Soon we’ll be able to see further out into space than ever before. But as we look further out, we can feel increasingly lost. What’s our place in this ancient and expanding universe?

Your life is not some kind of cosmic accident. You do have a place in this world. The first line of the Lord’s Prayer can help you find it.

This is the first of the Come and See weekly films from Bishop Steven. It accompanies daily email reflections throughout Lent. Join us.

 

Read the transcript.

A compass is held up in front of mountains

“O be joyful in the Lord, all the earth;
serve the Lord with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.”
(Psalm 100)

The words of Psalm 100 are familiar to all of us and set for Morning Prayer in Epiphany. I guess I’m not the only person who has found them more difficult to say than usual this year. They are words which are challenging and stretching me as I journey through this season – and I’m thankful for them. The call to joy is not always easy, for many different reasons.

Many thousands of families across the diocese have been affected by Covid in the last two years and particularly the last six weeks, my own among them. I had a positive test on 11 December. The following weekend my condition worsened. The NHS sent an ambulance and paramedics on the Saturday, and I spent the Sunday in hospital for observations and tests and then the following week being looked after by the home care team.

All in all it’s been a difficult experience but nowhere near as hard as many have found this journey. I’ve been taking things steadily since. So far there’s been a steady, uneven improvement in strength. I still have some way to go.

Where to start

So the call to joy has been more demanding than usual and is a daily challenge. My starting point is giving thanks for the good things: first and foremost for the care and skill of the NHS staff and my local surgery, for vaccines and boosters (mine was delayed but received this week), for the kindness of friends and colleagues and strangers.

Next, thankfulness for my family: for the miracle of being together with our children and grandchildren on Christmas day, for the fun of building Lego with my grandsons, for the immense joy in the wedding of our eldest son last Saturday.

The example and wisdom of others has become a second stepping-stone. Along with the whole world, I mourn the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu for many reasons: not least his concern for justice. Tutu seemed to radiate joy in the midst of conflict and struggle, a divine joy which was so clearly a source of his own strength and overflowed to give strength and a vital sense of proportion to others. None of us is the centre of the universe.

I’ve discovered a new podcast: Desperately Seeking Wisdom by Craig Oliver – a series of conversations with those who have learned hard lessons. Oliver quotes Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, and Frankl’s resolution in the midst of the concentration camp, in the most difficult circumstances, to choose life and joy each day:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

This is the summons for joy I’ve begun to hear in the words of the Jubilate: as we say the words we say them to ourselves, we encourage one another but most of all we speak to the world.

Our calling as a Church remains to call the world to joy and love and hope and peace even in the midst of sorrow, sickness and suffering. We are all of us tired now; some of us more weary and stretched than we have ever felt in our lives. For some of us our faith, the centre of our vocation, is attenuated and thin: many of the things which sustain us have been stripped away. The outward demands continue, and it’s harder to find the inner resources to rebuild and grow stronger.

We will all navigate this journey in different ways. For me, in this part of the journey, reflecting on this summons to joy is life-giving and sets my compass for the year. For any Christian, this search for joy in the midst of suffering leads to Jesus Christ and to Christ’s passion and resurrection, to the new wine of the kingdom. In this season of Epiphany we celebrate Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee: the changing of water into wine. Never have we needed its message more.

Navigating well

All of us will need to find fresh sources of life in the Spirit in this season. As the demands continue, it is also helpful to hold onto strong disciplines of self-care, of gentleness and love in dealing with others and with ourselves, of wise pacing, of conserving energy for the unexpected, of leaning more readily on others. I can’t say often enough how different and distinctive the experience of every individual parish seems to be and therefore how different the experience of clergy is.

As a diocese we are concerned to support parishes, schools and chaplaincies as well as we can through this transition. We haven’t (and won’t) get everything right. That support is built on careful listening. The area teams are seeking to listen continually to what is happening. I greatly appreciated four deanery days in November and December. We’ve had to postpone two (so far) because of my illness but I hope to pick up the series in February.

We hope to gather, if we may, in person for the renewal of ordination vows on Maundy Thursday in Christ Church, and details will be circulated in the coming weeks

We are also looking forward to gathering for our clergy conference from 7-9 June, which will be structured as a conversation together around what we have experienced and how, together, we rebuild from here. (ed: the online booking form has been emailed to clergy)

As a diocese we will continue to offer pointers and resources to take forward our agreed priorities, which have become even more important during the pandemic. Not everything will be possible in every place. Please see these resources as help and support offered and make your own decisions about when is the right time to engage, otherwise what is offered as a support can quickly become a burden.

Come and See

One of these resources is Come and See, offered again in Lent this year as a part of this great call to joy. The aim is to help and support those who may be enquiring about faith, returning to faith after many years or moving to a new place in their faith after the disorientation of the pandemic.

Our theme this year is the Lord’s Prayer: the words Jesus gives us to help us find our place in the universe each day and to choose this path of joy. If you’ve not done so already, you can sign up to offer Come and See in your church. Leader’s packs will be sent out by email early next week.

Christ Church

The whole diocese will be aware of the need to pray regularly for Christ Church, our Cathedral, in this season and all those affected by the difficulties there. If you have questions or concerns about material you have seen, please do speak with one of the area bishops or archdeacons: not every perspective is accurately represented in the press.

And finally….

At the centre of our Christian faith is the call to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. In this love is our fulfilment and our joy as human persons in community, to be caught up into the very life of God. And so I end where I began;

“O be joyful in the Lord, all the earth;
serve the Lord with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.”

In Christ our Lord,

 

The Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft,
Bishop of Oxford

A few weeks ago, Archbishop Justin, Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a powerful and historic joint statement on the environment as part of the preparations for COP 26.

Their joint statement was followed on 4 October by a gathering of faith leaders from across the world in the Vatican and the issuing of a new joint statement by all the world’s religions: Faith and Science: an appeal for COP 26. The appeal was presented to COP26 President-Designate, the Rt Hon Alok Sharma, and the Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hon. Luigi Di Maio

Again this is a remarkable common statement issued at a critical time. Leaders from the great faith traditions have recognised the crisis which faces our common home. Together, the faith leaders have spoken to the whole world appealing for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; improve financial support for fighting climate change and preserving biodiversity.

The wisdom of the faiths is combined with the insights of the sciences. They call for great ambition at the COP 26 gathering, which is now just days away.

But the faith leaders are not simply asking governments to do something. They recognise that the followers of religious traditions have a crucial part to play in addressing the crisis of our common home. So they commit to much more serious action and to recognising our obligation to future generations, to the poorest who are suffering most, and to young people: exactly the course we have set as a diocese.

These are some of the final, powerful paragraphs:

We are currently at a moment of opportunity and truth. We pray that our human family may unite to save our common home before it is too late. Future generations will never forgive us if we squander this precious opportunity. We have inherited a garden: we must not leave a desert to our children.

Scientists have warned us that there might be only one decade left to restore the planet.

We plead with the international community, gathered at COP26, to take speedy, responsible and shared action to safeguard, restore and heal our wounded humanity and the home entrusted to our stewardship.

We appeal to everyone on this planet to join us on this common journey, knowing well that what we can achieve depends not only on opportunities and resources, but also on hope, courage, solidarity and good will.

Please take a moment to read the statement in full, and please continue to pray for COP 26 that it may truly be a turning point for the world.

 

+Steven


Creator of our common home
Hear the cry of the earth
Our world stands in great peril
Many are suffering
We have put at risk our present and our future
through the rapid warming of the earth and the careless destruction of its beauty
Give to the leaders of the world fresh hope and courage
As they gather for COP 26
Unite us all in a common mission to heal and cherish our environment
And steward the resources of our world for future generations
May this conference be a turning point in human history
For the sake of all the peoples of the earth.
Amen.


Photo credit:
Britain’s COP26 President Alok Sharma speaks during the “Faith and Science: Towards COP26” meeting with Pope Francis and other religious leaders ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November in Britain, at the Vatican, October 4, 2021. – Vatican Media Handout

A robot raises a hand

Edited by John Wyatt and Stephen N Williams

This article was first published in the Church Times.


Steven Croft reviews essays about AI

This is a book best read backwards. It is a lively collection of essays and a very welcome contribution to an emerging field, but the most valuable material is in Part 3.

When I first began to explore the world of artificial intelligence (AI), what began to keep me awake at night was the concept of general AI: the possibility of intelligent, conscious machines that may or may not develop at some point in the future. But that perspective changed very quickly. What then began to keep me awake (and still does) was the present reality of unregulated narrow AI: the deployment of massive computing power and big data across limited fields to make an enormous impact for good and ill.

Part 1 of The Robot Will See You Now introduces the whole field and explores the prospects of general AI through the lens of science fiction and cinema and what all of this means for our humanity. The essays in Part 2 develop a theological response, again focusing on what it means to be human, on personhood, and on models of human partnership with technology. Together, the chapters provide a good introduction to the subject; but it all feels a bit speculative and arm’s-length.

The real substance is Part 3, with the detailed analysis of five key areas where AI is being deployed now and where serious Christian and ethical thinking is needed. Four of these essays are excellent introductions and the heart of the book: Andrew Graystone on sextech; Nigel Cameron on jobs; John Wyatt on health and social care; and Nathan Mladin and Stephen Williams on surveillance capitalism. The fifth, by Andrzej Turkanik on the uses of AI in artistic creation, is good, but more speculative.

The essays are brief, and there are inevitable omissions. I was surprised that the chapter on the future of work didn’t have more on the gig economy and what happens when humans work for machines. I was surprised that the chapter on health and social care wasn’t more positive about the immense potential for good in AI for developing advanced diagnosis and treatment for life-threatening diseases, and for improving standards of health care across the majority world. It would have been good to see generally a more extended treatment of questions of bias and transparency in algorithmic decision-making.

But, overall, this is a welcome contribution to a rapidly developing field. I hope that the authors and editors will continue their dialogue on the vital and necessary interface between Christian ethics and AI.

Dr Steven Croft is the Bishop of Oxford. He is a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on AI and a founding board member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

The Robot Will See You Now: Artificial intelligence and the Christian faith

John Wyatt and Stephen N Williams, editors

SPCK £14.99

(978-0-281-08435-7)

Church Times Bookshop £13.50

Bishop Steven and fellow pilgrims stand in front of a lock along a Milton Keynes canal

It was so good to be on road and hedgerow again last week and to begin the new school year with a pilgrimage across the three deaneries of Buckingham, Newport and Milton Keynes.

We covered just under 60 miles with four days of walking and one of cycling along the red routes of Milton Keynes. Along the way, I was able to visit around 30 churches, many of them in small rural communities where the bishop of the diocese doesn’t often come to visit. The churchwarden in one church greeted me warmly by saying that in over 900 years of the life of the parish, I was the first Bishop of Oxford to visit (and what took me so long!).

Bishop Steven writes "C+M+B" on a brick wall in chalkA chance to listen

Lots of people came to walk a stage or two with me, and I think we mustered up to eight cyclists on the middle day. Lots more gathered in the churches – sometimes in twos or threes, sometimes many more, and probably several hundred all together. My thanks to all who came. Despite my chaplain’s firm instruction not to provide hospitality, there was sometimes cake to speed us on our way.

I listened as I walked. It was good to hear how things have been through the months of lockdown and as congregations regather. There were some difficult things, of course, many of them. But on the whole the wardens, licensed lay ministers and clergy I met were determined, hopeful, looking forward and thankful for many blessings received during the pandemic. As in previous years, I chalked a blessing on the doorways:

C+M+B

Christus Mansionem Benidicat

May Christ bless this House

Praying in the (mainly) ancient, quiet, beautiful places of worship was a blessing to me. As in previous years, I took a picture of the font in each church as my own way of remembering the journey and to lift up all of the ministry to children, young people and adults which flows in and out of our baptism.

I was given a fresh appreciation of the importance of rural churches and church buildings and the vital difference just one or two people can make to their life and witness. In the three market towns of Buckingham, Newport Pagnell and Olney, the churches are thriving hubs of life and service reaching out to young people, to refugees, to new families in the area.

Exploring Milton Keynes

I spent three days of the five focusing on the largest population centre in the diocese – Milton Keynes – and stayed over for two nights to be part of evening meetings as well. I’ve found it hard to get to know MK by driving in and through the city. Walking and cycling was much better. I came away with a renewed sense of the size and complexity of Milton Keynes; the beauty of the woods, waterways and green spaces, and the older villages with their ancient parish churches, which are at the heart of many of the communities.

Parishes in Milton Keynes can be larger than in any other place in the diocese, with 40,000 people and rising. Ministry and church resources are thinly stretched and the population is growing rapidly. It was good to visit the two new church planting hubs in Bletchley and Water Eaton, and a number of other churches planted in recent years as well, to notice areas where it will be important to increase investment in the coming years. There is a deep and moving commitment to ecumenism and it was good to pray and walk with Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed Church and Roman Catholic colleagues.

I had my first close encounter with a starship robot, the automated delivery service which runs across parts of the city, and my first ride on an electric scooter, currently being trialled in the city.

Emerging from the pandemic

And finally there were three special events through the week: a gathering for the churches to reflect on mission together as we emerge from the pandemic, a final service in Christ the Cornerstone with the presidents of the ecumenical partnership, and a powerful evening on the climate crisis, organised by MK Citizens UK with contributions from young people, scientists, the Open University, Network Rail, the Oxford-Cambridge arc and the local authority. It was great to see the climate rising up the agenda of the churches in various ways.

As always, I came away encouraged and refreshed by just dropping in on local churches and inspired by those who minister in them. The pilgrimage begins what will, I hope, be a year of visiting every deanery across the diocese again as we emerge from COVID to listen and to encourage the Church to be the best we can be in this time, for the sake of God’s world.

Thanks to all who took part and to all those who helped to organise the journey.

Bishop Steven


You can see the full photo journal of Bishop Steven’s pilgrimage on his Facebook page.

A person sits on a bench in an empty field, looking over the mountains
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”
Mark 6.31
The disciples are exhausted after a demanding and fruitful season. They come to meet with Jesus but the need around them is growing all the time: “many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat”. In this moment, Jesus sets the care of the exhausted disciples even above the needs of the crowds.
I hope you are able to do the same in the coming weeks and step back from the demands of work and ministry for a short time, even if you are not able to be away on holiday physically. This has been a demanding season for all of our schools and churches and chaplaincies. Rest is needed to allow mind and body and soul to recover and to allow space for re-orientation and recreation.
Thank you again for all you continue to give, and I hope and pray the summer brings space and renewal for all that lies ahead.
In Christ,
+Steven

An update on COVID-19 guidance for churches from July 2021, including Communion from the common cup and safe worship for all.

The Rt Revd Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, will be cheering on the England men’s football team in the Euro 2020 tournament.

Come and See was a big, warm, open invitation to everyone across the diocese to explore Christian faith in Lent 2021. What happened next?

 

Prayer for the Nation

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

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

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