A very short history of catechesis

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

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

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

The New Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Early Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monastic Movements and the Mediaeval Church

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

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

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

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

England from 1287-1530

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

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

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

England from 1530-1740

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From 1740 to the present day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pilgrim Way – a new catechism

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

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

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

+Steven Oxford

Order The Pilgrim Way from Church House Publishing

Seven reasons to say the Lord’s Prayer each day

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

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

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

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

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

  1. To remember who you are

Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. To find the only way to be content

 Give us this day our daily bread

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

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

  1. To learn to live with our imperfections

Forgive us our sins….

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

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

  1. To learn to live with the imperfections of others

….as we forgive those who sin against us

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

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

  1. To be resilient in a challenging world

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

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

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

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

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

  1. To understand the end of the story

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

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

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

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

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

+Steven Oxford

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

A Beatitudes Hymn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gracious Lord, our hands are empty

Beggars seeking life and grace

Graft our lives into your own life

Gift your Spirit in this place

Hearts of stone we lift for blessing

Hearts of flesh we seek anew

Help our eyes see with compassion

Comforter, our joy renew

 

Servant Lord, you came in meekness

Stooping low to show our worth

Banish pride, restore love’s sweetness

Help us heal your wounded earth

Give us hunger for your kingdom

Thirst to see your ways prevail

Satisfy our hope for justice

Make us lights which will not fail

 

Living Lord, your name is mercy,

Love made flesh in life and word

Kindness shown to the unworthy

Grace which can be touched and heard

Pure in heart, you offer wholeness

Open eyes that cannot see

Win for all complete forgiveness

Come to set your people free

 

Son of God we seek your healing

Over this fragmented globe

Mend our lives, our homes, our nations

Making peace, one seamless robe

Help your church to be courageous

Joined in your eternal search

For the lost, the least, the helpless

Make us more a Christ like Church

The Mission Community of St Frideswide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Kimberley and Kuruman diary

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

Thursday 14th September

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

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

Friday 15th September

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 16th September

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

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

Sunday 17th September

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

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

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

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

Monday 18th September

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

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

+Steven Oxford

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