Prayer for the Nation

A message from Bishop Steven in light of the Covid-19 death toll

On 26 January 2021, the UK’s Covid-19 death toll sadly reached 100,000 people. In an interview with BBC Radio Oxford, Bishop Steven shared his sympathies and encouraged listeners to join in with Prayer for the Nation, a daily prayer initiative from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

The Bishops of Buckingham and Reading also shared their thoughts and prayers.

 

A response to overseas aid cuts

An open letter to MPs within the Diocese of Oxford

On Wednesday November 25th, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a temporary cut to Britain’s foreign aid budget, reducing spending in the coming year to 0.5% of national income. The Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, has written to MPs within the Diocese of Oxford.

Following the Chancellor’s announcement in today’s Spending Review of a ‘temporary’ reduction in the international development budget, I am writing to all Members of Parliament representing the three counties of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire which make up the Diocese of Oxford. I write out of deep concern for the devastating impacts that this change will mean.

This action undermines reassurances given previously by Ministers on the floor of the House of Lords to honour the 0.7% of GDP commitment. There is no assurance of when 0.7% will be restored. While I fully acknowledge the scale and complexity of the challenges the government now faces, we remain one of the richest countries in the world. Britain benefits from infrastructural and economic resilience that too many of the world’s poorest countries and communities lack. Cutting our development spending will heap a disproportionate extra load onto nations already overburdened by debt, poverty, and other developmental challenges. The World Bank estimates that up to 150 million people now risk falling into extreme poverty through the effects of the pandemic effectively wiping out all of the development gains of the last 20 years.

The Government’s 0.7% commitment to foreign aid, enshrined in law, is both a tangible and a symbolic demonstration of the values underpinning Britain’s global aspiration to use her wealth and her soft power as a force for good in the world.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, a promise to the poor is particularly sacred. I hope and pray that the independent voices and judgement of Members of Parliament will prevail and that this intention can yet be amended and avoided.

This letter comes with my best wishes and the assurance of the prayers of the Diocese for you in your hugely demanding role.

The stilling of the storm
Seven days ago, Pope Francis began his address to the city of Rome and the world with these words:

“Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realised that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying “We are perishing” (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this”.*

We have absorbed the first shock of the pandemic. We are learning to work in new ways and to work together across Church and society. We gather ourselves for the next wave. We hold together and support each other in the grace of Jesus Christ.

Thank you again for all you are being and doing. It is deeply appreciated in both church and wider community. The creativity, love and compassion evident in the Diocese are like shafts of light piercing the darkness.

Holy Week and Easter

Holy Week and Easter this year will be like no other we have experienced. Many local churches are offering prayers and meditations. Thank you. Many others can’t do this or prefer to focus their energies elsewhere and to join in the streamed worship offered by the Diocese. Don’t subject yourself to unnecessary guilt.

We are now making plans to offer live streamed worship for the Diocese on Sundays and Holy Days in the coming months to complement what is offered locally. We want this Diocesan prayer and worship to be sustainable over the long haul, collaborative, creative, accessible to all traditions, reliable and prioritising not competing with the local.

Our principal Diocesan services will be at 10 am each Sunday as last week. Wherever possible this will be live with some pre-recorded elements. The full list of services and times for Holy Week and Easter is as follows:

Palm Sunday 10 am  A Diocesan Eucharist with Bishop Olivia presiding
This will introduce Holy Week and point forward to a nationally provided and recorded dramatised Passion reading.

Maundy Thursday 11 am
The Renewal of Vows for Licensed and Ordained Ministry

Please would all licensed and ordained ministers gather for this Service of the Word with the traditional renewal of vows. Please retain your oils from last year as it will not be possible to bless or distribute new ones. I hope that Deanery Chapters or smaller groups might gather virtually before or after the service to give something of a sense of the fellowship we enjoy together.

Maundy Thursday 8.15 pm
A Diocesan Eucharist with Bishop Colin presiding

For Good Friday we will offer a series of six short addresses from myself, each with hymns and prayers as podcasts. These will be available from noon on Maundy Thursday to listen to on the website or download as a podcast. You may want to listen to them and keep the traditional three hours; or space them out across a whole day set aside for prayer; or use from Maundy Thursday to Holy Saturday; or just use the final two as you keep watch at the cross.

Easter Day at 10 am
A Diocesan Eucharist and I will preside and reflect.

These services are all advertised in this flyer (colour version or mono low ink version. Please do make them known to as many people as possible if you are not promoting your own services.

Again and again I have brought to mind in recent weeks the verse from the temptation stories: we do not live by bread alone. At this time more than at any time we need to offer spiritual resources for the challenges we face.

I am very grateful to the team of liturgists and communications staff who are working hard to make all this possible. There may well be hitches and glitches. Bear with us.

The Church of England app (currently #LiveLent) will carry my own reflections on the Lord’s Prayer with new introductions in this time of pandemic for the forty days of Easter beginning on Easter Day.

Funeral Services

I am very concerned to hear that some of you are being placed in an unacceptable situation at a crematorium or graveside funeral, with scores of mourners arriving and fully expecting to attend the service. At this time of crisis we, more than ever, wish to offer the ministry of the church to those that we have been called to serve but this must be done safely.

The present Government guidance says that numbers at funerals should be restricted and a safe distance preserved.

The Church of England guidance is aligned to that of the Government and unpacks the meaning of ‘close family’,
Because of the present public health regulations, the only available options for Church of England funerals are the following:
• a short service at the crematorium, with or without a very small congregation, which may only include spouse/partner, parents, and children of the deceased;
• a short service at the graveside, under the same conditions.

This guidance is clearly not being enforced by many of the crematoria or cemeteries in this Diocese and we have heard similar accounts from across the country. We have been in touch with the national church about this and they have petitioned the Government. We have also drawn it to the attention of the statutory authorities across the Thames Valley.

There is no easy solution to the problem of too many people turning up at a funeral. I hope that a stronger lead will come from Government soon. In the meantime, I offer this best practice guidance:

  • explain clearly to family in advance the rules about numbers and state that they must be strictly kept to; ask them to name for you the people who will be attending; ask them to explain to wider family and friends that they cannot unfortunately attend; explain option of a memorial service later in the year when this is over
  • speak in advance with the funeral director and the crem/council staff to check that they are committed with you to following the Government guidance; have a shared plan for how to respond if larger than expected numbers arrive.
  • If at the service larger numbers arrive, explain to everyone that only immediate family (spouse/partner, parents, and children of the deceased) can remain and look to the undertakers and crematorium staff to support you in this. Please do not place yourself unduly at risk.

I will also be writing a letter to all funeral directors, crematoria and council cemeteries seeking their support in this.

It is likely that, tragically, the number of deaths will continue to rise over the next few weeks and so, therefore, will the number of funerals in the remainder of April and May.

Please pace yourself through this period as best you can. Funeral ministry is demanding, particularly in a time of national tragedy. Take regular days off. Take time to de-stress after a funeral. Talk to colleagues and to friends. Don’t feel you have to accept every request beyond what is sustainable.

We are working at the moment to provide some central administrative support for clergy and undertakers to support what may be a surge in this ministry and will write with more information when that is in place. In common with the majority of dioceses, we will not be charging funeral fees for services at crematoria during this period starting immediately.

The Church of England has recently published a useful checklist on mental health for clergy and lay ministers.

Visiting the sick

One of the hardest features of the pandemic will be that we cannot and must not visit those who are sick in person. Our visits will have to be remote, but all of us can express warmth and companionship and pray for healing through phone and text and by other digital means. Those who are passing through the valley of the shadow of death need to know that God is with them and that we are continually praying for them and walking with them, albeit from a necessary distance.

Finance

Finance will not, I hope, be uppermost in our minds in the coming days. However, there is considerable anxiety already among PCC and Deanery Treasurers about the effect of the epidemic on fees, cash giving, lettings income and fundraising, and you will be aware of this.

Our Diocesan finance teams are working hard on this and we will communicate more in the weeks after Easter.

“He made the storm be still”

In Psalm 107 we read:

“He made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were calmed”

There are storms around us and there will be storms within us, of grief and fear, of questions. Christ is with us in the boat as it rises and falls with the waves. Christ is able to speak peace to the storm within and without.

It may well be that the initial shock and working together and community we see at present will fracture as the pandemic advances. We will need all of our patience and hope and resilience if that is so as we have to deal with anger and hurt and fear of all kinds.

Please watch over yourself in this and draw on the deep wells of the faith. Neither the Archbishops nor your own Bishops will get everything right through this crisis. Nor will any of us. We offer what we can, consecrating ourselves to God each day, in humility and in love and seeking to serve and give glory to God and to others.

In all of these ways, we are called to walk the way of the cross and to discover that it will also become the way of resurrection and of Easter hope.

Dear friends keep well; watch and pray and love. I look forward to our being together, if only virtually, on Maundy Thursday.

With our love and prayers,

+Steven, 3 April 2020
on behalf of the Area Bishops and Dean

The Cure of Souls

The most solemn moment of an institution service is, for me, when I commit the licence to the candidate and say these words:

Receive this cure of souls which is both yours and mine.

We will need to exercise this cure of souls as never before over the coming weeks as clergy, lay ministers and disciples together.

The cure of souls we are given is, of course, of the whole parish and benefice. The term cure means more than care (although all cure of souls is built on love).  At its centre is the ministry of reconciliation between individuals and God and between people and communities through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This precious and extraordinary ministry is entrusted to us in this most difficult of seasons. We are (and we all feel) insufficient to the task.  As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:

“…we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us”

New guidance

Yesterday evening the Prime Minister introduced new restrictions on every part of the life of our country in an effort to curb the spread of the corona virus. These are absolutely necessary.  They also restrict what we can and cannot do in our own ministries in the coming weeks.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, with the Bishops have today issued new guidance for the Church of England which applies across every diocese in the form of a letter and more detailed guidance on church buildings, funerals, baptisms and weddings. The template poster referred to in their letter can be found here for the Diocese of Oxford.

My first request to you must be to respect and follow the Prime Minister’s guidance on social distancing and the Archbishops’ guidance to the churches for your own sake and for the sake of the wider community and the most vulnerable.

This will mean exercising our ministry and our service of others working largely from home and through telephone contact and other technology.

Watching over ourselves and one another

Any ministry in these circumstances will be challenging. We will all be affected by corona virus in some way in our lives and families. All clergy, ministers and church officers will need to remember to watch over ourselves and to take care of one another.

If you need to self-isolate, you should do so.  If you are ill, then report in as sick in the normal way and let your Area Dean know.  If you find you are struggling with your emotional health then ease back and seek help and support.

The Area Teams will do their best to stay in telephone contact with the clergy and Wardens in vacant parishes and to suggest good ways of mutual support in local areas.  We are very thankful for the ministry of Area Deans in particular at this time. Clergy and lay ministers will be doing the same within congregations.  Love is not bound or restricted to face to face meetings or personal contact.

If we have not already done so, we need to prepare now for a long haul and for this situation to endure for several months.  This means that sleep, rest and sabbath are vital to maintain health and resilience.  Set a daily and weekly timetable which allows for this.

Prayer and worship

Regular patterns of prayer and worship are absolutely vital for clergy and ministers and for every disciple.  We cannot live by bread alone.

Make sure you say your prayers daily.  We all now are asked to pray in our homes and not in church buildings. There are various online helps and patterns of saying prayers through the daily office and we will make these known here:

Livestreaming of services from your home locally is a good thing.  It will be really helpful for many to continue to connect with their local congregation.  Over the last two Sundays the numbers sharing in livestreaming have been significant.

So we want to encourage local streaming where it is genuinely possible including of the Eucharist celebrated at home.  However, for a variety of reasons, it will not be possible for everyone.  If this isn’t possible for you, encourage your congregation to join in elsewhere and focus on other areas.

We will provide a single diocesan live-streamed Eucharist each Sunday and on principal Holy Days.  This will be offered by a range of different people who will be offering prayers and reflections.  The first of these services will be this Sunday, 29 March by the four bishops working together, each from our own homes (God willing).

We will also offer a Eucharist and Renewal of Ordination vows on Maundy Thursday at 10 am and principal services on Maundy Thursday evening at 8 pm, for Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Day.  Full details later.

Please make these diocesan services known by whatever means you can alongside whatever is offered locally.  The link for this coming Sunday is here.  Please begin to circulate the details electronically to congregations now.

Pastoral care

Please Involve others in the pastoral care you offer through telephone contact and in other ways. This is a time to connect the Body of Christ together for mutual care, overseen by those who have the cure of souls.  Many will be shocked, isolated and frightened.  All of us are helped by being able to help others.

Feeding the flock

There will continue to be a need for fellowship, community and teaching through virtual means.  We are hearing encouraging stories of the way people are connecting on line to support one another and reflect on the faith.

Many will be using the Church of England LiveLent App.  On Easter Day this provision will continue through my own daily reflections on the Lord’s Prayer for the period between Easter and Pentecost, revised for the present situation.  The App will also provide a guide for a small group conversation so that Christians can support one another and pray together through the Easter season.

Mission in the wider community

The cure of souls is also a ministry of love to the entire community.  Work with others in this wherever you can especially in your care for the vulnerable. Continue to support foodbanks and care for the homeless. Donations to foodbanks can be financial as well as through giving food. Do what you can to support our teachers and chaplains. Encourage them and remember them in prayer.

Church House Oxford

Church House Oxford is now closed in accordance with government guidelines and all staff are working from home. All phones have been diverted so call the normal numbers for advice.  The work of the Diocese will continue virtually.

Parish finances

We recognise that for some their parish finances are significantly dependent on Sunday collections, lettings and fundraising events and will be issuing advice to help following a consultation with deanery treasurers. Please support the need to sustain parish and diocesan income at this time when the Church’s ministry is needed as never before.

Appointments, Guidance and Advice

Appointments processes will be now be put on hold for the most part until early May at the earliest.  The Guidance for Corona Virus is updated regularly on the Diocesan website.  Please check it daily.  The Area Deans and Archdeacons remain the first point of contact for advice and questions.

And finally

The Lord our Shepherd with us through this crisis giving rest to the weary, comfort to the bereaved and guidance to the perplexed.  We are asking everyone across the whole diocese, every disciple of Christ, to pause at 11 am each day if your work permits and say Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer, beginning tomorrow (with Pope Francis and our Archbishops).

Thanks be to God for the ministry of so many faithful Christians across the Diocese, called to reflect the light of Christ in the midst of the darkness.

With our love and prayers


+Steven
on behalf of Bishops Colin, Alan and Olivia

A message from the four bishops in the diocese of Oxford on the coronavirus crisis

It’s been a strange Advent season. Our attention has been focussed outwards on the election and the global climate talks. The practical preparations for Christmas Services make their own demands on clergy and congregations. Thank you for all you give and all you are about to give in welcoming (probably) over 150,000 people to churches across the Diocese on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. All that I wrote last year in appreciation of the commitment of hundreds of people across the Diocese I want to say again.

But still, some inner reflection and preparation is important. I found myself preaching in St. Mary’s Thatcham on Sunday morning and reflecting on the ministry of John the Baptist and on the part of his character which is sometimes neglected.

John’s Gospel describes the large crowds who follow John the Baptist in the beginning. John is a major figure, a prophet like the prophets of old. He dresses in camel hair with a belt of leather. He eats locusts and wild honey. He preaches with passion and honesty. His message is direct and calls his hearers to repentance and a new beginning. He baptises in the river Jordan, and disciples follow him even though he says he is not God’s Messiah.

But then Jesus appears in Galilee, and he also begins to preach and teach and to baptise and to call disciples to follow him. Jesus heals the sick and calms the storm and changes water into wine. The crowds are looking for the next big sensation. They are hungry and thirsty for meaning, for God’s messenger. Slowly they begin to drift away from John the Baptist and they begin to follow Jesus. John’s popularity begins to wane. He is in trouble with the authorities but not yet arrested.

Some messengers come to John. Here is this new Rabbi. The one you baptised. Here he is baptising and all are going to him. Here is the test for John’s leadership. Will he be pressured by the crowds? Will he be jealous that someone else has more followers? Will he be swayed by the popularity of a competitor? This, not his time in prison, is John’s real moment of testing when his character is weighed in the balance, and we see him as an authentic servant of God.

John passes the test. He cuts through all of this and takes the way of humility. This is his answer to the most difficult question he is asked in his entire ministry:

“No-one can receive anything except what he has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah”, but I have been sent ahead of him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom The friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease”.

Focus on those closing words you prepare for Christmas: He must increase, but I must decrease.

The words are remarkable. Ponder them.

They describe John’s whole ministry, but they also describe what it means to be a Christian. John is not the light. We will hear the words of the gospel again in our carol services: But he came to bear witness to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.

John prepares the way for Jesus through his life and his preaching. But in the end, that mission is not to draw attention to himself but to draw attention to Jesus: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. John gives away his precedence and his glory and his ambition for himself because John has a clear vision of who Jesus is. John is the servant. Christ is the Master.

The inner questions John faces have not left us. If anything they are even sharper in a world of social media, of instant fame, of rivalries and rifts in families and deep questions of identity, of triumph and disaster. How will we navigate safely? John’s words challenge us, but they also offer us a safe and level pathway: He must increase but I must decrease.

Our purpose in life is not, after all, to point to ourselves, to make a way for ourselves, to push ourselves to the top of the pile, to make sure we are the most followed and the most noticed in our family or school or workplace or church. There is great relief in that truth… once we truly believe it.

Our purpose in life is to point to someone else, to Jesus, to the Son of God, who has come into the world, to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, to the light which shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.

Through all the length of our life’s journey, at each stage of that journey, however long we might live, John’s words are our watchword: He must increase, but I must decrease.

By the grace of God, through the work of the Spirit, Jesus comes not only to save us and bring forgiveness and a new beginning. Jesus comes also to change us and renew us and transform us from within. We are called to reflect more and more the character of Jesus, the fruits of the Spirit: to carry within us love and joy and peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. He must increase, but I must decrease.

So in this season of Advent, as we come to the end of the year, as we prepare our hearts to celebrate the coming of God’s Son, let me offer you a spiritual exercise. Set aside a little time this week to be quiet and alone. Look back over this past year. Give thanks for all that has been good. Offer to God all that has been difficult. And ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do you see an increase of faith and hope and love in your life this year?
  • Where do you see Jesus increasing and the old you growing smaller?
  • Where are you aware of being more Christ-like: more contemplative, compassionate and courageous?
  • Where do you think you have pointed clearly to Jesus, the Lamb of God.
  • Where do you think you have pointed only to yourself?

By God’s grace, for most of us, there will be areas and moments of grace: where we really have become more full of faith and hope and love. For most of us, there will be areas and moments too where we have moved in the opposite direction: we have increased and Jesus has decreased in us.

Advent is the time to set that right following the pattern of the Baptist. We need to prepare our hearts again and see them cleansed and set right. Come to the waters. Seek God’s washing and cleansing and forgiveness. Lay aside the pride and the ego and the desire to be first. Embrace again the way of humility. Say with John: He must increase, and I must decrease. For this is the way of the disciple and the way of joy.

 

+Steven Oxford
December 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary have declared climate emergency to be the word of the year in 2019. According to the dictionary’s own data, usage of the term soared by over 10,000%.

I attempt to write at least one new hymn a year as the verse for my official Christmas card. This year I’ve revisited something I wrote in 2015. In that year, Pope Francis produced his great encyclical on the climate crisis, Laudato Si’: on care for our common home.

The encyclical certainly stands the test of time, but my earlier hymn lacked a sense of urgency and crisis which has become apparent this year in the campaigns around the world and in the escalating effects of climate change. I’ve tried to craft two new verses and reshaped the rest. The verses fit to the tune of the well-known hymn, The King of Love my shepherd is.

The Church is called to the worship of God the creator who loved this world so much he sends Jesus his Son to be part of creation and to redeem us. This must mean we are called to lead the world, not follow, in responding to the climate emergency.

Creator of our common home
And Maker of such wonder
You crafted stars and sky and stone
Dividing seas asunder

But now our waste despoils the Earth
Polluting all you gave us
The world heats up, the seas will rise
From fire and flood come save us

In Bethlehem you gave your Son
Creator in creation
Reason and love came to transform
God’s gift for our conversion

Forgive us our neglect and waste
Bring wisdom to the nations
Make us good stewards of the earth
For future generations

Creator of our common home
Redeemer of such mercy
Sustainer of all life on earth
To you always be glory.

Steven Croft, 2015 and 2019
After Laudato Si’
Suggested tune: The King of Love my Shepherd is

 

Church numbers

On publication of the annual Statistics for Mission, Bishop Steven reflects that there remains a huge appetite to learn and explore the Christian faith. The sheer number of courses run by churches is a sign of how much people want to explore the big questions about the meaning and purpose of life. 

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 52% of people in Britain now declare they are of no religion. That proportion is growing. With every decade that goes by, people understand less and less about the Christian faith.

The hunger for purpose and meaning and love remains. Questions about life and faith are as deep as ever. Many people still pray, especially at great crises in their lives. But most people need more help to explore Christian faith in a way which welcomes you in and makes no assumptions about what you already know.

How are churches responding in love to a population which understands less and less about the Christian faith? It’s important to meet people where they are, without judgement. It’s important to offer loving service and friendship without qualification.

Churches are also learning (slowly) that it’s important to offer simple, accessible ways to explore what it means to be a Christian from the very beginning. More than a third of churches now offer some way of doing this every year. For me, it’s right at the top of the list of what you should be able to find in every local church.

Pilgrim was developed by bishops and teachers of the Church of England to support every local church in learning and teaching the faith year by year as a normal part of parish life. There are eight short courses of six weeks each: four for absolute beginners and four which build on this foundation. The courses explore the four simple texts which have always been wonderful ways into the Christian faith: the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, the Commandments and the Apostle’s Creed.

Every session begins with listening to God in the Scriptures. The whole Pilgrim course is also a guide to reading the Bible: the Old Testament and the New. The original booklets were launched in 2013 and more than a quarter of a million books have been sold. In 2017 the authors published The Pilgrim Way, a simple question and answer summary of Christian faith which is now at the centre of the faith section of the Church of England website.

For many people, it’s good to learn in a group. Others prefer one to one conversations with some daily readings in between. Earlier this year, we published the first two booklets to support this: Pilgrim Journeys on the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes. The booklets were linked to the Church of England’s digital campaigns for Lent and Easter. More than 40,000 booklets were sold, and the same number of people again engaged through smart speakers, the app and daily emails.

There is a huge appetite to learn and explore. We may not be called to be a bigger church in this generation. But we are called to be a deeper church: helping beginners come to know Christ and be formed as Christian disciples for a life of faith and adventure.

At the very heart of Pilgrim is a desire to see the character of Christ formed and shaped in the life of every Christian so that we, in turn, can help reshape the world.

 

+Steven
17 October 2019

  • Steven Croft is the Bishop of Oxford and one of the four lead authors of Pilgrim (with Robert Atwell, Stephen Cottrell and Paula Gooder)
  • It has long been +Steven’s 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.  Read more.

We may be about to exit the European Union and begin a new relationship with our European neighbours and with the world. +Steven, +Alan, +Colin and Bishop-elect Olivia have written a joint letter to every church, school and chaplaincy in the Diocese of Oxford reminding us all of the important roles that our churches and schools hold at this time. The bishops are encouraging parishioners across the diocese to read the letter too: “Don’t underestimate what we can achieve if every church, chaplaincy and school does something and if every Christian disciple takes some action, however small”.

Dear friends,

Love your neighbour as yourself: a Christian response to Brexit
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you… and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29.7)

We are writing as bishops to every church, school and chaplaincy in the Diocese of Oxford and to every disciple at this critical moment in our national life.

As a nation we may be about to exit the European Union and begin a new relationship with our European neighbours and with the world. At the time of writing, the course of events is uncertain – and the prolonged uncertainty is itself challenging. How are we to respond in the coming months as the Church of England across Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes?

Six hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to those sent into exile in Babylon. His words resonate powerfully today. We are to seek the welfare of our cities, towns and villages in these difficult months. The word translated welfare here is shalom: peace, well-being and prosperity. These must be our goal.

There are over a thousand churches, schools and chaplaincies in the Diocese of Oxford and over 50,000 regular worshippers. We are calling on everyone to remember the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves, especially in the coming weeks. Together we can make a significant difference.

The Church of England and Brexit
Our nation is divided about our future relationship in Europe. Our calling as the Church in these times is not to take sides in this debate but to continue to be the Church for everyone. There are leavers and remainers in every congregation, but this can never be our primary identity as Christians.

We have a particular responsibility at this time to speak out for the poorest in our communities and to act to help them (as the church has always done). We have a responsibility to work for the peace and the common good. We are called to offer in public and in private a voice of truth and a voice for hope in the future. The Bishops of the Church of England made a public statement recently calling for listening, respect and renewal in political life.

As the Church we bring a long perspective on the present debates. We know from our own history that the United Kingdom has re-imagined its relationship with Europe many times in the past. The Church of England came into existence as part of one of these eras of change. In a few weeks, we will all remember again those who gave their lives in the great wars of the twentieth century which were focussed around conflict across Europe.

As the Church, our friendships with Europe and with the Church across Europe will continue and deepen whatever the political and economic settlement.

What can we do?

National and local government have done a great deal to plan for a smooth and orderly Brexit (with or without a deal). However, there is an important role at this time for practical expressions of love and hope by communities and individuals. The exact needs will vary from one parish or benefice to another. These are some of the things you may need to consider and think about as Church Councils, school governing bodies, small groups and families.

Twelve ways to love your neighbour as yourself, a Brexit checklist:

  1. Give extra support to the food banks in your area. There may be temporary shortages of some foods. Prices may rise. Foodbank usage may also rise. Signpost your local foodbank. Make sure stocks are high, and there are enough volunteers.
  2. Watch out for the lonely, the anxious and the vulnerable. Levels of fear are rising and may rise further. Knock on your neighbours doors and check if they are OK. Speak to people on the bus and at work. Build networks and friendships.
  3. Reach out to EU nationals in your neighbourhood and workplace. This is a moment for friendship and hospitality and love for the stranger. As we leave the European Union, or as the uncertainty continues, people are likely to feel less welcome.
  4. Make sure people have access to good advice on migration and travel, and qualified advice on debt and financial support. It may be possible to set up a temporary drop-in centre in Church for EU citizens or for UK citizens anxious about relatives abroad. Point people to relevant websites.
  5. Remember the needs of children and young people. Our schools and churches can be a place of balance and sanctuary for our children, who may be feeling upset and anxious. The Mental Health Foundation has excellent advice on talking to children about scary world news. Parents and teachers might want to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate how different media cover the same story.
  6. Support the statutory services. A lot of good, solid planning has been done by local authorities. Familiarise yourself with your local authority plans and point people to them. Meet with your local councillors and neighbourhood police officers.
  7. Think about the needs of particular groups in your area. Some parts of the diocese have large communities of migrant workers from a particular region. Other parts will want to focus on the farming industry and its need for seasonal workers. What are the local challenges where you live?
  8. Work together with other churches, faith communities and charities. There are some excellent examples of collaboration across the Diocese in foodbanks, debt counselling and night shelters. How else could we work in partnership?
  9. Invite the community together. Encouraging discussion about the rights and wrongs of Brexit is unlikely to be helpful. Gather people to listen to each other about what concerns them looking forward and how communities can be brought together despite acknowledged differences. Gatherings over a meal can be helpful as can skilled facilitation.
  10. Watch over other faith and minority ethnic communities. Hate crimes and crimes against other faiths increased after the 2016 referendum. Reconnect with the mosques, synagogues and gudwaras in your area.
  11. Encourage truthful and honest debate. The renewal of our politics will need to be local as well as national. Plan now to host hustings during the General Election campaign. Don’t be afraid of the political space but step into it with a message of faith, hope and love.
  12. Pray in public worship and private prayer for the healing of our political life, for wisdom for those who lead us, for reconciliation between communities and for stability in our government.

Don’t underestimate what we can achieve if every church, chaplaincy and school does something and if every Christian disciple takes some action, however small.

Don’t take on too much either: loving our neighbour through the Brexit process needs to be woven into everything we do anyway, not simply added into busy lives. Don’t be limited by this checklist – you might have even better ideas. If you do, spread them around.

There are more details and resources in a special section on the Diocesan website, where you can download “Twelve ways to love your neighbour” as a poster.

Together we are called to be a contemplative, compassionate and courageous church, to love our neighbours as ourselves in the months ahead and to pray and work for the wellbeing of our communities.

+Steven Oxford
+Colin Dorchester
+Alan Buckingham
Olivia, Bishop of Reading elect

7 October 2019

Bishop Boat Pilgrimage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.