Welcome to 2014.  This year we mark the centenary of the Diocese of Sheffield.  I’m asking the diocese to focus in this first part of the year on a single text: Psalm 95.

I’m planning to post a short reflection Psalm 95 on the blog each day (except Sundays) in January.  It’s a very rich text and has a lot to teach us.

The reflections are in the style of the series Reflections for Daily Prayer and designed to be read as part of your own prayers or bible study or in preparation for a small group discussion.

You’re very welcome to journey with me through January exploring this great psalm. Feel free to print and copy the reflections for others to use.

Wednesday 1st January

A threefold invitation

O come let us sing to the LORD, let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation[1]

Psalm 95 begins with a simple word: “Come” and a three fold invitation.  Some people know the psalm by its Latin title: Venite (which simple means come). The Psalm is an invitation to reset our priorities at the beginning of each new day and to put God in first place again in this moment, on this day, in this New Year.  It’s the most important New Year Resolution we can make.

We need to hear and speak the words three times to begin to understand what they mean.

In the first invitation, I speak them to myself.  We learn to talk to ourselves through the psalms: to ask our own soul questions, or give encouragement or comfort.  At the beginning of the New Year, I remind myself of the priority and importance of worship and prayer and the invitation to live in communion with God, my creator.

In the second invitation, we pray the words together and speak to one another as the Christian community: in a local church, across the diocese, in the Church across the world.  We summon one another to joy, to praise, to worship at the beginning of the New Year. Each of us needs that encouragement, that reminder of what is important in our lives.

But the third invitation is the most important. We sing these words in private and in public as words of invitation to the whole world, to our local communities, to those we know, to anyone who will listen: come and share in the praise and worship of the living God; set your life in the order God intends; be caught up in the praise of heaven.

Come let us sing for joy to the Lord. May this be a year when many, many people rediscover the God who loves them and learn again the joys of worship.

[1] Psalm 95.1 Common Worship translation

Ann and I returned yesterday from a very enjoyable two week trip to Barbados. I was invited some months ago to speak at the Congress for the Anglican Province of the West Indies and a separate pre-Congress day conference and we were able to combine the visit with a week’s holiday before the Congress began.  There were lots of offers from various colleagues to come with me and help with the trip in some way (which were much appreciated).

The Archbishop of Canterbury

Barbados is a beautiful and fascinating island with a rich and complex history.  It was a rich privilege to spend time there not only as on holiday but to gain the life of the Anglican church both there and across the West Indies. Our visit coincided with the visit of the Archbishop Justin and Mrs Caroline Welby and we were able to attend the special service to welcome him in Christ Church Oistins on 9th August.  It was very, very clear how much the Archbishop of Canterbury’s presence and ministry is appreciated.  The Archbishop preached on the joy of getting know members of the family we didn’t know we had – which was part of the joy of the whole visit.  He was very well received.

A day conference on Mission

The whole of Saturday 10th was given over to a pre-Congress day conference on Mission, Evangelism and Technology organised by the Revd. Michael Clarke who chairs the Mission and Evangelism group in the Diocese of Barbados.  I first met Michael two years ago when speaking at Church Planting conferences in Toronto.  He has been working hard to encourage the development of fresh expressions of church in Barbados and is developing Mission Shaped Ministry there to train pioneers across the West Indies (1).

Around a hundred lay people and clergy attended the day.  Two thirds were from Barbados with another third from the Bahamas, Belise, Antigua and Trinidad and Tobago.  My talk was on the Church of England’s engagement with evangelism and fresh expressions of church over the last couple of decades.  It was very striking that the questions and level of engagement was very similar to an English diocese five or six years ago (before the ideas around fresh expressions were well known).  There was a great deal of interest and excitement and a desire to see new things grow.

Sunday Worship

On Sunday morning the Congress delegates were all hosted by different parishes in Barbados.  Ann and I were warmly welcomed by St. Augustine’s in a rural community the centre of the island together with Mrs Deborah Domingo from Belize.  The parish even put up a special sign to make us feel at home.

The main Sunday services in Barbados happen very early in the morning so we began at 8.00 am for a full parish Eucharist with a robed choir, incense, a full team of servers, a baptism and a large group of visitors from the Barbados association for the blind marking the recent death of one of their much loved members.  It was very good for me to be able to preside at the Eucharist (the first time I’ve done so outside England) and to preach and for us to meet the PCC briefly afterwards.  It was good to begin to get to know the parish priest, the Revd. Suzanne Ellis, who also headed up the Barbados delegation to the Congress.  The churches in Barbados look and feel very much like parish churches in England as buildings except that the windows are normally open and there are fans rather than radiators!

The Congress itself began on Sunday evening with a full celebratory sung Eucharist in St. Peter’s, Speightstown, another of the older churches on the island.  The Church was packed.  The service was full of joy: much singing with contemporary as well as traditional hymnody.  There has only been one previous Congress for the Province of the West Indies in the year 2000 so this is not a gathering which happens very often. There were between 10 and 20 or so clergy and lay delegates from each of the eight dioceses together with the bishop.  Young people were well represented. Archbishop John Holder preached on mission and the importance of making disciples and the challenges facing Caribbean families (the main theme of the Congress).

The Prime Minister’s address

From Monday to Friday the Congress met on the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies: an impressive site and home to 4,000 or so students during the University terms.  The Prime Minister of Barbados, Freundel Stuart, gave the opening address (and for me one of the highlights of the week).  He spoke for 40 minutes without notes, cogently, concisely and with great erudition.  His opening words quoted Archbishop Rowan Williams at the service in Westminster Abbey in March 2007 to mark the bicentennial of the ending of the slave trade.

We who are the heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity; those who are the heirs of the communities ravaged by the slave trade know very well that much of their present suffering and struggling is the result of centuries of abuse (2)

Prime Minister Stuart spoke clearly as an heir of a community ravaged by the slave trade for two hundred years (before it was abolished) and a further hundred years of its immediate aftermath.  Families in Barbados have been completely free of the effects of slavery for just 75 years.  The effects on families of this deep scarring remain widespread and serious.  I was listening as the heir of one of the slave trading nations of the past, conscious that a few days previously we had visited the Museum of Barbados which vividly tells the story of that terrible trade and its cost.

The Prime Minister was clear that the role of the Church in this situation was not so much come up with legislative solutions and proposals to the many problems facing Carribbean families but to speak clearly and with relevance about the message of the Christian gospel to those experiencing deep frustration, insecurity, powerlessness and hopelessness.  “People need to know”, he said, “that Christ lives and faith works”.  He closed his address by quoting the English poet Arthur Clough, “Say not the struggle naught availath” and urged the Anglican Church in the West Indies to be characterised by hope (3).

Vision and Strategy for the future

Alongside a deep engagement with the challenges facing families which ran through the week, the Province was also wrestling with the questions of vision and strategy for the future.  The Bishop of Jamaica, the Rt. Revd. Howard Gregory gave two addresses and set out in the second some of the problems the Dioceses of the Province are facing including declining and ageing congregations, diminishing influence, especially with the young, clergy retirements outstripping vocations to the ordained ministry, a shift in the relationship between church and society and consequent financial challenges.  This is not a time for business as usual, he argued, but for radical change and strategic leadership.

This was reasonably familiar territory both from the Church in Great Britain and the major narrative stories I heard at the Synod of Bishops in Rome last October about the difficulty of the transmission of faith throughout the world (although there are clearly major differences between the eight dioceses in the Province).

My own contribution to the Congress in a session with the Bishops and then in a plenary was again to describe the need for the Church worldwide to engage creatively and intentionally with evangelism.  The Church of England has been wrestling with questions of secularisation for longer than the Church in the Province of the West Indies.  I spoke in detail about our journey of engagement with teaching and learning the faith in catechesis and our engagement with the creation of fresh expressions of church within and alongside parish churches.  Although the ideas about fresh expressions were very new, there was significant interest and engagement both in the session itself and subsequently.  The Church of England remains an important model for the Anglican Church in this Province for all kinds of reasons and, I hope, the way in which the Church of England has embraced change in mission might continue to be a helpful model.

The Churches role in promoting health

There were several other addresses through the week on the challenges facing Caribbean families and the Church’s response. The Congress looked at the impact of crime and violence, caring for the elderly, and the economic crisis.  There was worship, bible study, workshop sessions to process the material and reporting back to the plenary gathering.

Among the many other addresses, the highlight was the final plenary on promoting healthy lifestyle in Caribbean families by a passionate Professor of Medicine, Trevor Hassell.  He made a simple and direct appeal to the churches in the Province to be agents and promoters of good health with the emphasis on promoting good diet, an active lifestyle, campaigning against exposure to tobacco and for moderate consumption of alcohol. I realised part way through his presentation that what Professor Hassell was saying was every bit as relevant to churches in the Diocese of Sheffield which have a similar potential to be promote public health (and in an area which needs good models).  Sometimes we have to travel a long way to learn the simplest things.

And finally….

The Provincial Congress finished just yesterday.  We weren’t able to stay for the final few days of processing the information and reaching conclusions.  I look forward very much to hearing what came from the Congress in terms of ways forward.

However it was enriching, enjoyable and a great privilege to be part of the process of the Congress and to share in such a way in the life of another Province.  Particular thanks to Archbishop John Holder and to Michael Clarke and Suzanne Ellis.  I learned, as ever, at least as much as I was able to share both in substance and perspective.  My prayers will be better informed now not only for this Province but for the rest of the Anglican Communion.  There is a rich and connected family throughout the world still to be discovered.  We have much to teach each other.  Thanks be to God for the richness of the life of the Church of Jesus Christ.

(1)  For more on MSM, which is a one year part time course for teams of pioneers see:

(2) For the full text of Rowan Williams’ sermon see Rowan Williams sermon on abolition of slave trade
(3) The full text is here: Say not the struggle naught availath

What was achieved at the General Synod this weekend?  Everyone is trying hard to find a way forward.  Lots of time was given to facilitated group work on Saturday and to the debate today.  As you may have seen from the news reports, there was a substantial majority in favour of moving forward on a basis of what was an enhanced Option 1 in the original paper (called variously during the day Option 1.5, 1.7 or 1.75).

The official Church of England press release following the debate is here:


There are also audio files here if you want to listen to the debate though I wouldn’t recommend them!  The debate was important but also very dull.

A Common Vision

Synod was not unanimous on the wording of the motion and debating the various amendments took several hours.  However there was, I thought, quite deep agreement across the Synod in three important and different areas.

The first was the urgency of keeping going, trying again and re-engaging with a new process.  Many of us are quite weary of this subject from all sides of the debate but there is an acknowledgement that we need to keep at it until we find a way. In its way that perseverance is impressive.  The second was a determination to have a different kind of conversation and process. There was widespread support throughout the day to a proposal from Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, to set up a Steering Committee for the new Measure which would contain different perspectives and aim to bring something back which could be revised by the whole Synod. There was also widespread support for further use of facilitated conversations.

The third evident agreement in both the small groups and the Synod debate today was in the area of the five fold vision for what kind of Church of England we want to be in the future.  The five points of this vision emerged from the in depth facilitated conversations held in February.  They were owned by the Working Group and then adopted and amended slightly by the House of Bishops.

Although we didn’t vote on it as such today, it feels as though these five points, serve as a key common starting point.  It’s worth repeating them in full.  I would strongly recommend that they are reproduced in parish magazines and newsheets across the Church of England in the coming days and widely discussed and debated.  Synod will return to debate them in the coming months and for the present they seem to carry substantial support.

  • Once legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops the Church of England will be fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and will hold that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience;
  • Anyone who ministers within the Church of England must then be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter;
  • Since it will continue to share the historic episcopate with other Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and those provinces of the Anglican Communion which continue to ordain only men as priests or bishops, the Church of England will acknowledge that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God;
  • Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests will continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England will remain committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and
  • Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

The debates today were not about whether we should do all of this but how and by what balance of legislation and other provision.The House of Bishops document and Working Party report are here: GS 1886 Women in the Episcopate – new legislative proposals  The five points above are quoted directly from paragraph 12.

Three Processes in One

The next step is that a Steering Committee will be established and will develop draft legislation. However in my view it is important to recognize that there are now three kinds of process going on. Each is important and feeds into the others. Like three strands of a rope we will need all three as we move forward.

The first is the continued theological conversation about the substantive issues at stake in terms of the calling of women to the episcopate.  I haven’t heard much conversation at this level over the Synod weekend.  A feature of the last process has been that we largely stopped having the theological and biblical conversation once we had begun the legislative process.  We must not repeat that mistake.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you will know that I edited a collection of essays with Paula Gooder which was published just before Easter which is designed to help small groups, individuals and parishes to engage with these issues.  It is called “Women and Men in Scripture and the Church” (Canterbury Press). It will be vital to move forward a process of theological conversation and education to undergird the debate (and the change which will eventually come).

The second is the mediated conversations aimed at helping us to understand each others positions better, to be reconciled to working together and being part of one church into the future.  A good beginning has been made here though the facilitated conversations on Saturday were undoubtedly extremely difficult for some.  These conversations continue and need to deepen. We have a small group working to design an indaba type process for the Diocese of Sheffield on this issue in the autumn and I suspect other Dioceses are taking similar initiatives.

However we must not and cannot disguise the fact that through our Synodical processes we are also called to a process of discernment about ways forward which are ultimately determined (humanly speaking) by votes cast at the end of a long process of debate.  Everyone on all sides of the debate needs to remember that reality even in the midst of theological exploration and mediated conversations.  It will also be vital to continue to organize, to marshall support, to campaign, to plan and think ahead.

It is helpful I think to keep these three different processes in mind as we move forward. They are not alternatives.   But they are also quite distinct from each other.

May God lead us and guide us together to find a clear path to fulfill the vision on which we are (almost) agreed.

Over the last six weeks I’ve been trying to develop a discussion paper on evangelisation in dialogue with a number of groups locally and nationally. The paper is a reflection arising from the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October.  It was originally prepared to introduce a discussion among diocesan bishops in the Church of England.  I developed it further after that conversation and have now presented the ideas in a couple of dioceses to groups of clergy and in a variety of other places.

The feedback has been largely positive and so I’m posting the latest version of the paper here as very much “work in progress”.  Feel free to reproduce it for discussion in any way that is helpful.

The Seven Disciplines of Evangelisation A discussion paper Steven Croft June, 2013. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” John 3.16

In October 2012 I was the Anglican Fraternal Delegate to the Synod of Bishops in Rome: a three week gathering of Roman Catholic Cardinals and Bishops with Pope Benedict to explore the single theme of the new evangelization.

The Synod of Bishops was a rich experience of listening to another Church reflect on the challenge of growing the Church and of the role of Bishops in leading that process.

This paper is a reflection arising from sharing in the Synod and my own experience thus far of attempting to develop vision and strategy for growth within the Diocese of Sheffield and more widely.

The paper is framed as a series of brief propositions and questions for discussion.

The paper was originally prepared as a discussion paper for the annual meeting of Diocesan Bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England on 10th April, 2013. I have made some revisions to the paper following discussion with fellow bishops.  The original paper had five disciplines. I have now added a sixth (placed first) following a suggestion made by the Bishop of London and a seventh (placed last) taking up a number of suggestions made by colleagues, including the Bishop of Connor whose diocese I visited the day after the English bishops meeting.

The original title of the paper was “How may bishops lead in growing the Church?”.  I have retained some of the emphasis on the role of bishops specifically in the text of this version of the paper.  However I believe the questions of how to give leadership in this area is relevant to all ordained and lay people who share in the oversight of God’s Church. I therefore hope that the paper will be relevant to a number of groups across the Church of England and not only bishops.

1.         Growing the Church in the present context is immensely challenging

I returned from the Synod of Bishops convinced that the Church all over the world is having the same conversation about the challenge and difficulty of evangelization.  I expected to hear about challenge and difficulty from Europe and North America and about growth and hope from Asia, Africa and South America. There were some contrasts but in fact the picture was much more one of challenge in the face of a uniform, powerful, global secularizing culture.

The difficulty in the transmission of the faith in the face of this secularizing culture is at the root of many of the other difficulties we grapple with as Churches (apparent lack of finance, vocations, the need to re-imagine ministry, decreasing resources to serve the common good).

The questions we are grappling with in our dioceses and in the Church of England are not unique to Anglicans or to Christians in Britain or the Church in Europe.  They are global questions and, I would argue, the single most serious challenge the Church will face in the next generation.

How should we lead and guide the Church in this aspect of our life given this challenging context?

We need to be realistic about the challenges.  We need to practice and live hope as a key virtue in leadership.  We need to be deeply rooted in prayer and in the scriptures.  We need to be aware that the leadership we offer individually and bishops, clergy and lay people sets a tone and makes a difference to the whole church. We need to prioritise thinking and reflection around this issue.  We should beware of simplistic rhetoric and easy solutions. 

2.         We need a richer dialogue on evangelization and growing the Church

The Synod of Bishops was able to set aside three whole weeks to deal with a single issue and was itself part of a longer five year process leading up to and from the Synod.  This meant that there was in depth engagement with the subject over many hours of listening within a coherent and transformational process.   Major theological and practical resources will in due time emerge from this process.

By contrast, many discussions of growing the Church and evangelization at senior level in the Church of England are superficial, skate over the surface of the issues and make little progress.

Some of the reasons for this are:

· The agendas of bishops meetings and other meetings are dominated by questions of gender and ministry and human sexuality leaving little quality space for deeper engagement with evangelization. · We feel a constant need to balance our agendas between serving the common good on the one hand and evangelization/growth on the other as if they were in competition (there was no evidence of this in Rome).  It becomes impossible to devote even a whole day to growth and evangelization. · The evangelization and growth agenda is seen as the province of a particular church tradition and which is regarded with suspicion by those not of that tradition (again there was no evidence of this in Rome). · It is also possible that, as individuals and as a body, we see the complexity of the call to grow the Church and we are in danger of being overwhelmed by that complexity.  It is easier to address the more specific questions. · At the same time there is a prevailing myth that we ought to be (and perhaps some are) competent at leading the Church into growth and therefore we don’t need to focus our conversation here.

How can we better develop this richer dialogue on evangelization and growing the Church to nourish our individual and corporate leadership as bishops?

We need to cherish humility before one another and before God in this area: this is not something we know how to do.  We need a richer and more precise vocabulary for disciplines which further to the growth of the Church (see below).  Our thinking needs to be nourished both by research and by theological reflection on evangelization.  We need to reserve and protect the agendas of our Synods and other meetings to deepen this conversation.  Our styles of learning in this area need to become much more like learning networks, intentionally sharing and developing good practice.  We perhaps need an ongoing educational and transformational process to our discussions leading to clear outcomes. 

3.         We need a clear, shared understanding of the disciplines and practices which help to grow the Church.

There have been many attempts to develop comprehensive strategies for growth in the life of dioceses and the life of the national church in recent years.

Typically these strategies deal with a wide range of presenting issues.  However, it is important to distinguish within these strategies those disciplines and practices which help to grow the church on the one hand from the elements often included in strategy documents which do not directly contribute to the growth of the Church (but which often dominate so called “growth strategies”).

It is important to name the truth that, though it is vital, pastoral re-organisation of parishes into larger mission partnerships or units with fewer stipendiary clergy in changed roles will not, of itself, lead to the growth of the church.  Nor, by itself, will mission action planning.  Nor will the more vigorous development of lay or self-supporting ordained ministry.  Nor will the redrawing of parish, deanery or diocesan boundaries or the creation of more advisor/coaching posts.  Nor will the restructuring of clergy or lay formation by itself lead to growth.

All of these practices are likely to form part of diocesan strategies.  They are all probably necessary and good developments for the future life of the Church.  They need to be happening.  I support almost all of them.  We should certainly discuss them together as bishops more than we do.

However, whilst these areas may be vital, they are not the core disciplines and practices which lead to evangelization and will lead eventually to the growth of the Church.  Any of them can become a distraction insofar as it becomes such a priority that it distracts attention away from the core disciplines which do produce growth.

I would define the core disciplines and practices for growth as those which invite, encourage and enable people to become Christians and to grow as disciples of Christ as part of the Church and to fulfill their calling in serving the common good.

People come to faith by encountering the Christian gospel as children, as young people and as adults, through being nurtured in that faith and enabled to grow to maturity as disciples through being part of supportive and missional church communities.  Where this is happening, there is likely be new life and growth in the local church.

There are, of course, different ways of describing these disciplines and practices.  I suggest here that there are seven such disciplines which have deep roots in Scripture and the tradition and need to be at the forefront of our thinking in the Church today.

1. The discipline of prayerful discernment and listening (contemplation) 2. The discipline of apologetics (defending and commending the faith) 3. The discipline of evangelism (initial proclamation) 4. The discipline of catechesis (learning and teaching the faith) 5. The discipline of ecclesial formation (growing the community of the church) 6. The discipline of planting and forming new ecclesial communities (fresh expressions of the church) 7. The discipline of incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus)

At present our conversation about growing the church lacks a precise vocabulary.  It feels rather like having a conversation about liturgy without being able to subdivide the subject appropriately (into for example, the Office, the Eucharist, Initiation and so on).

The names of some of these disciplines are borrowed (with their titles) from the Roman Catholic vocabulary used in the Propositions from the Synod of Bishops (with some minor variations).  The sixth is at present a distinctively Anglican addition to the disciplines.

These seven disciplines are not the property of a single tradition within the life of the Church nor of a single denomination. Wherever they are practiced faithfully in the life of the Church throughout the world, there is growth in the number of disciples and the quality of discipleship.

Developing and recovering these disciplines in the life of the contemporary church is not simply about excavating a tradition. Each needs to be continuously developed in a dialogue of active listening to contemporary culture which is where we begin.

The discipline of prayerful discernment and listening.  This first discipline is both a distinct set of practices and the foundation for each of the others.  The transmission of the Christian faith is a divine as well as a human activity.  It is only possible in the life of the Spirit. This deep truth is carried in the story of Pentecost and Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to wait for the power of the Spirit.  It is carried in the beautiful picture of the vine, where it is the life of Christ which flows into the branches and bears fruit.  The Church is called to abide deeply in Christ continually as the foundation and source of her life through prayer, worship and the sacraments. Contemplation is the wellspring of evangelism.

This deep abiding in the life of Christ needs to be accompanied by a careful attention to what God is doing already in each different place, community and context and out of that listening to discern carefully the best and most helpful place to begin.  One of the features of the gospel stories and the Acts of the Apostles often commented on in the tradition of the Church is the way in which Jesus and the apostles deal in different ways with different people. There are no repetitive formulas to be repeated in each place but prayerful and careful openness to the Spirit and discernment in context.  The contextualisation of mission and in the life of the Church flows from this deep and careful listening.

How can we encourage the whole Church in this deep abiding in the life of Christ? How can we encourage new vocations and new forms of religious life? How can we better encourage the careful attention to context and a willingness to abandon formulaic approaches to mission?  How can we together encourage research and deep listening to our culture as the foundation of evangelization?

The discipline of apologetics is the practice of defending and commending the Christian faith in dialogue with individuals, with specific communities and ideas and with whole cultural movements.  Its roots are deep in Scripture (in Job and Daniel, in the Acts of the Apostles).  It serves to strengthen the faith of believers, to remove obstacles to faith in hearts and minds and to prepare the ground for the initial proclamation of the gospel.  It is a discipline which is massively under resourced in theological education and research and in the life of the Church.  It is a discipline exercised through a variety of media: through films, novels, new media and the sciences as well as philosophy and theology.  It is a ministry exercised in the pulpit, in pastoral encounters, in schools, in engagement in the public domain, in writing and broadcasting.

How can we offer a lead in this area ourselves and be better equipped as apologists for the Christian faith?  How can we ensure that this discipline is better and more systematically resourced in the next generation?

The discipline of evangelism (or initial proclamation of the faith) is the habit and practice of sowing the seed of the gospel in the lives of those who have not yet heard its life-giving message.  The Roman Catholic vocabulary is “initial proclamation” and the term evangelism is reserved as a generic, non-technical term used both for the whole and the parts of the process.  We have a similar tension in the Church of England useage.   This discipline is somewhat better resourced in our own life.  We have a College of Evangelists, Church Army Evangelists, a network of Diocesan Missioners and often local licensed evangelists in dioceses dedicated in different ways to the initial proclamation of the faith in imaginative and effective ways. Nevertheless as our culture changes and evolves there is a need to continue to reflect and to develop resources and tools for this initial proclamation of the faith.

How can we lead in this area ourselves and be better equipped as those who announce good news and tell the gospel to those who have not yet heard its message?  How can we ensure that this discipline and set of practices grows and deepens in the coming years?

The discipline of catechesis is the discipline of teaching and learning faith and especially teaching the faith to those preparing for baptism (and confirmation) and those who have been recently baptized as they grow into mature discipleship.  This is a discipline where the Roman Catholic Church has done very significant work over the last two generations (evidenced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the RCIA).  This discipline is heavily disguised in our own discourse.  We have developed the habit of referring to it either by the brand names of popular courses (Alpha, Emmaus, Christianity Explored) or else by generic titles such as “nurture courses” which cannot carry the weight of the Christian tradition or the range of pastoral practice involved in catechesis.

Catechesis of adults and children and young people is absolutely critical to the growth of the church.  It is the discipline through which new disciples are formed and take their place in the life and witness of the Christian community.  We need urgently to recover a sense of the family as a primary agent of catechesis in teaching the faith to children and young people.

Catechesis engages three theological disciplines of doctrine, liturgy and formation/education.  As the Church of England we have done some work in each of these areas but little to bring them together in a systematic way.

Bishops are central to the development of catechesis. In the early tradition, bishops are at the centre of baptismal teaching preparation. They are the chief ministers of baptism and lead in Christian formation.  All clergy and licensed ministers need to share in this ministry and its oversight.

How can we lead in this area of catechesis in our own pastoral practice and in the development of our liturgical and teaching ministry? How can we develop a renewal of training in catechesis for clergy and lay ministers?  Are there initiatives we can take together which will promote and develop effective catechesis?  These might include a renewal and revision of the catechism as well as the development of new resources for Christian formation.

The House of Bishops and the Archbishops Council have recently taken an initiative to develop new resources in this area. The Bishops of Chelmsford and Stockport, Dr. Paula Gooder and myself are developing a new resource, Pilgrim: a course for the Christian journey. The course will be launched in September.

The discipline of ecclesial formation is the discipline of growing the community of the church as the number of disciples grows.  In many places, church congregations are now primary communities not subsets of existing communities.  By and large, Christian disciples need more intentional support in living out their discipleship in a more secular environment. This discipline, like the others, has very deep roots in scripture and the tradition (“My little children, for whom I am again in childbirth until Christ is formed in you” Gal. 4.19).  However it is a discipline which is undergoing change because of the wider environment and the changing role of the stipendiary clergy.

This discipline is absolutely vital to the growth of the church.  Those who come to faith need to be incorporated into living, growing, supportive and Christ like Christian communities.

At the Synod of Bishops, one place this discipline was evident was the very significant development of small ecclesial communities in many parts of the Roman Catholic Church over the last 15 years. At the turn of the millennium, base ecclesial communities were largely associated with Central and South America and a particular theological movement.  It is clear that in many places they have become a significant pastoral movement of renewal and support of congregations, actively supported by bishops and Bishops Conferences.

How can we lead in this area of ecclesial formation?  How can we equip clergy and lay people for the leadership of change in this discipline?  How can we develop different and consistent models of good practice which are faithful to Anglican identity and ecclesiology? 

The discipline of planting and forming new ecclesial communities.  This is the discipline discovered in the earliest days of the New Testament Church which has been slowly recovered in the Church of England and our partner churches through the insights of returning missionaries such as Roland Allen, the church planting movement, Mission-Shaped church and the development of fresh expressions of church.

The Church in much of the rest of the world is increasingly looking at the Church of England’s and the church in England’s engagement with this discipline to provide positive lessons and direction for the future.

As a Church we have invested significantly in this discipline in recent years. We have recently committed ourselves, through the General Synod Debate on Fresh Expressions in the Mission of the Church to continued investment and development.   There are very clear indicates that investment here is leading to the growth in the church.  However there remains a significant agenda for the future.

How can we continue to lead the church in the work of planting and forming new ecclesial communities?  How do we continue to encourage the growth of wisdom and pastoral practice?  How do we continue to develop and deploy the gifts of pioneer ministers?  How do we integrate the life of fresh expressions of church into the mixed economy of diocesan life? 

The discipline of incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus)  According to the Gospel of John, Jesus commissioned the disciples with these words: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20.21).  The incarnation and the ministry of Jesus is to be the pattern of all Christian mission, including the ministry of evangelization and growing the Church.  The discipline of patterning our mission on the life of Christ takes us back to the first discipline of prayerful discernment and attention to context. However it must also include ensuring that we are church which not only invites people to come to us but which continually goes, in different ways, in search of the last, the least and the lost, taking the message of salvation.  We must ensure that the evangelization we attempt is not in word only but supported by our actions and our service of the common good and the wider ministry of reconcilation.  We must ensure that our evangelization is contextual, that the one gospel takes flesh in different forms with different people and therefore that we must pay attention to questions of inculturation.  We must be alert to particular moments of opportunity both as individuals and as a Church in reading the signs of the times, not slaves to a single strategy or programme but alert to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We must be prepared for the untidiness and mess which always accompanies experiment, evangelism and growth.  Above all we must clothe our apologetics, our proclamation, our teaching, and our planting and building of the churches in love, without which all we do is nothing.

How can we so watch over and lead the Church of England that the Church grows together more deeply into the likeness of Jesus Christ even as we seek to grow the number of Christian disciples and the number of church communities?  How do we ensure that our ministries remain personal as well as institutional, building community rather than reinforcing hierarchy?

4.         In conclusion

If bishops, clergy and lay disciples are to lead effectively in growing the church, we need a richer and more sustained conversation with the whole church about how this task is taken forward.  We then need that conversation to lead to action both within dioceses and action taken on behalf of the Church of England.

This paper suggests an agenda for that conversation based around seven disciplines which are essential for evangelization.  Each discipline is in a different place in terms of development and pathways forward.

The paper feels to the author to be provisional and unfinished.  The aim is to help to take a conversation forward rather than prescribe a programme or a series of projects.

To return to the Synod of Bishops in Rome, the first place we need to come to in our thinking about evangelization is the place of realizing that we are inadequate to the task before us.  It is as we come to that point, by the grace of God, that we are open to the insights of others, to the guiding of the Spirit and a renewing encounter with the risen Christ.

You are welcome to reproduce this paper to continue the conversation in whatever forum is helpful. 

It was very good to meet with Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister this morning, who is also my own Member of Parliament.  I met with Mr. Clegg at the request of Christian Aid and as part of the IF campaign.  I was joined by to other local Christian Aid representatives: Jackie Butcher, who is also my advisor on overseas development and Mary Grover from Ranmoor, and by my daughter, Sarah, who works in Christian Aid’s campaign team.

If you don’t know the IF campaign then please look at their website and sign up.  The full title is Enough Food for Everyone: IF.  It’s a campaign against world hunger and is a major coalition of charities, aid agencies and churches, including the Church of England and, of course, Christian Aid.  IF is focussing on the four priorities of aid, land, tax and transparency.  IF is a focussed campaign and geared to the UK’s pivotal role as chair of the G8 summit this year.  More details at http://enoughfoodif.org

Our conversation this morning covered the two key areas of aid and tax.  It was an extremely positive conversation and I was left very impressed by Mr. Clegg’s personal and political commitment to the causes of aid and tax reform.

Many years ago, when I was almost exactly the age that Sarah my daughter is now (23), I took part in a mass lobby of MP’s in support of something called the Brandt Report: a major report on development and global finance.  The Brandt Report was, I think, the first time a call was made for governments to devote 0.7% of their GDP to international aid.  It is an historic moment therefore to reach that benchmark this year thanks to the commitment of all three political parties: the previous Labour government, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.  It’s a commitment made and maintained in a very challenging economic environment.  Many other developing countries are moving backwards not forwards on this agenda.  Britain genuinely is giving a lead.

But, as we know, aid alone is not enough.  Reform of the international tax system is key.  According to the excellent IF policy briefing: “The OECD estimates that developing countries lose three times more to tax havens than they receive in aid each year”.  Low income countries currently collect an average of only 13% of GDP in tax revenues compared to 35% in developed countries.

And here’s the thing:  “The UN estimates that if the world’s Least Developed Countries raised at least 20 percent of their GDP from taxes, they could achieve the Millennium Development Goals”.

Tax reform is key.  Multinational companies avoiding tax in developing countries are not contributing to the education, the healthcare, the security and the government of the people they employ there.  In the last few years, according to Nick Clegg in this morning’s conversation, tax reform has become a massive issue for developing countries as well.  As we have seen with the major campaigns over the last year, tax avoidance affects UK income as well as income in the developing world.  It’s a political winner at home as well as abroad.

It’s a remarkable thing that the UK is helping to place international tax reform at the heart of the G8’s agenda.  The summit in June represents a really significant opportunity to press further forward.  Transparency of assets and international disclosure are key.  Christian Aid and IF are lobbying for an amendment of the Finance Bill to extend the Disclosure of Tax Avoidance Schemes to give an international reporting dimension and also for the public declaration of beneficial ownership to prevent companies disguising their assets through shadow companies registered in tax havens.

I hope that the IF campaign will continue to gather massive public support as the G8 Summit draws near.  Lobbyists are in an unusual situation as we found this morning.  The UK government is onside, committed to the agenda and taking a lead internationally (though there may be differences on the realistic pace of change and precise policies).  The IF campaign needs to continue to communicate to the public just how key these issues are and how much our own government can accomplish as well as to apply pressure internationally so that some of the other G8 countries follow the UK’s lead.

Today was the Legal Service for South Yorkshire in Doncaster Minster.  The Legal Service here marks the end of the year of office for the High Sheriff (Julie Kenny this year).  The Service is a gathering of judges, lawyers and others from the legal profession together with representatives from the universities and civic life.

I was invited to preach today and this is the text of the sermon with the theme of leadership in difficult times.

Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees

A sermon for the Legal Service at Doncaster Minster 17th March, 2013 Isaiah 35.1-10; John 12.1-8

I begin this sermon with a text from Scripture and with a question.

The text contains striking words of encouragement from the Book of Isaiah. They are words of encouragement for difficult times:

“Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear”.

And the question for all of us is this:  “How do you exercise leadership in difficult times?”

No-one can pretend that life is easy or straightforward in South Yorkshire at the present moment.  The legal profession, the police service, local government and the voluntary sector and many other parts of society face real challenge.

We are all too familiar with the causes and the effects.  The economic winter continues.  We long for green shoots of recovery.  All of us are being challenged to do more with less.  Change keeps coming and it cuts into the lives of our communities and our professions in deep ways: the bedroom tax, the welfare reform bill, the legal aid reforms.  Some might argue that the burden of these cuts falls unevenly across the country and unevenly across society.  You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment (at least not in this context).

We all have different views on the economy, on the changes and on what should be done. But I think we would all agree that, taken together, these are difficult times to offer leadership and service in our communities.

The magistrate with a full court; the police officer on the long night shift; the manager of the advice centre with a growing list of clients but a reducing budget; the local councilor making difficult choices; the church minister setting up another food bank; the debt counselor seeing payday loans increasing; the child protection officer called to another demanding case; the judge in the family courts watching over the welfare of children as family pressures grow; the solicitor navigating the changes in the legal system.

How do we exercise leadership in difficult times?  How should we encourage one another in the demanding roles we have been given in public service?  What do we do when hands grow weak and knees become feeble and hearts are afraid? Where do we turn?  Where do we find the inner strength to go on loving and caring and building for the future in public service?

Let me offer you three places where strength is found within the Christian tradition.  These are three things to nurture when hands grow weak and knees grow feeble.  These are three deep wells to find refreshment in the desert.  Three places to turn when times are hard.

When you are leading in hard times, build vision, build respect and build community. Build vision, build respect and build community.

First build vision.  This is Isaiah’s ministry.  He was called to preach in a time of great change and turmoil and a bridge between the ages and between civilizations.  A long season of prosperity and peace was coming to an end.  The crisis was global not local.  Isaiah has to prepare God’s people for a new world order.

How does he do it?  He speaks the truth about the situation.  It is difficult and painful. But he also nurtures vision of what can be in the future and that is why his message is preserved.  He constantly paints a picture of a better world.  Isaiah dreams dreams and he puts those dreams into words. He tells of a better world still to come.

“Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then shall the lame leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert…..And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads”.

The language is the language of poetry and song.  But it is song which gives strength and hope and which lifts our eyes to a better future and a bigger horizon.

We need those songs today.  Those who lead in difficult times can so easily grow weary.  Ideals can slip.  Cynicism and despair sap our strength.  Our knees grow feeble and our hands grow weak.

Those are the moments when we need to connect ever more deeply with the vision which shapes us and drives us.  For me, that is the Christian vision of the world: a world which God created and which God sustains; a world which is not yet perfect or complete but a world which one day will be set right; a world in which every person is loved, every person has dignity and value, a world saved and redeemed by Jesus Christ.

That vision leads in turn to a vision of a society which is fair and just and free and safe for all and where everyone can prosper.

We need to nurture vision and find strength and pass that vision on to others.

Second build respect.  Hard times too easily breed suspicion of others and ready criticism which saps our strength.  Leading in hard times means building a culture of respect in others.

We find an example of deep respect in our gospel story.  Jesus is dining with his disciples.  Mary, one of the hosts at the dinner, in an act of great courage, offers to Jesus the most costly treasure she has, a pound of expensive perfume and an act of love, anointing him for burial.  She makes her offering in public, before the gaze of others, a costly, vulnerable act of service.

There is an argument about money and budgets.  The arguments are nearly always about money and budgets are they not. “Why was this perfume not sold for a year’s wages and given to the poor”?  The situation is highly charged.  They look to Jesus for judgement.

And what does Jesus do?  In the midst of the argument he sets his priority on building a culture of respect, of honouring what Mary has done, of protecting her love and devotion and causing it to be remembered for two thousand years and more.  Praise is a more powerful tool in difficult times that criticism.

As we lead through difficult times in our own day, in the courts and the law firms, in the council chambers, we need consciously to build together and deepen a culture of respect for one another, respect for people of different views, respect for those who have nothing, respect for one another as those who engage in public service together.

It is all too easy in difficult times to abandon respect and create a culture of criticism and blame.  But a culture of criticism and blame will only serve to weaken the bonds of our society and our communities. The more our society is characterized by true respect and worth, the more people will offer their gifts in service to their community. We especially need to foster respect and value our public services and our institutions, our legal services, our police force and our police officers, to pay tribute to their courage and dedication and to express our appreciation for all that they do well.

We draw our strength from vision and we draw our strength from creating a culture of confidence and respect.  The third place I would encourage you to look as we lead through difficult times is the call to create community.

Difficult circumstances often divide people.  Again we see that in our gospel story.  The pressure is increasing for Jesus and for the disciples.  Mary’s generous action leads to division.  Jesus respects Mary’s love but he also seeks to build and deepen this small community, to hold them together as the pressure increases, to prepare them for all that is to come.

In all our experience, I am sure, quarrels and divisions abound in difficult times. It is true in marriage, it is true in offices, it is true in teams, it is true in towns and cities.

Leadership in difficult times must always be about resisting those divisions, about healing the quarrels, about resolving the conflicts, about reconciling the differences, about making peace and building community so that all may work together and all may flourish.

We are passing through difficult times and all of us here are called to offer leadership in the different parts of our community: within the professions or the legal system, within local government, within the family.  We should make no mistake that clear, united leadership is called for in our society at this time from every different sector.

What kind of leadership will we offer as hands grow weak and knees grow feeble and fears increase?  Where will we find the strength we need?

We will find that strength not in despair but in vision, as we dream our dreams of the future together.  We will find that strength not in blame and criticism but in respect and appreciation of those in public service.  We will find that strength not in isolation but by constantly building community and shared values.

May God give to each of us this day to each of us renewed strength to build that vision, to offer that respect and to grow that community in the places where we serve.

Women and Men in Scripture and the Church

A Guide to the Key Issues

Edited by Steven Croft and Paula Gooder

Canterbury Press, March 2013

As most readers of this blog will know, on 20th November, the Measure to enable women to become bishops did not gain the required two thirds majority in the General Synod of the Church of England.  The Measure therefore fell.

Since 20th November I’ve been involved in many different conversations with clergy and lay people, with those deeply disappointed by the outcome, with those opposed in conscience to this development and in the Archbishops Council and the House of Bishops as we seek to find new ways forward.  As many UK readers will know, the House met yesterday to listen to a progress report from the Working Group and made a key decision to invite eight senior women clergy into our meetings until there are six women bishops in the House.

One of my conclusions during and after the Synod debate was that our focus needs to move again back to theological debate and reasoned argument.  It must not simply be about finding a new process. It was also clear to me during the debate and in conversations afterwards that there is a need for simple and straightforward material to help individual Christians, small groups and parishes engage with the subject in a way which brings life and especially to engage with Scripture.  As Christians we make our decisions and discern the way ahead for our church in dialogue with the Word of God.

This need was articulated very clearly in a meeting I held for women clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield with my colleague Bishop Peter just a few days after the Synod vote.  The educational task was seen as vital and people were crying out for fresh resources. A few days later, I was talking over breakfast at the Archbishops Council with the Revd. Rosalyn Murphy a fellow member of the Council, who also described the need for good biblical resources in her own parish in Blackpool.

A little light went on in my head and in our conversation.  I went away and talked with Canterbury Press, with Paula Gooder and with others.  Paula agreed to co-edit the book with me.  We pulled together an outline and people kindly agreed to write their materials at very, very short notice in order to produce the material as soon as possible for the Church.  The writing was finished by 4th January.  We’ve turned the proofs round this week. Women and Men in Scripture and the Church will be published by Canterbury Press in the last week in March, in time to use after Easter.

There are six chapters, each of which has study material for a home group or discussion group but which can also be read as a normal book.  The first, by Jo Bailey Wells, is on gender in Genesis 1-3. Stephen Cottrell has written on Galatians 3 and women and men being one in Christ.  I’ve contributed a chapter on women in ministry in the New Testament on Romans 16.  Ian Paul has written the chapter on the three passages which seem to prohibit the ministry of women (1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14).  Joanne Grenfell has written on women and men in family life in Ephesians 5. Rosalyn Murphy has contributed the final study chapter on women and men working together based on Romans 12.  Paula has written some brief and more technical notes for each study chapter.

There are two supplementary chapters.  Viv Faull has written a very short history of the recognition of women alongside men both in the governance of the church and in recognized ministry.  Emma Ineson has drawn together some brief answers to frequently asked questions in the wider debate.

The style is accessible and open.  We’ve drawn as much as we can on recent scholarship but in such a way that any interested reader can explore the questions.  Some of the proceeds from the book will go to Christian Aid to support their work for gender equality throughout the world.

At the moment we don’t know what shape any new legislative proposals to Synod will take. However once they are published there is likely to be an extended period of debate in the wider church about the ministry of women as bishops.  The Synodical process will need to include another referral to diocesan synods (which will mean once again discussion in deanery synods and Parochial Church Councils). It is vital that this debate is better resourced than last time around and our hope is that the book will play its part in that resourcing.  It is also vital that we have a life giving message to share even in and through the debate.

However that’s not the most important reason that I have helped to draw the book together. The most important reason, I believe, is that the Bible’s message on gender is such good news for both women and men.  To quote from our introduction:

We believe that the account given in the Bible of the role of women and men in God’s purposes is profoundly good news for humankind. It is an account that affirms the equality and status of both men and women and their call to partnership in society and family life and in the Church. It is an account that is radically different from many others in ancient society and down the ages. It is good news that liberates women from subservience to men and also sets men free from gender stereotypes.


 The Christian Church is an imperfect institution. It has not always lived out or practised the message of the Scriptures. However, the Bible’s account of gender is liberating good news for older women who may have grown up with the idea that they are called by God to be subservient or to restrict their life choices. It is good news for younger Christian women considering God’s call on their lives. It is good news for men, old or young, who can now work fully alongside both women and men in the service of the gospel. It is good news for the many cultures in the world where women are still treated as less than equal. It is good news for all those working in international aid or development, where the subjugation of women in culture is a major issue in combating poverty.

One of the most painful consequences of the General Synod debate in November was that this profoundly good news was obscured by our internal debates – though this was no-one’s intention.  My hope is that as people read Women and Men in Scripture and the Church, both individuals and small groups and whole congregations will see afresh the equality of women and men in scriptures and in their call to ministry and that this will be life-giving and faith renewing.  Even where people cannot accept the conclusions we draw as a group of authors, our hope is that those who remain unable to accept the consecration of women as bishops will see more clearly that there are good reasons for advocating this on biblical grounds.

Please look out for the book when it comes out, pass on the news to others and use it in your churches.

Over the last year, I’ve been a member of the 23 person Fairness Commission in Sheffield looking at inequalities across the city.  Our report was published this week.  Being part of the Commission has been a fascinating and moving experience and that continued this week.

On Tuesday, members of the Commission gathered at the Credit Union in Sheffield for a press call and launch to highlight the importance of responsible debt and credit. On Wednesday I was interviewed on Radio Sheffield in the morning and chaired a meeting of faith communities to look at the report in the evening.  On Friday, I travelled on the Number 83 bus from Ecclesfield to Millhouses with a BBC camera crew, highlighting the inequalities along the route.

At the beginning of the week, I wrote the following article for the Yorkshire Post which was published on Friday 1st February and is reproduced here with permission.  It draws together the theme of Fairness in Sheffield with that of a Fair Deal for Sheffield – a campaign to ask government to address the balance of cuts across north and south.

Full details of the Fairness Commission’s work are at: Sheffield Fairness Commission

Details of the Fair Deal for Sheffield campaign are at: A Fair Deal for Sheffield

Yorkshire Post Article

Sheffield is one of England’s great cities and a city which has made enormous strides in the last decade in reforming its economy, improving health outcomes and raising educational attainment.  It’s also a great place to live and to visit.  Many people who move here stay for the rest of their lives.  Why would you want to go anywhere else?  But Sheffield is also a city in which not everyone has the same chances in life.  We are in many ways an unequal city.  For the last year, I’ve been one of 23 members of the Sheffield Fairness Commission exploring how we can be a better and fairer city in the future.  We published our report on Wednesday.

If you take a Number 83 bus from Abbeydale in the south of Sheffield through the centre and out to Ecclesfield in the north, life expectancy changes for men and women all along the route.  In Ecclesall Ward it’s 86 for women and in Burngreave just 77.  Life expectancy is just one example of different forms of inequality we discovered.

We’re not the first city to have a Fairness Commission.  Similar work has been done in York and in Liverpool, in Islington and elsewhere.  Each Fairness Commission is based on the key insight that a fairer society is a better society for everyone. Extremes of wealth and poverty are bad news for society. The ideas are unpacked in a key book, The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Penguin).

Sheffield’s Fairness Commission was set up a year ago by the city council with the support of all three political parties and commissioners drawn from across the life of the city.  Our task was to take a spirit level to every part of the life of our community: health and jobs, credit and benefits, housing, safety, transport and just about everything else.  We received evidence in writing, through people coming to see us and through satellite meetings.  Everything we received is on the Commission’s website, with the final report.

It’s been a fascinating process and I’ve learned a huge amount. The number of road traffic accidents in an area is directly linked to poverty.  Air quality is vitally important in promoting community health.  Doorstep lending is toxic.  The young people of Sheffield from all backgrounds are full of aspiration for their future but not all of them know how to make their dreams a reality. It’s vital to pay a Living Wage not just a minimum wage. We need to address questions of mental as well as physical health.  Equality is not only about poverty and wealth but often about race or gender, sexuality or disability.

The Sheffield Fairness Commission has set a bold vision for the city.  We aspire now to be the fairest city in the country. We’ve established ten principles to guide policy makers and every citizen.  We’ve made a number of key recommendations and we have proposed a process of annual audit and review for the City to measure progress towards our goal.

There has been a great deal of interest from the faith communities in the work of the Commission.  Faith communities and faith based charities submitted evidence to us.  On Wednesday evening I chaired the first public meeting to examine the report’s findings from the perspective of the Faith communities. Questions of fairness and justice and care for the poor run very deeply in the scriptures of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and in the practices of all the world faiths.

We will only become a fairer city by engaging the energies of everyone and the churches and faith communities will play a key role in encouraging debate and developing social capital locally and across the city.  Charities founded by Christians or members of other faiths are among the most active in the city in helping the poorest members of our community. The Cathedral Archer project provides daily assistance to the homeless in the very centre of Sheffield.  The number of food banks here has increased in recent years.  The majority of them are offered by the churches.

But fairness within the city, the Commission discovered, is only part of the story.  There also needs to be fairness in the way national resources are distributed by central government.  Here too we found there is a long way to go.

Two weeks ago, Liverpool hosted a key meeting for civic leaders and faith leaders at the Liverpool Arena under the title Come 2gether.  The conference was a cry from the heart of our great northern cities about the unfair effect of government spending cuts on their economies and on the poorest in the communities.  Last Friday, a coalition of MP’s and community and faith leaders launched a new campaign, A Fair Deal for Sheffield, which makes identical points.  Whatever the intention, the government’s austerity measures are not falling in a fair way across the country.  South Yorkshire Police are losing 182 front line officers between 2010 and 2015.  In Surrey the force is increasing by 276.  In 2011/12, Oxfordshire County Council increased its funding to charities by £327K, but in Sheffield in the same year there was a net reduction of such funding by £8.5 million.

The great cities of the north of England are places of enterprise, hubs of industry, thriving communities and centres of culture and learning.  All of our northern cities, including Sheffield, deserve and need a fair share of our central government resources to thrive and flourish in the future.  I am part of the campaign to urge the government to reconsider the unfair effect of the spending cuts on Sheffield as a whole and on the poorest in our communities and to take action this year to redress the balance. We need to work together to make all our cities fairer places for the good of all. Local initiative and vision are vital but so is the part played by government and Parliament.

We held a consultation on parish share for people across the Diocese this morning.  Parish share is the financial contribution each parish makes to the Diocese to finance ministry costs and central expenses.  We’re in the middle of a review here and the main work of the morning was for those who came to explore three different options.  More details of these will be appearing on our diocesan website in the next few days: Diocese of Sheffield

We have heavy snow in Sheffield at the moment so my expectations were low.  175 people came which was brilliant for such a day representing around 70 parishes and every deanery.  Well done to the whole team.

My task was to give a keynote address to introduce the more practical stuff and what I said is here.

The snow bishop is nothing to do with this morning.  I’ve been away on a conference with our curates for part of this week and the snow bishop was their creation.  Enjoy! Grace and Generosity

Thank you very much for being here this morning and for giving this time to help us discern together how best to move forward in Parish Share.  Thank you for all that you give personally and thank you for all that your parishes are able to give particularly in the present challenging financial climate.

The Letter to the Ephesians calls the Church of Jesus Christ the household of God (1.19).  Every household has to have conversations at key moments about housekeeping and the budget.

My task is to set this important conversation about our diocesan housekeeping in the broader concept of what the Scriptures teaches about money and giving. To set that context I just want to say two things.

What the Bible has to say about money and giving and church finances is focussed for me in two words.  The first is grace.  The second is responsibility.  Grace and Responsibility.

We begin of course with grace.  All of our conversation this morning needs to be set in the context of God’s gracious, generous love.  We see God’s grace in creation: the universe itself is the overflow of God’s nature. God had no need to make the world and all that is in it.  The beauty and variety of the natural world, the abundance of creation, all witnesses to God’s generosity and love.

We see God’s grace in the story of salvation: in God’s call of Abraham to leave his land and giving him an inheritance to make him a blessing to all nations.  We see God’s grace in the call of Moses to bring the Israelites out of poverty and slavery to a land flowing with milk and honey.  We see God’s grace in the giving of the law.  Throughout there is a concern for the proper ordering of society, for mutual responsibility, for care of the weak and vulnerable.  We see God’s grace in the ministry of the prophets who again and again remind God’s people of his great love and mercy and the need for the rich to share what they have and give to the poor.

We see God’s grace most of all of course in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ.  “God so loved the world, says St. John, that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but may have eternal life” (3.16)

“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ”, writes Paul.  “That though he was rich yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8.9).  Paul writes these words in the context of a long passage on Christian giving and mutual support.

The grace of God in salvation is shown not only in Christ’s incarnation but also in his death: in his offering of his life, all he has and all he is, on the cross for our sakes.  The sacrifice of Christ is what achieves and wins so great a salvation for us. Because of his death we are restored to communion with God and to eternal life.  But the sacrifice of Christ on the cross becomes also the pattern for the offering not only of our money but of our who lives in dedication, grace and love:

“I appeal to you therefore brothers and sisters by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual sacrifice” (Romans 12.1).

Isaac Watts great hymn on the passion has as its final verse:

“Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far to small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

God’s grace continues to be shown in the offering of forgiveness and resurrection life to those who do not deserve it and have not earned it and that includes each one of us.  It is demonstrated in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, in gifts for ministry, in sustaining the Christian community from generation to generation.

Before ever we sit down to do our housekeeping this morning, before ever we begin to talk about parish share and its collection, we need to fill our minds full again of the grace and love of God and the wonder of our salvation. Before we are tempted to speak to one another of how poor we are, we need to remember how rich we are in Christ. Before we say to each other how little we have, we need to remind ourselves how much we have been given. Before we speak of how difficult it is to give, we need to remember how much we have received.  Let this conversation and all the conversations which flow from it be filled with grace, grace, grace and more grace.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1.1).  Amen?

That is why our first response to God’s love and grace should never be complaint but disciplined and careful thanksgiving.  Paul has to write some very difficult letters to correct the Church in the New Testament.  Each one begins with thanksgiving and appreciation for the people he is writing to because they are the saints of God and because God’s love and mercy is shown in them:

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1.15).  We have much to give thanks for.  When I was a parish priest, our parish finances were an annual miracle.  I never knew where the money was going to come from in what was a very poor community.  Every year it came and I gave thanks.  Now I am a bishop, our diocesan finances are an annual miracle.  We serve what is by and large one of the poorest areas of England.  Our diocese is 40th out of 43 dioceses in the league table of the wealth of the region.  Yet the people of this diocese give generously and many give sacrificially to sustain the ministry of God’s church and continue to give in that way even in the midst of an extremely challenging economic downturn.  Thanks be to God for all that means.

So we need to give thanks.  But the Bible also teaches us gently and firmly about the need to take responsibility for our giving, for our generosity to one another, for our responsibility to one another and especially about the responsibility of the rich to help the poor and the strong to help the weak.

That responsibility is underlined in the law and the prophets and in the teaching of Jesus Christ.  It is Jesus who teaches us in the parable of the widows mite that it is the proportion of what we give which is measured by God and not the amount.  The gospels teach us in the stories of Zaccheus and the rich young ruler just how much following Christ frees us from slavery to money.

We are to take a responsible attitude to our individual giving.  We are to aim high.  The Church of England benchmark for giving to and through the Church is 5% of our income.  As a Diocese we average 4.4% at the moment.  We need to aim higher.  Let’s be the first diocese to reach that target.  That will mean many of us hearing the call to give more than 5% for the sake of ministry and mission in our generation.  I hope I don’t need to say this but the call to give financially applies to clergy households as well as to lay households.  It is a call we all share.   There needs to be in every parish, every year, some kind of focus and challenge on money and giving and the opportunity for people to review what they give.

We are to take a responsible attitude together to our giving for the support of stipendiary ministry.  Stipendiary ministry is a precious resource.  It is a vital resource.  It is also a demanding resource to finance.  We are doing all we can as a diocese to distribute our resource of stipendiary ministry wisely and fairly across the diocese and to use our stipendiary ministers in a different way which will lead and is beginning to lead to the growth of the church in this region.  But to do that we need every parish to be responsible in its own gift of parish share: to make the payment of parish share a first priority on your budget, to meet commitments already made, to give regularly.

There are spiritual consequences to our giving because that giving is a measure of our priorities, of our own generosity, of the ordering of our lives. Churches can be generous or selfish just as individuals can.  That selfishness needs to be addressed as the spiritual problem it is.

“Remember this”, writes Paul.  “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each one of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9.6).

And we need to be responsible in the household of God for the way in which we invest the money of God’s people.  Last year we reviewed our future plans for parochial ministry and stipendiary ministry in order to ensure the diocese is sustainable and is able by the grace of God to grow in every place.  We have a clear vision and strategy.  This year we are reviewing our central support services and our spending there to ensure it serves the vision and that nothing is wasted.  We need both to invest and to give responsibly.  That is a challenge for the Church in this financial climate as it is a challenge for every other organization.

But as we exercise that responsibility this morning and in conversations across the Diocese this year, we need to be sure that our hearts and minds are filled, first and foremost, with the grace and love and generosity of the God who calls us together.  Only by focusing on God’s grace and love will we see our hearts and lives converted more deeply, our parishes converted more deeply and our region converted more deeply to follow Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, who gave everything for us. Amen.

It’s been a strange season for the Church of England as most people reading this will know.  I think I have to go back around 20 years or so to find a similar time.  We’ve been rocked by the women bishops debate, unable to respond effectively to the government proposals on marriage and reflecting quietly, I guess, on the first census results.

For many people, all of this is very disorientating.  Here are some reflections as we find try and re-orientate ourselves in Advent and prepare for Christmas.  I am writing to myself as much as to anyone else.

Lift up your hearts!

In the midst of all of these storms, the line from the liturgy which has meant most to me over the last few weeks is the call at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer to the whole people of God:  Lift up your hearts.

The call is present in the earliest prayers of the Church.  It has deep biblical roots in Psalm 25.1 (“To you O Lord, I lift up my soul”).  It has roots as well in the final verses of Psalm 24 which we read in Advent: “Lift up your heads, O gates and be lifted up O ancient doors”.

It is a call for narrow hearts to be made wider and deeper as we receive God’s love. It’s a call for bruised and broken hearts to be lifted up to God’s tender mercy.  It’s a call for hearts which are too fixed and mired in earthly things to be raised to heaven.

It is a call to me and I think to all of us in one of the most demanding Advent seasons I can remember, whatever our views on the issues of the day, to lift up our hearts to God’s greatness, to God’s mercy, to God’s glory revealed in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ.  It is only as we make Psalm 25.1 our own (“To you O Lord, I lift up my soul”) that we ourselves are prepared to say to God’s own people and to the world around us: “Lift up your hearts!”

The failure narrative and the change narrative

The census results continue to show a significant shift taking place in society, though not as rapidly as some predicted.  The proportion of people identifying themselves as Christian is now around six in ten, down from seven in ten in 2001.  The number claiming no religion has doubled.

The figures reveal a deep shift which has been unfolding for a century or more.  A few years ago I tried to describe the two most common responses to that shift in the life of the church as the failure narrative and the change narrative[1].

The failure narrative argues that this fundamental shift is primarily caused by our own failures as a church.  If only we believed more deeply, prayed with more faith, changed in this way or that (depending on who is speaking) then we wouldn’t be seeing this fundamental shift in Christian allegiance.

There has been evidence of the failure narrative all around us in the press over the last few weeks as the story is framed as “Church of England loses touch with the nation”.

The failure narrative is an artificial construct often used to argue for particular changes in the life of the Church.  I’ve heard it used to argue for greater use of the Prayer Book, changes to our understanding of marriage or more (or less) emphasis on fresh expressions of church.  It produces poor fruit in the life of God’s people: a sense of depression rather than hope; a blaming of others or ourselves; division; and a debilitating loss of morale. It’s a seductive argument in difficult times but it is medicine which makes the patient more poorly still.

The failure narrative only deepens cynicism and despair.  It blinds us to the many good things happening in the life of local churches and the church nationally.  It is dependent on the idea of a mythical golden age when Britain was a Christian country and church life was straightforward. If you read the accounts of the time it was no easier to be a Christian in 1840, 1912 or 1950.

But the failure narrative fails most of all because it is simply too church-centred. It ignores the reality that the Church exists within a larger global and national culture which is changing in fundamental ways.  It is those larger changes, beyond the control of any single church, which set the climate in which we operate as Christians.  As we look back over the last century those changes have been enormous – the deep shifting of the tectonic plates of our society.  It is not surprising that the relationship between our culture and Christian faith is changing in very significant ways.  But we are simply starting in the wrong place if we begin from the belief that it is all our fault.

Our world is changing rapidly.  Yes, we need to debate how to respond to those changes.  Sometimes individual churches get that right and sometimes wrong and sometimes we just don’t know.  But the fundamental changes are much bigger than any single church.

The biggest piece of learning for me from the Synod of Bishops in Rome was that the Church all over the world is having the same conversation.  The context for that conversation is the difficulty of passing on the Christian faith in the present global, secularizing culture.  We do need to learn new skills, focus our energies in different ways and constantly make decisions about the gospel’s relationship to new and evolving realities. But we need to begin from the common starting place that the whole Church, all across the world, is facing similar challenges and they are caused primarily by fundamental changes beyond our control.

Hope is a virtue   Advent is the season to remember that the most vital virtue to cultivate as the foundation for that ongoing conversation is hope.  Every Christian should repeat to themselves every morning for a year that hope is not a mood but a virtue.  It is not something we feel but something we practise.

In our wider culture, hope has lost all currency as a virtue.  Hope has become a mood: a vaguely positive feeling which fluctuates with the evidence around us, with the weather, with our temperament.

In the Christian tradition, hope is not a mood at all.  “Meanwhile these three remain” writes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, “Faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love”.

We hold onto a sense that love is not a feeling but a virtue.  We just about hold onto a sense that faith can be a virtue – something to be nurtured and exercised as trust and confidence.  But we are losing hope (literally) as a virtue, a strength of character, to inhabit and live in as a quality in the leadership we exercise and the example we set.  Christians are called to be people of hope not because of the evidence but because of the truth revealed in Christ which is deeper and stronger than the evidence around us.

Finding the compass

I also argued in Jesus People that in a time of uncertainty we often find ourselves as a Church lost and without a map in strange territory. In those moments, we need a compass.   The compass for the church in navigating through questions of great uncertainty must be striving to reflect the character of Christ, as individuals and as a Church.  And, yes, of course, we will fail to do that over and over again.  That’s why we need to hold onto hope, not only for the world but for ourselves.

The character of Christ is reflected in many places in the scriptures but most clearly and concisely for me in the beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel.  We are called as a church, local and national, to be poor in spirit, mourning for the suffering in the world, meek, hungry and thirsty for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peace makers, and willing to suffer for what is right.  That is what it means to be a Christ-like church.  Just to write that list (or to read it) is to recognize how far we are from where we are meant to be – but that is the kind of wholesome repentance which can lead to renewal and to real change together.

Moving to the front foot

But the conversations in Rome revealed and confirmed that there is another primary reponse the Church needs to make to the changing global situation.  That is to steadily shift our resources to the process of forming and shaping disciples.  The churches which are learning how to make headway and to thrive in the present climate are the churches which are making this shift. Again this is true of local churches, of dioceses and provinces and of denominations.

This means recovering, encouraging and in some case discovering afresh the great classical intellectual disciplines and pastoral practices which the Church has always needed in such moments of cultural change.

These include:

  • Apologetics: defending and commending the faith through philosophy, the sciences, the arts and popular culture
  • Contextual mission: the ability to go beyond the church in loving service and careful listening, to pioneer new ecclesial communities as part of the wider church
  • Initial proclamation: the loving and careful communication of the gospel to those who have not heard it before
  • Catechetics: the intentional nurture and formation of disciples who are well grounded in faith and able to live counterculturally

These disciplines will be the engine room of the Church in the next generation.  Any church which wants to move forwards (and by church I mean local church or diocese or denomination) must steadily shift resources and creativity and energy towards these four great disciplines. They need to be at the heart of ministerial training and ministerial practice and at the core of our theological endeavour.  After striving to form the character of Christ, this is the fundamental direction of change we need and which we have been engaging in for a generation.

And finally

So I say to every Christian reading this and to myself: Lift up your hearts! Remember we are living through a time of massive change.  Our vocation is to be a people of hope, whatever is happening around us; a people in whom the character of Christ is being formed, be it ever so slowly; a people shifting our resources steadily to the engine room of mission.

Thanks for reading and I pray you discover the reality of Christ afresh in the Advent and Christmas season.

[1] See Jesus People: what next for the church? CHP, 2004