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Happy New Year!

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

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

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

The overall scheme looks like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Dear Members of Parliament and Peers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With kind regards and continued prayers,

 

 

 

 

10 December 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Praise to the Father…

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

Praise to the Father…

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

Praise to the Father…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the national process?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wider debate

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

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

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

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

Inclusion and respect

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

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

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

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

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

Liturgy and prayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued listening

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

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

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

Compassion, gentleness and respect

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

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

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

+Steven Oxford

+Colin Dorchester

+Alan Buckingham

+Andrew Reading

Join the Bishop of Oxford as he prays for the renewal of the ministry of every parish church in teaching the faith to enquirers and new Christians.

Time for divestment. Image of an empty fuel guage

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