawing people and communities back together.  The Christian faith takes very seriously the truth that left to themselves, relationships fragment.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, offered his life on the cross to make peace. The cross makes possible a new peace between humanity and God so that people can find forgiveness, begin again and know God’s love for themselves.  But the cross also makes possible peace between people so that families and communities and nations can be reconciled and made one.

Reconciliation is a profound gift.  That is why the cross is placed at the centre of Christian life and worship.  Many Christians wear a simple cross or carry one in their pocket.  You will find crosses on display in every church, reminding those who come to pray that peace and reconciliation are the heart of our life together.  Many of our church buildings are built in the shape of a cross when seen from above.

That is why on Good Friday, Christians everywhere will take time to reflect and remember the events of that Friday long ago when Christ was crucified in hymns and prayers and silence, in private and in church services.  Sunday is Easter Day and we will celebrate the profound truth at the heart of our faith that God raised Jesus from the dead so that all can have life in his name.  But first, today, we pause and remember this one, special act of love at the heart of our faith.

Jesus taught his disciples a prayer which has reconciliation at it’s very centre.  He teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  We are reconciled to God.  But we are then called to be reconciled to others by taking the initiative and making the first move.  That can be very hard indeed.

I met the man who had not spoken to his father because he was preparing to be baptised as an adult.  He had recently become a Christian.  Now he was realising what his new faith would mean.  It meant he could not simply go on as before and be estranged.  He had to make the first move.  He did and there was a deep reconciliation in that family across three generations.

Good families, good communities and good international relationships do not happen by accident.  They happen because people invest in them and work at reconciliation.

For Christians, Good Friday is a powerful reminder of what we believe God has done in Jesus Christ for us and for the whole world.  Take time this week to ponder the reality of fragmentation and the wonder that is peace.

+Steven

Bishop Steven is the Bishop of Oxford

@Steven_Croft

Supermarket Flowers

Ed Sheeran released his third album, Divide, a few weeks ago. It went straight to Number 1 and 2 in the download album chart (there’s a deluxe version which costs a bit more). Just about every song was in the top fifty singles the following week.

The most unlikely song on the album (and my favourite so far) is ‘Supermarket Flowers’. It’s a tribute to the singer’s late grandmother and describes the simple actions and feelings and emotions which follow the death of someone we love:

I took the supermarket flowers from the windowsill

Threw the day old tea from the cup

Packed up the photo album Matthew had made

Memories of a life that’s been loved.

We live in a culture which finds it hard to think about and talk about bereavement and death. Yet grief is a universal experience. According to the Times columnist Alice Thomson, we need to learn to talk about death (Comment, 8 March 2017). She quotes a new book by the psychotherapist Julia Samuel, Grief Works. According to Samuel, four out of five people never discuss their own death, half of all couples have no idea of their partners end of life wishes and a quarter of GPs are reluctant to discuss death with their patients.

The very centre of the Christian faith addresses the universal mystery of being human: the wonder of the gift of life and the terrible finality of our death and the death of those we love.

We will tell again in the coming weeks the most profound and beautiful story the world has ever known: the story of the most perfect life ever lived followed by a terrible and undeserved death. We will remind one another of the awesome truths we hold to as Christians: that the death of Jesus on the cross was for our sake; that death could not bind or hold the beautiful life of the Son of God; that on the third day Jesus rose again; that through Jesus Christ the offer of eternal life is open to all.

In this season of the year we all need to dwell in this story so that the story comes to live in us more fully. We contemplate the mystery of God’s love in Christ so that we can live our own lives well, with compassion and with courage even in the face of death and bereavement. We have a calling in a world which cannot speak of death to give a tender witness to this powerful message of life and hope.

That story and that hope lives still in our wider culture, sometimes just below the surface. In the words of Ed Sheeran’s song:

“Hallelujah . . . Spread your wings and I know

That when God took you back, he said,

‘Hallelujah, you’re home.’”

General Synod and ways forward

 

Dear Friends and Colleagues

Thanks for your prayers for the General Synod as we met this week. It was a good meeting, in the end, with a good but difficult debate on human sexuality at its heart.

Emotions were understandably raw when Synod assembled on Monday and in the initial debate on the agenda (ably led by Oxford’s Sue Booys). More time was requested for Wednesday’s take note  debate. There were lots of questions on the Report by  the House of Bishops.

Tuesday and the first part of Wednesday were taken up with legislation of various kinds. At the end of Wednesday morning the Bishops of Norwich and Willesden set the scene for the group work on human sexuality.

Bishop Graham James’ address at this point is well worth listening to for an historical perspective on this issue going back over 50 years. People on all sides of the debate found it helpful.

Some LGBT members of General Synod didn’t feel able to share in the group work and gave good and understandable reasons for this. The Synod timetable was adjusted to allow more time for the debate itself. Every small group will have been different.  The one I was in was gentle, courteous and diverse and followed the commended process of conversation. Notes were taken to be fed back into the centre. Archbishop Justin took time to meet separately with some of those who did not feel able to be part of the groups.

The main debate began in the Synod chamber at 4.45 and ran through to just after 7.00 pm. Thousands were listening in online and the galleries were full. It was an excellent debate and well worth listening to from the Synod website. The speeches were passionate and powerful. As we expected, there was a wide range of views.

Although it had been a difficult and tense week, my own sense was that the debate itself was the General Synod at its best. I’ve been in difficult debates on several occasions (most noticeably on the legislation of women in the episcopate). This did not feel like those debates. Over 30 people spoke. There was a 3 minute time limit throughout. Jayne Ozanne, Martin Gorick and Sam Alberry all spoke well, from different perspectives. I saw other Oxford members standing seeking to make a contribution. Over 160 people wanted to contribute. The debate was expertly chaired by Aidan Hargreaves.

We came to the vote which is normally a formality in a take note debate. As expected, it was closely contested. The House of Bishops voted 43 in favour and 1 against (the Bishop of Coventry later admitted he had pressed the wrong button by mistake). The House of Laity voted 106 in favour, 86 against with 3 abstentions. The House of Clergy voted 93 in favour and 100 against with 4 abstentions. The take note motion was therefore defeated.

Given the strength of feeling across the Church and the Synod this seemed to me an appropriate outcome. The Bishop of Norwich said afterwards: “I can guarantee that the Bishops will listen carefully and prayerfully to all the contributions made in the debate today”.

Talking with people afterwards, this felt a very significant moment but not that the Church of England is in chaos or turmoil (as the newspaper headlines indicated the following day).

There were various interpretations yesterday of what would happen next. The Archbishops issued a letter yesterday evening which sets out a way forward. The letter is here and I commend it to you for careful study.

The Archbishops begin with a clear statement that “All people are loved and called in Christ. There are no “problems”, there are simply people called to a redeemed humanity in Christ. They call for a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. They have established immediately a new Pastoral Oversight Group led by the Bishop of Newcastle to lead on this issue. The group will be inclusive of differing perspectives.

The Archbishops have asked each Diocesan bishop to meet again with General Synod representatives for an extended conversation following the debate. The House of Bishops will consider in May proposals to move forward with a new teaching document around human sexuality, again involving a group inclusive of different perspectives.

We will be giving some time at our Oxford Diocesan Synod on 18th March to reflection on the General Synod debate and subsequent developments. In the meantime, thank you to all those who have written to me or talked with me about GS2025 (and I am sure other Synod reps would express appreciation for this also).

The Bishops of Norwich and Willesden both expressed regret for the pain caused by the House of Bishops document and I would add my own apology to those who have been hurt and distressed over the last few weeks.

We do not need to wait as a Diocese before seeking to combat homophobia and improving our welcome to LGBTI people in significant ways. I will be seeking to convene some kind of reference group within the Diocese to advise us on ways forward.

The last few weeks have been a sharp and sometimes painful reminder to me of the wide spread of views across the Diocese on these issues. By the grace of God, I hope we will grow through these experiences, honouring and respecting our differences and seeing our diversity as a gift and, ultimately, a strength.

May God continually grant to all of us a deeper sense of unity in Christ and unite us through the Spirit’s grace in one body for his glory.

With love and prayers

+Steven Oxford.